October 22, 2019

The Technological Dread of This Year's Super Bowl Ads

“How many ads must a man look upon before he can truly see? Let’s start in the heart of Budweiser’s America, where the adorable ears of a Dalmatian flap in the breeze. The dog accompanies a beer delivery—a horse-drawn wagon rolling through waving wheat—that’s set to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The camera pulls back to reveal wind turbines, branded with the Budweiser logo, spinning above the scene. We read that the beer is “now brewed with wind power for a better tomorrow.” We wonder whether, since the brand is so committed to environmentalism, it might conserve further resources by making its beer less watery. We shouldn’t be surprised by Dylan licensing this song—a canonical protest anthem with a melody tracing to the black-American folk tradition—to lift the voice of the world’s largest beer producer. After all, it was only five years ago that he appeared in a Super Bowl ad for Chrysler while “Things Have Changed” played in the background. And yet I wonder how many of his hundred-million-odd viewers will be stirred, by this commercial, to think of another breeze wafting through his songbook—the idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves.

It has been thirty-five years since the “1984” ad for the Apple Macintosh, directed by Ridley Scott, opened a brave new era of Super Bowl advertising. Now the ads are reckoning, badly, with the dystopia our technology has wrought. A thirty-second Pringles spot conveniently captures the theme. The clip, titled “Sad Device,” features two dudes and their digital assistant. The dudes, looking twenty-four years old and seeming like a mature eight, sit in a loft apartment and compose Pringles cocktails by stacking different flavors. They wonder aloud how many combinations there are, in this best of all possible worlds, where flavors include Buffalo Ranch, Screamin’ Dill Pickle, and Butter Caramel. The device intrudes to tell them that there are “three hundred and eighteen thousand,” and, in a Biblical cadence, with despairing sentience, unburdens itself: “Sadly, I’ll never know the joy of tasting any, for I have no hands to stack with, no mouth to taste with, no soul to feel with. I am at the mercy of a cruel and uncaring—” The dudes cut her off with a command to play the disco classic “Funkytown.” The commercial seems to offer solace: our digital underlings may become our robot overlords, but they will transcend us, too, in the depth of their existential suffering.”

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