An image from a Pringles ad that will air during Super Bowl LIII, on Sunday.
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.
And so it continues. The teaser for TurboTax’s ads—yes, there are commercials for the commercials—finds a doll-faced android waking his Geppeto to plead for a 3 A.M. snack. “You’re not hungry! You don’t eat, Robo-child!” the inventor says. Then: “I love you.” With emotional eyebrows, the urchin replies, “I love you, too, Papa—if I know what love is.” I am eager to see how this mawkish approach to the hard problem of consciousness relates to your 1040 form.
Meanwhile, an ad for Michelob Ultra depicts a robot athlete humiliating his human counterparts at the driving range, in a boxing gym, and during a spin class. But it slumps and sighs to see, from the far side of a barroom window, mortals enjoying fellowship and light beer. The tagline: “It’s only worth it, if you can enjoy it.” My question: Do androids dream of low-calorie buzzes?
The flip side of this trend—selling human feeling as a consolation for animal limits—arrives courtesy of Mercedes-Benz, which touts voice-command features with a sixty-second fantasy of omnipotence. Our motorist, bored at the opera, transforms a classical baritone into Ludacris. “If only everything in life listened to you, like your new A-class,” Don Draper says in voice-over.
Strangest of all, Amazon presents an ad for its virtual assistant, Alexa, that primarily demonstrates its tone-deafness to the fear that its own power stokes. The clip opens with a note of admiration that Alexa can be embedded into a microwave, then proceeds to imagine bloopers arising from its infiltration of everyday life. For instance, Forest Whitaker, with Alexa in his electric toothbrush, cannot clean his mouth and listen to his podcast at the same time, and the “Broad City” ladies, with Alexa in their hot tub, are ejected to their deck by the pressure of an accidental fountain show. Climactically, astronauts, with Alexa in their space station, inadvertently shut down the electrical grid powering our continent. We are meant to be charmed, rather than terrified, by speculative fiction about the whoopsie doodles of the world’s largest Internet company.
It’s worth noting that, amid these riffs on modern dread, is a separate trend toward nostalgia—specifically, for the prelapsarian nineteen-nineties. On behalf of Doritos, Chance the Rapper joins the Backstreet Boys for a reprise of “I Want It That Way” (1999). In a Stella Artois ad, Sarah Jessica Parker, in character as Carrie Bradshaw, of “Sex and the City” (1998-2004), abjures Carrie’s usual Cosmopolitan for the Belgian macro-brew, while Jeff Bridges, wearing his sweater from “The Big Lebowski” (1998), follows suit by declining to order the Dude’s White Russian. And in a spot for the skin-care line formerly known as Oil of Olay, Sarah Michelle Gellar spoofs her scream-queen turns in “I Know What You Did Last Summer” (1997) and “Scream 2” (1997). A masked killer invades her home, but she can’t unlock her iPhone to call the authorities; the moisturizer has done its job too well, and the phone’s facial-recognition fails to identify her. (Technology strikes again.) Watch your step during these commercial breaks, lest you’re flung into the abyss. Things have changed, and, as Dylan sang, “The next sixty seconds could be like an eternity.”