Two quick things: One, there were major formatting issues with Thursday’s newsletter; Revue says it was a bug. If you recoiled in horror from the formatting and skipped the (magnificent!) column, you can catch up here. Two, we’re looking forward to seeing lots of you in San Francisco on Tuesday for the second Interface Live event with Anna Wiener. I love meeting newsletter readers in person, so please say hi if you’re there! And now on with today’s update.
“u can tell how evil a company is by how touching their super bowl ad attempts to be”
— Desus Nice
Are you ready for some football-assisted Big Tech brand rehab?
With the techlash in full swing, and Congress investigating the giants
for various privacy and antitrust issues, tech companies have few obvious levers for reversing the erosion of public trust
. But the Super Bowl, which brings together a critical mass of drunken Americans before their televisions to watch unnaturally large men shorten their lives, offers an appealing opportunity to reset the narrative on friendlier terms. On Sunday, three of our giants shot their shot.
Let’s see what they had to say.
, with its heartstring-tugging ad “Loretta,”
made an emotional case for the collection and preservation of highly personal data. In it, an elderly man tells the Google Assistant a series of things he wants to remember about his dead wife. “Remember she always snorted when she laughed,” goes one. “Loretta used to hum showtunes,” is another. “A little help with the little things,” the ad concludes, as make-you-cry piano chords tinkle in the background. The message is clear: tell Google everything you know now, or forget your dead wife forever.
I found it all rather moving, in spite of myself, even if the user experience of remembering currently leaves something to be desired. (It’s just “Here’s what you told me to remember,” followed by a dictated list of bullet points. “Show me photos of me and Loretta,” also featured in the ad, works much better.) Anyway the ad is based on the experience of actual Googlers
, so if you don’t like this ad you’re a bad person!
Over at Amazon
— yes, the ad was named after its own social hashtag; get it trending fam! — featured Ellen DeGeneres and Portia De Rossi wondering what life was like before the introduction of the company’s voice-activated assistant. (The period before Alexa covers all of human history before November 2014, when DeGeneres and De Rossi were 56 and 41, respectively.) It goes on to show a bunch of jobs that were eliminated by automation.
It’s pretty funny, particularly the opening shot of a maid lowering the temperature by grabbing a flaming log from the fireplace and throwing it through a glass window. But it also seemed a bit tone deaf — not just by mocking the idea of human beings doing labor, but also a bit where a newsboy tells a customer who asks him for the day’s headlines “Doesn’t matter. It’s all fake.” Given how often that charge is leveled by the president against the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post, the line’s inclusion here was beyond weird.
Elsewhere at the Super Bowl, Bezos came out as a Lizzo fan
, prompting a heated Twitter discourse about whether being friends with the billionaire makes you a class traitor.
Both Google and Amazon are Super Bowl ad veterans; Google did its first 10 years ago. Facebook
had stayed away until this year, when it tasked Wieden + Kennedy with making an ad that showed off “positive ways to use the platform,” according to Fast Company
. The result is “Ready to Rock
,” an ad that suggests the agency’s brief was to make the absolute least offensive commercial possible.
In it, we see a variety of Facebook groups loosely themed around “rocks” — Moab rock climbers, rock buggies, amateur experimental rocketry, and so on. It culminates with Chris Rock meeting Rocky — well, the actor who played him, Sylvester Stallone — on top of the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps made famous by the movie. It was set to Twisted Sister’s 1984 cheeseball anthem “I Wanna Rock
,” which was parodied
in The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie
Fast Company was, frankly, disturbingly excited about “Ready to Rock.”
This should be a Super Bowl ad home run. Huge global brand, with a product that provides almost unlimited fodder to play with, in the hands of one of the best ad agencies on the planet (if not the best
) that just happens to specialize in making epic ads for iconic brands. W+K had its heavy hitters working on it, with creative vets who’ve created award-winning work for Old Spice
and Nike, as well as agency chair and ad legend Susan Hoffman.
That firepower shines through in the results.
The ad racked up more than 21 million views on YouTube by mid-day Monday. That compares favorably to the Google ad’s 13.4 million views, and less well to Amazon’s 61 million views. It also had a much higher ratio of dislikes to likes than either of the other two ads.
When I sat down to view all three ads together, I hoped they might tell us something about the way tech platforms would seek to reinvent themselves amid new pressure from governments and their user bases. Instead, what I found was fairly straightforward consumer marketing. Google wants to promote its technical lead in voice recognition; Amazon wants to promote its dominance in the same category; Facebook wants to pivot to private messaging.
And yet the ads do reveal one way the companies have consistently differed for years. Google and Amazon relentlessly promote their fundamental utility, while Facebook is left to gesture more broadly at the good feelings that come with “connecting.” While Google and Amazon sell the idea that you can master your domain with technology, Facebook shows off pretty pictures of the user base.
Google gives us sincerely new and useful things. And so, when we learn that it has exposed our data inadvertently, we might be more likely to give it a pass.
At Facebook, on the other hand, the prime directive is still user growth. The company talks about a shift to foster more “meaningful” connections, but in practice this simply means growing different parts of its product suite. Facebook is useful, but it is useful mainly in the way that a phone book is useful.
A Facebook group is surely a useful thing, but it’s also a thing that had been created many times before. (And by Google
, among others.) If Facebook wants to create a Super Bowl ad that people remember past Monday, it could start by building something both useful and unique.