The Vast Re-Education Program of the Superbowl Ads

Brett Robinson:

Therefore, the number one priority of advertisers is making sure that the new mediums built to sustain the next generation of marketing efforts appear as human and natural as possible as they enter the cultural slipstream. The medium is still the message. We are in the midst of a vast re-education program about what it means to live thoroughly digitized lives. Take the ad about the Google assistant’s language translation capabilities. The ad seems to be about the convenience of having a digital assistant translate speech in real-time. The viewer is taken on a visual and linguistic tour of the planet, dropping in on conversations between people of different cultures who overcome the language barrier by asking Google for help.

Visual signifiers like open air markets, women wearing hijabs and exotic nature scenes tell us that we are having a multicultural experience. The narrator speaks gently to the viewer in a vaguely Indian accent about all the kinds of words that are translated in these settings. Words about food, friendship, sports, belief, fear, “Words that can hurt and sometimes divide. But everyday, the most translated words in the world are “how are you,” “thank you,” and “I love you.”

The tinkling piano soundtrack lends an air of humility and heartfelt goodwill between people of different backgrounds. But what is really going on here?

The global fraternal charity bit is at least as old as Coke’s similarly cloying 1971 ad, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” where a band of singers on a hilltop, all with the same glazed expression, sing about the peace and harmony brought about by sharing a Coke. Babel was not built in a day, so Google picks up where Coke left off and continues selling the idea that products have the transcendent ability to resolve deep cultural tensions.

The Google ad is titled “100 Billion Words” because we are told at the beginning of the ad that more than 100 billion words are translated everyday. How do we know this? Because Google has likely captured and analyzed them. The cynical ad copy dangles words—food, friendship and sports—like the piece of meat for the guard dog of the mind. Sure, who doesn’t like those things! It does not matter where you are from or what you believe, we can all agree about the goodness of food and sports.

Meanwhile, the more architectonic work of inculcating the universal language of the new digital medium, namely its binary logic and code, is the real work of the ad. Food and sports work just fine at the human level but the system level has to be made up of something more consistent and uniform like 1’s and 0’s. More importantly, binary language and logic must be embraced as the new natural syntax for human interaction via our omnipresent devices.

Jean Baudrillard hit upon this nearly forty years ago in his seminal treatise, Simulacra and Simulation. Signs no longer reflect a profound reality. Think of the sacraments. Oil, water, bread and wine are signs that bring about profound changes in the soul of the recipient because they are tied to a fundamental reality, God’s saving love for mankind affected through the Incarnation and the created order. In Baudrillard’s view, signs no longer have this sacramental power because they have been detached from the Real, due, in no small part, to the dissembling media environment.