For the entirety of a college-aged student’s conscious and product-purchasing life, online shopping is closely and inextricably associated with Amazon. One needs something—a book, a new backpack, a six-pack of deodorant— with a certain degree of immediacy. Unable to find it elsewhere, one turns to the online shopping behemoth for quick delivery and competitive prices. The process is easy, almost mechanical—one searches for a product, clicks a few buttons, and within days, if not hours, a delivery person or, depending on where you live, a drone dispenses the product at your door.
Although it is an impersonal shopping experience, Amazon, is for the most part, frictionless. Nonetheless, it is not difficult to criticize the company. Reports of abusive work conditions, unethical business practices, and recent efforts to consolidate entire industries blemish its reputation. But critics suppress their moral judgment for the sake of cheap socks and movie streaming. They accept their relationship with Amazon: devoid of emotion, a bit icky, but in the immediate shopping moment, efficient and satisfactory. The shoppers get what they want from Amazon, and Amazon gets money (and data) from the shoppers. It is simple enough to pretend the relationship ended there.
But that relatively straightforward relationship was troubled during Amazon’s recent commercial during the Super Bowl. The spot advertised Alexa, Amazon’s “smart home” device, which allows users to google information, play music, check the weather and more via voice-commands. The advertisement was much lauded by the niche and ultra-commercial world of Super Bowl Ad critics (a rich man’s film critic, perhaps). The ad begins when Alexa loses her voice and can’t perform her function. Amazon executives have a contingency plan: a team of celebrities who act as real-time Alexas to the millions of people who rely on the device. The rest of the ad shows the kinks in the system: Cardi B insults a tween, Rebel Wilson gets sexually provocative, Anthony Hopkins threatens a user’s life. In the end, Alexa gets her voice back and continues her job.
The Amazon of Alexa isn’t the robotic, competent system we’ve come to know and depend on, but a humanistic acquaintance. Take the name “Alexa.” As opposed to Siri, a name that’s not really a name—pseudo-human in line with what Apple claims their product to be—Alexa has a common identifier. She’s a companion, quietly waiting in the corner of the room for you to call to her so she can help you.
But this Super Bowl commercial takes the promise of a humanized Alexa one step further. Last year’s Amazon Super Bowl ad featured Alexa, but in it Alexa was the quick and easy solution to a host of human problems. When a football fan’s dog eats the Super Bowl snack spread, he uses Alexa to quickly order more guac; when another guy’s daughter makes an astute observation about football, the man expresses affection the only way a football fan knows how—by telling Alexa to play “My Girl.” In these commercials, Amazon helps people live their lives without lifting a finger, (which harkens back to what we love about the company in the first place). You can live your life, and Amazon, a service that you’ve bought, will be there to provide you with useful items, information, a perfectly curated song, and quickly, right when you need it.
This isn’t so with this year’s commercial, which muddies the distinction between an online shopping service and companionship. The commercial ventures into strange ground, a kind of uncanny valley, where Alexa is not just a machine or a service, but a fallible creature. In this world, she can lose her voice, make mistakes and recover. Alexa has become humanized, not just in her name, but also in her qualities and behavior. Then, Alexa literally is human—rappers, comedians, actors who come with the only slightly dehumanizing veneer of celebrity. They bungle their job, and Alexa becomes more of a silly entertainer, if not a friend, as opposed to a corporate toy.
When Alexa is presented as fallible, Amazon’s inner-sanctum becomes humanized. In the ad, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is portrayed neither as the argyle sweater-wearing computer nerd he was, nor the Terminator movie character he’s recently reinvented himself to be. Instead, he’s a bewildered, puppy-eyed guy who doesn’t know how to deal with his own company’s problems—“Are you sure this is gonna work?” he asks a young employee before she deploys Alexa’s celebrity’s replacements. The mission is manifest—make the company out to be a group of everyman types, just trying to help customers out, so that the public becomes less suspicious of Amazon’s increasing monopoly over the film, publishing, food and other industries.
As Amazon bleeds into and comes to define our lived experience, it will need tools like Alexa—part service, part marketing ploy—to lead the way, to become its face. Alexa is the poster child for a company that otherwise feels unnatural and unnerving. The computer will feel like a comrade, rather than a device that would, theoretically, listen to us all the time, collect our data, and render us helpless without Amazon’s services. Alexa still feels more cyborg than social. When she regains her voice after a minute or so of celebrity quips, we are reminded that hers is still digital, artificial. But as Alexa becomes more human, and shopper’s lives become more digital, it’ll be easier for her to become our friend and savior. Always just one click away.