The zeitgeist of any new year can often be distilled by observing the snapshots of commodity culture that Super Bowl ads provide. A cursory survey of this year’s Super Bowl ad lineup includes the usual suspects. We like movies. We like cars. We like movies about cars. We like feeling safe. We like movies about not feeling safe. We like beer. Minus the corn syrup.
This read is not wholly inaccurate but it is superficial. It assumes that the content of the ads is merely projecting our cultural interests and desires right back at us. But that is never the whole story.
As Marshall McLuhan liked to put it, the content of any medium is the juicy piece of meat that the burglar offers the guard dog before ransacking the house. What are we missing by focusing on the products and gags that the advertisers serve up? We are missing something profound about the medium itself. Or in the case of the late television era, we are missing something profound about the tectonic shift from a television culture to a digital culture.
This is a time of remarkable technological change. 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.
This leaves us susceptible to the advertiser who plays with signs as if they are tied to profound realities. Are digital assistants really representative signs of cultural harmony and world peace? Hardly. In fact, the logic of binary is inherently polarizing. You can either be a 1 or a 0 and you must pick a side. Pro life or pro choice? Trump or Hillary? Democrat or Republican? Amidst the ironclad logic of the syntax of binary code, the ultimate form of protest and rebellion is to declare oneself non-binary. The very biology of the human person thus becomes the new site of contest in the totalizing system of signification wrought by digital technologies.
And yet the advertisers do not relent in their attempts to naturalize this state of being. Consider the copy from the other Google ad during the Super Bowl in light of the suggestion that what tech companies are selling are not products or services but the right to rewrite the code of cultural production and human interaction:
To most of you these codes don’t mean anything. You’ve probably never seen them or even heard of them. But 7% of you have . . . You know what these codes mean because each one of you has one of your own. No simple code can define who you are but it can help you search for whatever is next.
The visuals are close-ups of character strings of numbers and letters with very few other cues. It turns out the codes are military codes and the ad is for a job search service for veterans offered by Google. A laudable service to be sure, but the ad can be read in a different, more paradigmatic way.
The obscurity of the “codes” represents our unfamiliarity and indifference toward the billions of lines of code that run the social media platforms that shape so much of public discourse, political debate and human interaction. The 7% are the software engineers who possess the shamanic knowledge of how to manipulate said codes to influence human behavior. In an Orwellian final twist, the narrator assures us that we are not defined by the code but that it is the means by which we pursue our goals and dreams.
If you pay close attention to the forms being advertised, and not necessarily their content, a pattern emerges. Google was not the only advertiser to reinforce the notion that living in a highly programmed society is perfectly natural and in some ways more pure than living in a society guided by an increasingly incoherent moral code. Amazon, Verizon, Microsoft and T-Mobile joined non-tech advertisers like Pringles and Michelob to naturalize the digital logic alongside their phones and games and beer.
The television medium of broadcast signals has been eclipsed by the digital paradigm of bits. The advertisers will naturally follow, but before they jump the TV ship, they have to make sure we are all speaking the same language.
Editorial Note: This essay is part of a developing series on media studies.