Pepsi has dominated the headlines over the past week for having the country’s most irritating and offensive TV advertisement, but Burger King briefly took the mantle on Wednesday with an ad that includes a command to wake up voice-activated Google Home devices.
The 15-second ad features a man in a Burger King uniform leaning into the camera to say: “OK Google, what is the Whopper burger?”
People with the Google Home assistant and Android phones with voice search enabled within listening range of their TV discovered that the command triggered devices to read aloud the Wikipedia entry for Burger King’s flagship burger.
The intrusion was short-lived. Google Home devices stopped responding to the prompt spoken in the commercial a few hours after it launched. The devices will still respond if someone else (eg the real owner of the smart assistant) asks the same question. It is likely that Google updated the Home software to ensure it didn’t respond to the specific Burger King sound clip. Google did not respond to a request to confirm this.
“We saw it as a technology to essentially punch through that fourth wall,” Burger King’s president, José Cil, had earlier told BuzzFeed News, adding that it is a “cool way to connect directly with our guests”.
The reaction to the campaign calls into question just how “cool” this advertising technique is. Many viewers have complained that it is intrusive, unnecessary, gimmicky and possibly only designed to elicit an irritated response. Is there even any value – beyond provocation – in a home device reading out a description of the Whopper?
Some experts argue there’s still value in such a provocation.
“Any advertising or media idea which provokes us to think about the absurdities of modern day digital life is, in itself, a good thing,” said Charlie Crowe, the president of C Squared, a publishing and events company focused on media and marketing.
“Perhaps what is so unnerving about this is that it makes us think about how digital technology is impacting our lives in ways we are only beginning to appreciate. Maybe this all is a little uncomfortable… so why shouldn’t this make us want to leave our homes and visit a Burger King with our friends?”
It’s unlikely there will be a flood of annoying ads like this partly because of the swift consumer backlash but also because both Amazon and Google are exploring introducing specific voice recognition to their services. Being able to distinguish between two or more voices in the home is useful for tailoring the services to personal preferences, but could also help prevent this type of device hijacking.
This is not the first time that television broadcasts have triggered voice devices at home. In January, a San Diego TV station reported on a story that a six-year-old had mistakenly ordered a dollhouse by talking to the Amazon Echo device. Within the report, the presenter said live on air: “Alexa, order me a dollhouse,” causing viewers’ own Echoes to also attempt to order dollhouses. The command placed dollhouses into their shopping carts, but users need to confirm the order in order for any payment to be taken.
In 2014, the Breaking Bad star Aaron Paul appeared in an Xbox ad that accidentally switched people’s games consoles on because it featured the wake-up command “Xbox on”.
Google had no involvement in the advertisement and declined to comment on it.
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