Don’t run commercials designed to trigger smart assistants

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A well-known fast food chain – let’s call them Kurger Bing – is debuting a new 15 second ad today set to start running nationally. It starts off simply enough, some dude standing behind the counter of an otherwise empty “restaurant,” addressing the camera. He explains that he doesn’t have the time to fully explain an iconic hamburger to you. Ad time isn’t cheap, even for a successful fast food joint. So he’s got an idea.

He’s going to use your smart home assistant. Google Home, in this case. “OK Google,” he addresses the camera, asking a question designed to trigger devices across the country, reading the first few sentences of the foodstuff’s Wikipedia entry.

It’s a massive monolith of company that paid an ad agency a lot of money for a spot that’s “interactive” and “cool,” playing on the announces of countless people who’ve had Echo triggered by Amazon commercials, not to mention the apparent waking nightmare that is the life of anyone named Alexa over the past couple of years. The company tipped me off beforehand, hoping I’d be equally excited.

Can we just nip this whole thing in the bud right now?

The ad is an inevitability. Someone was bound to get there, and the folks at Kurger Bing beat everyone to the punch. For the company, it’s a way to extend advertising beyond the screen. Between Kendall Jenner ending police violence with a can of sugar water, United executing the literal manifestation of how we all kind of feel about air travel and Sean Spicer, well, being Sean Spicer, the ad campaign likely won’t even register a blip on anyone’s radar.

At best, it’s really annoying for people with the device in their living room. At worst, it once again raises some nagging questions about technological limitations and privacy concerns surrounding these smart assistants.

For starters, there’s the issue of the tech limitations of such a device. It seems we’re still a ways away from smart assistants that are capable of distinguishing voices from one another, and the ad plays on that limitation.

And while I’m sure the company and its connected ad agency have no malicious intent beyond selling some hamburgers, this limitation becomes a larger concern the more pieces of our life we turn over to these devices. Increasingly things like door locks and other potential security threats.

It’s like some early 21st century version of Soupy Sales’ infamous plea for kids around the country to reaching into their parents wallets and grab the “green paper” from their parents wallets, it’s also a sort of cautionary tale about the power of advertising mixed with technology.

The company won’t say precisely why they opted for Home over its far more ubiquitous Amazon counterpart, but it did confirm that wasn’t involved in the spot. And while Google’s read plays like an off-screen continuation of the commercial, it’s simple reading a couple of sentences from Wikipedia. I suspect the user-supported dictionary wasn’t looking to get involved with a hamburger commercial either. And given its open-source nature, this kind of TV/smart device forced synergy is opening the door for some Wiki-based prankery.

The ad’s not fun or cute. It’s not Pizza Hut shoes or McDonald’s VR headset. It’s annoying, and hopefully an opportunity for people to give a second though to the role of TV and always-listening smart home assistants in their lives. Maybe it’s a small piece of vindication for poor, tormented women named Alexa. And hopefully it’s a chance for the makers of smart home assistants to rethink the way they listen.