Amazon Echo Plus smart speakers sit on display at the Amazon.com Inc. Spheres headquarters during an unveiling event in Seattle, Washington, U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Burton/Bloomberg)

Feared or Celebrated, Amazon Alexa Is Star of Super Bowl Ads

(Bloomberg) -- An android child struggles to control his emotions. Robots threaten to take away human jobs. And a voice-activated device ponders its own existence.

These dark themes were explored by this year’s Super Bowl commercials, with brands such as TurboTax, Olay and Sprint capitalizing on fears that technology is encroaching on our lives. The unspoken subject of many of the ads: Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa, an increasingly ubiquitous digital assistant sold by one of the world’s most powerful companies.

Amazon had its own commercial, where it poked fun at Alexa. The ad featured rejected ideas for the technology -- including a microwave, dog collar and hot tub -- and even depicted a massive power outage triggered by Alexa.

Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos also made an in-person appearance at the Super Bowl, where he was spotted with National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell.

The Super Bowl was a close game, which typically benefits advertisers. But it also was the lowest-scoring contest in Super Bowl history, with the New England Patriots beating the Los Angeles Rams 13-3. It drew an overnight rating of 44.9 on CBS Corp.’s flagship broadcast network, which would be the lowest level since the 2009.

The sponsors included companies seeking to disrupt the TV industry itself. Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube TV slapped its brand on the game’s kickoff show, and Hulu and Netflix both aired commercials.

The Olay skin-care brand presented another tech-horror scenario. As a home intruder closed in, Sarah Michelle Gellar couldn’t unlock her phone’s facial recognition technology because Olay had transformed her skin. Google’s spot, meanwhile, promoted its language-translation service.

Tech wasn’t the only theme of the night. Brands such as Bud Light and Kraft used a mix of humor and famous faces to get their message out. The game’s key first-quarter commercials included Chance the Rapper and the Backstreet Boys pitching Doritos and Christina Applegate with a new M&M’s chocolate bar.

Walt Disney Co.’s Marvel debuted a new trailer for “Avengers: Endgame” between the coin toss and kickoff -- a key slot for advertisers.

This year’s ads were mostly from big brands, but a few newcomers bought commercials -- including Bumble, which tapped Serena Williams to promote the dating app. Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi and Avocados from Mexico were some of the veteran advertisers returning this year.

Anheuser-Busch nabbed one of the first slots of the game to tout Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzer, a brand it acquired in 2016. The spot featured mermaids named Bonnie and Vivian pitching the product in front of sharks.

The Super Bowl remains the biggest showcase for ads, even though the game’s audience peaked in 2015. Last year’s contest drew 103.4 million viewers, the smallest amount in nine years.

The Rams-Patriots showdown was a low-scoring game, keeping things close. Blowout Super Bowls in past years have been blamed for hurting advertisers late in the game.

In the second quarter, Bud Light provided a new installment in its medieval-times series. But in a twist, the Bud Light knight is killed in a joust and a dragon from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” breathes fire on the scene and HBO teases its upcoming final season. HBO tweeted about the collaboration: “When you play the @GameOfThrones, you either drink a @budlight or end up like @TheBudKnight.”

With fewer people watching traditional TV, CBS streamed the game on more platforms than ever before. It was on CBS Sports’ website and mobile app, as well as the CBS All Access subscription service.

Before the game started, the NFL addressed its race problem head on. A spot featuring Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech aired before the coin-toss ceremony, which included King’s daughter, Bernice, and congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis. Another spot played during the game highlighting the NFL’s efforts on racial justice.

A controversy over players protesting during the national anthem has dogged the NFL in recent years, with some blaming it for hurting ratings. President Donald Trump criticized the demonstrations, and the league has struggled to deal with the uproar. Colin Kaepernick, who started the protest by kneeling during the anthem, remains a free agent.

CBS, which broadcast the game from Atlanta, sold 30-second commercials for $5.1 million to $5.3 million, people familiar with the matter said last month. That was roughly the same price as last year, when Comcast Corp.’s NBC sold them for $5.24 million, according to research firm Kantar Media.

One thing that might have helped lift ratings: Los Angeles and Boston are two of the largest TV markets, pitting a recently relocated Rams against one of the biggest dynasties in NFL history.

T-Mobile also addressed technology’s hold on society, but focused on the lighter side. The carrier aired short spots showcasing the modern texter’s plights. As part of the pitch, the company offered free tacos and Lyft rides to T-Mobile customers Tuesday.

Microsoft Corp. also attempted to stress tech’s positives. It aired a spot featuring kids with disabilities playing video games with the Xbox’s adaptive controller.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.