Kia robodog

Send help! The Robots Are Taking Over

Having alway been a mainstay in UK ads, robots are making an impression in this year's Super Bowl ads too. We take a look at their enduring popularity

By Jeremy Lee

If you want to make a nod towards modernity or a promised future that doesn't yet exist, then bunging a robot in an ad has always the perfect solution.

This year's Super Bowl features two robotic dogs, with both Kia and beer brand Sam Adams including them.

Kia's ad, from David & Golaith, promotes its new electric vehicle, the EV6, by introducing Robo Dog—a plug-in puppy that chases the EV6 in search of a charge. Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart" plays during the pursuit, which ends with the puppy getting some juice from the EV6.

The Goodby Silverstein & Partners-created spot for Sam Adams uses its robotic dog in a far more prosaic way - to fetch a beer.

Robots have been a feature of many UK ads over recent months too, as discussed below. Their popularity might partly be down to the ease of which they can be filmed under Covid conditions. But it probably runs deeper than just that. Indeed our increased fascination with dystopia might have fuelled advertisers' desires to feature robots in their ads.

Obviously no feature on robots would be complete without mentioning the most famous advertising robots of all time - Boase Massimi Pollitt's "Smash Martians" that were clearly robots rather than the little green men from Mars that would otherwise be expected.

And with that done, we can look at robots in their wider context. The late 70s (when the "Smash Martians" hit the screen) were a particularly popular time for robots in ads, as they were still in their relative infancy. They seemed to promise something new and exciting and unknown. Collett Dickinson Pearce also used them in a spot for Hamlet, showing that the robots were a ripe comedic thread.

But as the reality of manual jobs being replaced by robots as the 70s led into the 80s (and as elegantly shown by CDP's 1979 epic "Figaro" for the Fiat Strada, below) began to hit home, perhaps the thought of robots taking over at the expense of humanity and wasn't quite as funny as previously thought.

An early example of how the artificial world was perhaps a threat to the natural world came in a 1979 spot for the International Wool Secretariat that featured a slightly sinister robot sheep whose "wool" might be machine washable but lacked the provenance of real wool from actual sheep.

If people were beginning to realise that an entirely robotic future made of artificial goods was perhaps not the utopia that they have initially thought, robots were still a useful shorthand for the white heat of technology in ads.

This 1983 TV ad by BMP for the then cutting-edge Sony CD player featured a puzzling mash-up of a robot and John Cleese, presumably the latter adding a touch of class, humanity and reassurance to what might otherwise seem like baffling technology.

At the same time, Honda was developing its ASIMO robot - named in honour of science fiction writer and professor of biochemistry Issac Asimov.

ASIMO (which Honda also managed to make into an abbreviation of Advanced Stop in Innovative Mobility) was an educational feature for exhibitions and demonstrations in schools in the early 2000s. It made its first UK appearance to TV viewers in a 2006 ad by Wieden & Kennedy when it went on a journey of discovery through the corridors and exhibits of a science museum.

Motor manufacturers continue to see the appeal of robots, particularly as electric cars provide yet another level of automation to the driving experience, which was once mainly thrills and spills.

This 2021 spot from Fallon London for the Skoda Enyaq iV SUV tells the story of a human family who adopt two young baby robots. It appears to offer some humanity to the robots - something that was lacking in ASIMO (and the robotic creators of the Fiat Strada more than 40 years previously).

Similarly, and also apparently inspired by Honda's ASIMO was this 2002 spot for Foster's lager by M&C Saatchi. It's likely that the racial stereotyping wouldn't be appropriate today but the joke at the very end is maybe worth waiting for - and at least shows that there was still some humour to be found in robots.

Robots took on a more serious role in this 2021 spot for EE from Saatchi & Saatchi, which saw the actor Tom Ellis having his beard shaved off up Mount Snowdon by a robotic arm guided by a barber using the EE network. The jeopardy between the "good" and "bad" nature of robots is played out, but thankfully - due to the skill of the barber and the apparent strength of the mobile network - good prevails.

EE isn't the only mobile network - or indeed technology company - that continues to use robots as easy mental shortcuts to demonstrate technological advancements.

In 2020, O2 introduced its own animatronic robot - Bubl - although it takes the form more of a charming brand character. The 2021 Christmas campaign, created by VCCP, showed a Bubl army harnessing the unifying role of the internet and the power of technology to make magical reunions with family, friends and loved ones possible.

And in what looks like the antithesis of the original "Smash Martians" ad from 40 years ago that promoted over-packaged processed potato granules as a future super-food, Ikea launched its own robot ad last year.

The WALL-E style robot called on UK consumers to help save the planet by taking small measures to make the house a more eco-responsible environment. These could include transforming plastic bags into reusable net bags and using disposable coffee cups as reusable cups.

Robots might be the useful "go-to" for agencies that are looking to show the technological capabilities of their clients, but the nuance of their use has changed.

From the sinister to the scary to the stupid to the sentient (via cute and cuddly), advertisers' relationships with robots has perhaps mirrored the consumer experience as technology takes new - and sometimes unwelcome - intrusions upon their lives.

With AI playing a large and increasing role in the way society functions, the evolution of the representation of robots in advertising can only continue to develop accordingly.

What won't slow down though is the speed with which agencies reach for robots as a communications device.


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