Super Bowl ads sell Americans on new technology to protect them
The auto industry is going to ramp up its pitch for electric cars after giving giving them center stage. Even Tesla, who has never run a Super Bowl ad before, managed to sneak in its Model Y within a Popeyes commercial. Ram also boasted about its smart technology that solved problems caused by “premature electrification.”
I am a media scholar who is interested in the way cultures cope with disruptive technologies. I see parallels between concerns about EVs today and those of early cars.
The public discourse back then was usually a mixture of optimism and anxiety. Automakers then turned to advertising in order to calm these fears.
Safety and sound signals
The automotive industry has been promoting safer technologies for as long as it can remember.
Engineers have been working to improve the safety of automobiles for decades because they can be dangerous. Engineers in the early 20th Century promised that along with improved brakes, steering wheels, and headlights, advances in sound-signaling technology would make driving safer.
In my new book, “Danger Sound Klaxon! In my new book, “Danger Sound Klaxon!” I tell the history of early sound signals. Engineers first adapted bells, whistles, and gongs from other vehicles to automobiles. The industry eventually settled on the squeeze-bulb horn, which makes a “honk-honk” sound.
In 1909, the Lovell-McConnell Company introduced a new horn called the Klaxon that promised drivers that they could release a metallic sound, “aaOOga,” with the push of a button. They set out to convince the public of the safety benefits of their loud technology.
Klaxon used a technique known as “Situational Advertising,” which put readers into imaginary situations and gave them a choice. These ads were published in the most popular magazines of the time and asked readers to think about the best ways to protect themselves against other people’s negligence.
In a 1910 Saturday Evening Post ad, a pedestrian distracted by a phone call steps in front of an automobile in New York City’s Herald Square. The tagline reads: “You can’t change human nature.”
The auto industry saw human nature as a possible obstacle. Internet Archive
The copy states: “The car must have a warning signal that is effective.” If all minds were alert, if children were able to protect themselves, if the weak could be strong, then there would not need to be an auto signal.
The ad claims that Klaxon is the only solution for car owners who want to be responsible, as its distinct noise says, “AUTO COMING!” Look out! NOW!”
Drivers will be safer with quieter tech.
The medium was bought, as well as the message. Klaxon was the dominant global car horn manufacturer for two decades. It also pushed its safety-oriented message through the media.
After World War I’s traumas, the use of loud signaling technologies to keep people safe was deemed unacceptable. Klaxons had been used as gas alarms in the trenches. After World War II, a global culture war was waged against noise.
The Klaxon went into diminuendo as engineers turned their attention to the problems of quieting automobile noise a such as closed cabins and “silent gearwheels.” As engineers began to focus on the problem of muffling automobile noise, such as fast cars and “silent” gearwheels, the Klaxon was reduced in volume.
But even though the focus of their message changed, it was still the same: New technologies can always solve problems that old ones cause.
Smart technology promises less thinking.
As you look back at the past, it is clear that technology advertising has remained largely the same.
Consider a recent advertisement for the Volkswagen Atlas, which ran throughout the football season and eerily mimicked the Klaxon commercial from 1910.
The clever ad, titled “Those Guys,” shows a zoomer who is oblivious to the world and glued to his smartphone while Doris Day plays “It’s a Lovely Day Today.” This guy, like the man in the Klaxon advertisement from 1910, steps in front of an Atlas moving. The car automatically brakes, and everyone is protected because of its “Standard Front Assist Pedestrian Monitor” technology.
Human folly, epitomized as “those guys,” is still portrayed as a technology-solvable problem.
The situation depicted in the advertisement has clearly changed. The new technology of today protects pedestrians and drivers from harm by automatically braking when they detect movement.
The subtext is the same. Since human nature cannot be changed and “those guys” will always exist, you can rest assured that new technology “built for safety” can protect us.
You can always count on the underlying techocentrism, a civic faith in American consumer culture as important as football.
People are constantly bombarded by messages that encourage them to adopt new technologies, whether they are loud horns, smart speakers, or cryptocurrency. They are not asked if the products are really needed.