"A boy sits with his dog at the edge of a beautiful and serene lake. Under the blue sky, the far shore is visible, with a short wide beach and green woods behind it. The boy wears jeans and an orange sweatshirt; the dog has a proper collar. The boy is human. The dog is a shiny, metallic robot.
It’s an ad for OppenheimerFunds, and the copy is headlined “Invest in a Beautiful World”. The reactions it elicits are mixed. Some people viewed the scene as “heartwarming”, a vision of a pristine future where technology is our best friend. Others thought the dog was disturbing, a “weapon-like creature” that provoked a “visceral sense of unreality and horror”.
Like many ads, it’s deliberately a bit confusing and provocative —crafted to make you pay attention, to think about it, maybe get involved a discussion online about what it really means — all to etch the brand name and the general aura of the campaign into your mind. This is what ad companies do — they are masters at influence and persuasion.
I can see why some people might find the scene heartwarming — it’s a lovely setting. And though you only see the boy’s back, he evokes a very all-American sort of innocent, free youth, with his denim jeans, his cotton sweatshirt — and his loyal companion dog. Sitting down, they are roughly the same size. The dog’s head is held high, his ears a bit cocked forward — he’s alert, protective. A boy and his dog: innocent, independent.
The sponsoring company claims to have intended the positive interpretation. We’ve “anchored our message on optimism”, the chief marketing officer says of the campaign. “Once you look to the long term and expand your view, as we do at OppenheimerFunds, the world reveals itself to new opportunities that others may have missed.”
That’s not how it feels to me.
The serenity of the picture contrasts vividly with the scenes in which we typically encounter robot companions, such as post-apocalyptic movies in which WWIII has scorched the earth bare. There’s a fear in the back of our minds that if we look far enough into the future to see fully functioning artificial pals, we’ll also be looking at a world fully denuded of a natural beauty: at worst a nuclear wasteland; at best a desiccated, over-built, paved and strip-malled (strip-mauled) earth. Is the scene here as pristine and natural as it seems, or is it, like the robot dog, a simulation of the organic? The dog appears to be the boy’s loyal companion — but is he? Who programmed the dog? Whose orders does he follow? Does the boy lead him or does he shepherd the boy? Are their travels the secret adventures of a boy and his dog — or does the robot report back about where they go, who they see, what the boy confides in him? If so, to whom does he report?"