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Breaking into Voice’s Walled Garden

When it comes to traditional paid advertising, Voice is a walled garden militantly policed by Amazon and Google. Their position on conventional ads is clear: Adverts are annoying. They compromise the user experience. Ads are not welcome here.

But the walls of this garden have not always been so tall. This article covers three true stories that shine some light on how we got here and what the future holds for brands wanting to be part of the next big thing.

In the beginning.

An Alexa sits on the shelf in an average home somewhere in America. Like 11 million others she has been the gift that keeps on giving. Beyond just skipping your music, she also provides a near constant source of fascination to children. “Go play with Alexa, grownups are talking”; a phrase echoed in households across the land. Little Jane scurries off to play with her new best friend.

Two weeks later a confused parent is stood on the doorstep signing for five identical doll houses totalling over $2000. During playtime, little Jane had asked Alexa multiple times to “play doll’s house and get me a doll’s house?” Alexa, an unquestioning servant, had dutifully ordered the items, charging them to the linked account.

Quietly, the soft, delicate hands of unseen developers were slapped as the unquestioning nature of our new assistants were restricted and logic improved. An assistant needs to know who its master is. The first brick is laid.

One hit wonder.

A creative team at advertising agency David Miami sit, probably stroking hipster beards, as they attempt to break the office Google Home. Asking a string of progressively more obscure questions they noticed something. For inquiries outside of a preprogrammed response, the answer returned was sourced from the ‘internet-truth-factory’ – Wikipedia. Behind their collective beard, a plan started to form.

A client, Burger King, had the standard big-brand brief; do something innovative and fresh that goes viral. The chaps at David Miami smiled. Forcing the intern into a Burger King uniform, they start to film. Looking straight to the camera the intern says, “OK Google, what is the Whopper burger?” The four coloured lights on the nearby Google Home began to spin.

When the ad aired, 6 million Google Homes sprang to life returning a description of the brand’s signature burger and a list of delicious ingredients. With a Cannes Lion on the shelf and free burgers for life, David Miami was the first to break into voice’s walled garden.

Solutions were rapidly sought. Although not quick enough to stop some from editing the Wiki page and filming the resulting list of ingredients that now included babies and cyanide. This was far from OK Google, who responded by switching off this type of response until a solution had been found.

The highest form of flattery.

With the Wiki-exploit mostly plugged you would be forgiven for thinking that the party was over. Not quite. Aside from turning off the light, voice assistants also have a growing number of talents called skills (Alexa) and Actions (Google). While more general functions had been fortified against misappropriation skills were mostly unguarded.

Exploiting the unguarded for the amusement of others is exactly what Matt and Trey do best. Although embarrassing to be featured by the satirists behind, South Park and Book of Mormon should be considered the highest form of flattery.   

Leveraging the show, the foul-mouthed-cartoon-kids repeatedly ask Alexa to add a variety of items (big hairy balls, scrotum bags and titty-chips to name but a few) to the shopping list. This phrase instructs Alexa to repeat the items requested and confirm that they have been added to your list. In houses across the land, Alexa began repeating profanities to the delight of everyone under 14, and a good many over that age. 

This represents the last major breach to the walled garden. In the intervening months, Amazon and Google have reported significant advances in both voice recognition and voice filtering, further guarding against unwanted penetration (in the spirit of Matt and Trey – “that’s what she said”).

With the adoption of smart speakers outpacing smartphones, this is a medium that brands can’t afford to ignore. The most explicit message from the above is that traditional adverts are not tolerated on this consumer driven, UX focused medium.

Campbell’s is currently the best example. Their skill, Campbell’s Kitchen, provides voice assistance with recipes and related content, all without a bowl of soup in sight. What they are offering is something relevant, useful, free and without a hard sell. Campbell’s have set the benchmark for what consumers expect, and in the process, they are developing an identity and presence that will extend well beyond the kitchen assistant.

For brands to be part of the voice revolution, they must forget about buying their way in and play by a new set of rules. They will be expected to provide utility, content and relevance before users will be willing to invite them into their lives. When it comes to voice, content, it would seem, is still king.