Did you miss the Google Home Super Bowl ad with the mezuzah in it because you were hanging out with activist rabbis instead of watching the game? Me, too!
The ad didn’t attract a lot of notice. It first appeared online last October, and when it finally aired on TV it got more attention for making viewers’ own Google Home devices go crazy than it did for its content. (Apparently Google Home devices heard “OK, Google” repeated over and over from the TV, got confused, and acted out.) A writer for The Verge observed, “At some point, some enterprising TV writer or ad jerk is gonna plant an ‘OK Google’ into some TV with intent and force everyone to listen to Nickelback.”
But, fellow yehudim, consider the ad itself.
It opens with an aerial shot of a bus on a winding road. We hear the first wistful notes of a wordless, gentle instrumental version of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Then there’s a house with a rainbow flag (!) and wait, don’t get scared and change channels, look at the generic blond woman getting out of a taxi! And ooh, a cute dachshund looking out a window and whimpering eagerly for its person! And a sweet wholesome hetero fam with a sleeping toddler entering a suburban home through a tidy garage! Are you heteronormatively chill? Good! Here’s a shot of a mezuzah on a doorpost as a shoulder passes by! Ha! It’s the Jews, just 15 seconds after the gays! Shh, chill some more, look at the pretty white girl with a cello case in the rain entering her house, telling Google Home, “Turn on the hall lights.” Thanks, Google Home! Now there’s a little girl of color excitedly greeting her daddy! Oh, you’re cool, straight white Christian viewer; you’re not discomfited by the African-American dude saying “OK Google, turn up the music” and some dancing! You can do the Nae Nae! Look, there’s a Southeast Asian woman saying “OK Google, what’s a good substitute for cardamom?” Relatable! You don’t have cardamom in your spice rack either! And now it’s another cute wee brown girl giggling as her not-in-the-frame dad says, “OK Google, what sound does a whale make?” Oh, and this sweet elderly white lady asking “How do you say ‘nice to meet you’ in Spanish?” Google Home tells her, so when she opens the door to greet and hug a wholesome young Latino couple, she’s ready! Then there’s a quick montage of a bunch of Google Homes getting asked questions, then a big party of people of many races, and cake that says “Welcome Home,” and “OK Google, dim the downstairs lights!” And all the attractive multicultural people hide, and aw, it’s getting all soft-focus-y as people yell (but, like, gentle-yell) “Welcome home!”
Reductive? Sure. But for me, seeing that mezuzah triggered the same feeling as spotting a friend in the crowd during a televised baseball game. I know you! It was a smidgen of what I felt during Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s JAP Battle, despite my agita about the term JAP and my dismay at stereotypes. Seeing my people represented—in such an in-group kind of way, with references many goyim would miss—was thrilling. We’re so seldom invited to the party, and here Google didn’t go for the obvious kippah or Shabbat candles, but the lesser known mezuzah. It’s like they know us!
Not everyone I talked to about it felt the same way. One of my colleagues sniffed, “It’s using the perception of being inclusive to sell stuff. It’s pretty meh to laud companies just for using multiculturalism to build their brand. I mean, donate money, Google! Use your massive international clout to create a more tolerant world in a meaningful way! Provoke change!”
I see where he’s coming from. But wasn’t it telling that so many big-game ads were tagged “liberal”? Coca-Cola re-ran its multi-language “America the Beautiful” spot. Airbnb showed tight close-ups of a variety of different folks of different ages, with different skin colors, along with the hashtag #WeAccept and text making that explicit: “We believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong.” The company’s founder and CEO tweeted that Airbnb pledged to provide short-term housing for the next five years to a hundred thousand people who need it, starting with refugees, aid workers and disaster survivors. The spot that caused the most controversy, Budweiser’s story of its founder’s immigration journey, took a year to produce. In other words, it was being storyboarded long before Trump took office. And the CEO of the lumber company that produced an ad supportive of legal immigration is a Republican Trump supporter. But all these ads convey a sense of the commandment ahavat ha’ger—love the stranger.
To put it bluntly, I think there’s a feeling in the air of not wanting to be a dick. We’re yearning for connection, for bridge-building. There were even fewer sexist commercials this year than in past years. (The most provocative ads were a duo of self-aware, feminist, funny spots for T-Mobile, in which comedian Kristen Schaal enjoys a sadomasochistic relationship with Verizon. Any pussy-grabbing this character is involved in is clearly safe, sane, consensual and replete with riding crops.)
Commercials are always about us as much as the product they’re selling. They’re about how we want to see ourselves, what we believe, who we love or hate, where we see our place in a wider world. I majored in folklore and mythology in college, so you’ll excuse me a flight of fancy: Commercials are similar to myths, which Joseph Campbell called “public dreams.” Campbell believed that the imagery in myths, like dreams, reveal “the deepest hopes, desires and fears, potentialities and conflicts, of the human will… Every myth, that is to say, whether or not by intention, is psychologically symbolic. Its narratives and images are to be read, therefore, not literally, but as metaphors.” The commercials we love and remember involve a brand tapping into our own longings and ways of viewing the world. I saw a mezuzah and felt welcomed. And that’s a big deal.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.