Why Microsoft’s Super Bowl Ad Won’t Leave Me Alone

This one comes to us from Ed Uszynski. It will be pretty easy to forget Super […]

Guest Contributor / 2.21.19

This one comes to us from Ed Uszynski.

It will be pretty easy to forget Super Bowl LIII, its halftime show, and its commercials, as none of the three produced much inescapably memorable drama. But the Microsoft ad touting its XBox Adaptive Controller is proving surprisingly harder to shake simply because I moved from initially hating it to actually loving it.   

How can you not immediately fall in love with the charming posse of Grover, Sean, Ian, Taylor, and the centerpiece of the narrative, Owen?

By his own admission, Owen “loves video games, his friends, his family, and again, video games.” Through the magic of the Adaptive Controller, Owen overcomes one of his father’s plaguing fears: “How will Owen be viewed by the other kids?” Answer: “He’s not different when he plays.” The sixty-second Microsoft ad concludes, “When everybody plays, we all win.” Brilliant. A perfect piece of marketing during the nation’s largest and most watched sporting event.

And initially, I was prepared to hate it.

In fact, I broke the hush that had fallen over the room by loudly whispering to my wife, “I have real problems with that,” which was met with something along the lines of, “Shut up and don’t ruin it.” So I hated it in silence.  

But within 24 hours I wished we were all back in the room together just so I could tell everyone how much I now loved it—while still remaining slightly skeptical.

I’m immediately suspicious and paranoid whenever ads cause me to feel emotion, especially strong, quivering lip-type emotions. Kids—especially kids with unique life challenges—are an easy pathway to lip-quivering. In the middle of watching this ad, I wanted to scream out, “WE’RE BEING EXPLOITED BY HURTING KIDS AND THEIR FAMILIES WHO ARE ALSO BEING EXPLOITED! CHANGE THE CHANNEL BEFORE WE BECOME COMPLICIT!”

That wouldn’t have gone over well, but on some level, it’s true. Kids in commercials always carry some measure of exploitation.

Beyond the manipulation, I felt sad that the best we have to offer this generation of kids regarding community and connection involves looking at a screen and manipulating a computer program with our hands. I know it sounds fuddy-duddy, but the ongoing superficiality of it all and the knowledge that humans desperately need a deeper intimacy than tech can provide left me despising it. As in, “Special needs or not, the message of ‘video games as communal utopia’ isn’t one I want to support.” I don’t despise video games—just the challenge of breaking our kids from thinking there’s no other way to connect.

Every company—perhaps especially tech giants—love to promote the idea that their products make the world a better place, that purchasing their stuff has utilitarian benefits across the globe. But what happens when—cynicism and marketing paranoia aside—the product actually does make the world a better place?

In a 2017 interview for Good Housekeeping magazine, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and his wife Ana discuss the realities of their life with two kids struggling with disabilities. Their oldest son, Nain, is visually impaired, has limited communication, and is quadriplegic, while one of their two daughters has a severe learning disability. Not only are the Nadellas engaged with raising their kids, but Satya is using his God-given mental and vocational power to challenge a major tech brand to create products that alleviate suffering for those facing health challenges. That’s refreshing on so many levels.

Microsoft returned to the world of Super Bowl ads picking up where they left off in 2014 (right when he became CEO), when they ran ads promoting their “Empowering” series of products, including surgeons operating with Kinect, school kids using Skype, a deaf woman using a device that enabled her to hear, a 97-year-old man creating art in Microsoft Paint, and former New Orleans Saints player and ALS sufferer Steve Gleason who learned to communicate with family and friends with Surface and Tobii eye tracking software.  

Referencing his autobiographical book Hit Refresh, Satya says, “At its core, it (the book) is about humans and the unique quality we call empathy, which will become ever more valuable in a world where the torrent of technology will disrupt the status quo like never before.” In other words, tech is here to stay, and we should use our creative resources to become more human toward one another in the midst of it, feeling what others feel, understanding others’ journey through life.

How can we use technology to build community, train in empathy, and connect more deeply not with the game but with each other?

What must it be like for the CEO of Microsoft, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of gaming platforms, to experience his son and other kids dealing with health struggles NOT being able to participate in gaming communities—a social community as legitimate as any other—because of their physical challenges? There’s something beautiful about becoming a full participant in a community you long to be part of. We all know something of the emotions that come with being left out, with feeling isolated as an outsider, whether a result of racial or gender discrimination, being the new kid on the block or in the school or at work, striving to become a valued member of a sports team or fraternity/sorority or social club.  

When whatever blocks participation is suddenly removed or overcome by some new circumstance that makes entry possible for people previously left out, the relief, joy, and satisfaction produced by “belonging” are emotions well-worth celebrating. It’s not about kids getting to play video games; it’s about them not only feeling like but being with all the other kids.  

That matters.

Even if you have a long list of reasons to not like Microsoft or any of the other tech giants, we maybe should not be stingy with praise when someone takes a God-revealed technology and uses it to bring joy in the life of someone else with severe physical and social challenges. Isn’t empathy for the human condition born in the heart of God? When we come to feel empathy for someone else who is hurting for whatever reason, isn’t God glorified in our response—perhaps especially when that person is much different from us? When we value the life of another human being enough to put energy toward improving his/her condition like Satya and his Microsoft co-workers are doing—even if the pursuit of brand recognition is accompanying the effort—isn’t that somehow reflective of God’s heart for the world? Is God’s grace not present in the midst of joy experienced through the XBox Adaptive Controller? I think it is.

New technologies may not make the world better on a macro or spiritual level, but when motivated by recognizing the value in every person—especially in those who the world tends to overlook—and giving that person a spot at the “table,” the world is indeed a better place.  

I’m not rushing out to buy all your stuff, Microsoft, but kudos to you for convincing me you actually did make a difference, at the very least in the lives of the kids and families in that commercial. You got me, and I agree with you: “When everybody plays, we all win.” Getting to play may not save the world or our souls, but the effort to help kids play and belong in a world of suffering in some small way reflects the love of the One who can.