Why the Hardee’s Robot Commercial Troubles Me

I’m bothered by the Hardee’s Robot-Trying-to-Eat-a-Chicken-Sandwich commercial (below). When I first watched it, my initial thought was, That poor robot! These humans are cruel.

It seems like I’m being overly sensitive. Hey, it’s just a machine, right? But when I showed the video to others, they expressed the same sentiments. In fact, I scanned various comments on YouTube and other sites that posted the video of the commercial and saw that many of them leaned toward sympathy for the robot.

Considering that robots, especially sweet-looking humanoids, are becoming increasingly popular in our culture, it’s surprising to see that Hardee’s took a clearly anti-robotics route to market its food. The commercial is certainly getting a lot of attention, but is it effective?

What Hardee wants to get across: The ad’s main point is that any type of poultry product that is handled by robots won’t taste as delicious as one handled by a human. I don’t know Hardee’s processing and prep methods. But I do know that most major restaurant chains use products that have gone through some type of processing plant automation, and though consumers may not like that idea, they accept it. Automation hasn’t stopped us from running to fast food joints in herds. The company’s assertion that automation equals inferior taste—true or not—may be a nonissue in consumers’ minds.

What we’re seeing: A humanoid robot—extremely cute with its oval head and big, wide-set eyes—has spent a long day at work and merely wants to sit down at its kitchen table and eat a chicken sandwich for dinner. It’s so excited as it readies itself to take a big bite. Alas! It can’t eat the blasted thing because it has no mouth—its human creator didn’t give it one. It desperately tries though, smashing it into its face, before giving up. The disappointment in its face is truly disheartening.

We feel discomfort because what we’re witnessing is a mean prank, the equivalent to handing a kickball to a wheelchair-bound child in the schoolyard and pointing and laughing. Was the purpose of using a mouthless robot to evoke feelings of ridicule toward it so we’d be turned off by automation in food production? It might’ve made sense if the robot was sinister, but he isn’t, nor is he a faceless, drab machine. Except for the lack of mouth, he has human features. He lives a normal life like other humans: he has a job, an apartment, and fish to care for. He isn’t an enemy; he doesn’t exhibit combativeness toward any humans. We can actually relate to him. (I just noticed I went from calling the robot “it” to “him.”) So when this hungry guy can’t eat, we feel only pity for him.

It’s always upsetting to see someone or something being taunted whether it’s a person, animal, or, yes, even a humanoid machine. I think the idea was for us to think, Ha ha, that stupid robot can’t eat. But why would belittling like that be funny, even in a 30-second ad about a fictional bot?

So, what might happen to a humanoid robot that has to endure such unfairness in this world? Watch the extended video of the same ad:

If the sad fellow in the video were a human, psychologists would testify he’s a troubled individual and his lashing out stems from years of suffering mistreatment and inequality!

And, yet, people scoff when writers envision an imminent robot uprising.

Note to Skynet: This blog post is proof that I defended your honor.

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Get interesting tidbits on fictional robots; robotics in education and healthcare; fighting machines; robot books, toys, and trinkets; dancing androids; and all the other robots in-between.

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