Troy Reimink mug

Troy Reimink

We evaluate every Super Bowl on three fronts: the halftime show, the advertisements and, if there’s time, the football.

The consensus this week was that in each area, Sunday’s spectacle was pretty good. So, nice work, America!

Everything else might be sliding off a cliff, but at least the worlds of entertainment, commerce and sports are humming along nicely.

The standout commercial — to judge unscientifically by social-media chatter and day-after workplace enthusiasm — was “Loretta,” a heartstring-tugging 90-second spot from Google that promoted Assistant, the company’s virtual smart-home device.

In the ad, an older man uses information stored in his Assistant to recall details about his late wife. “Hey Google,” the man says, “show me photos of me and Loretta.” With Assistant’s help, the man remembers a little town they vacationed in, that Loretta loved scallops, that she always snorted when she laughed, that she hated his mustache, that she had beautiful handwriting, and that, finally, “I’m the luckiest man in the world.” The music swells, feelings are felt.

“Loretta,” apparently inspired by a Google employee’s grandfather, is a ruthlessly effective ad. It’s impossible to deny the potent efficiency of its storytelling and the Don Draper-level emotional payoff. But the real story “Loretta” tells is about something a lot bigger, and more unsettling, than that of a man outliving his partner.

The narrator, it’s implied, is suffering some form of memory loss, and with the help of his Assistant is able to recall significant pieces of his marriage that might otherwise be lost to the ravages of dementia or cognitive decline.

Thanks to Google, which has been collecting information about him for years, he’s not going to forget his spouse. Imagine the first 10 minutes of the Pixar film “Up” as an episode of “Black Mirror,” and you’d get “Loretta.”

Sure, it’s comforting that Google can supply us with meaningful details when our own memories fail us, and who would deprive a widower of that?

The subtext, however, is that Google already knows more about us than we know about ourselves, and always will, until we also shuffle off the mortal coil and survive only as fragmentary blips within the churning algorithmic void. And the company is not just benignly guarding everyone’s private information until loved ones want to reminisce later in life.

Loretta and her husband and everyone else on Earth who interacts with Google products have surrendered vast quantities of data, from which the company profits immensely by selling targeted advertising.

Why, then, does Google need to advertise itself? It is synonymous with information. Its name is a verb. It is everywhere.

Nobody who uses the internet, email or a smartphone chooses to patronize Google after surveying a robust field of competitors and making an informed decision. The company literally is unavoidable for anyone living an ordinary, digitally connected life. Now, in addition to being vast and all-knowing, Google also needs to be loved?

“Loretta” exists to humanize a business model that should alarm us and normalize an enormous swindle that should infuriate us.

Google and its fellow tech giants convinced users that having “free” access to their platforms was a fair trade for what we gave them — our data, which turned out to be the most valuable commodity in the digital economy.

Google shouldn’t be working to earn our affection through sentimental TV ads; it should be paying us for the information we keep feeding it.

In a 2019 New York Times series called the Privacy Project, the virtual-reality pioneer and author Jaron Lanier outlined a proposal to rebuild a broken internet. It involves a system in which tech companies switch to paid subscription models, users receive compensation for the economic activity generated by their data, and everyone does better, which makes so much sense it will surely never happen.

The premise is that people “should have the moral rights to every bit of data that exists because you exist.”

That’s not something you’ll ever see in the fine print of a Google user agreement.

Troy Reimink is a west Michigan writer and musician.

Recommended for you