Why we should be thanking Burger King for hijacking our smart home devices

Last week, Burger King ran a television ad asking, "Okay Google, what is the Whopper Burger?" which triggered smart home device in viewers' homes. Many users are understandably annoyed, but the effect of the ad might not be all bad.

The tactic was annoying, yes, but it also woke us up to vulnerabilities within our own homes

Burger King ran a television ad asking, "Okay Google, what is the Whopper Burger?" which triggered smart home device in viewers' homes. (Paul Sakuma/Associated Press)

Last week, television viewers might have been surprised, and probably slightly annoyed, when their Google Home devices started listing off the ingredients of a Whopper hamburger.

The smart home assistants were triggered when an actor in a 15-second Burger King television ad asked, "Okay Google, what is the Whopper Burger?" prompting searches from household devices within range.

Many viewers were less than thrilled to have their smart home devices hijacked by a goofy commercial, but can we really blame Burger King for doing what advertisers do? If anything, the tactic woke us up — in an irritating, yet innocuous way — to the vulnerabilities that exist in the devices we bring into our homes.   

Now, in case you don't have Google Home or Amazon Echo in your household, here's some quick background: these "home assistants" are screenless, voice-activated devices that respond to verbal requests. Like Apple's Siri, they perform searches and other simple tasks, all through voice command. You can ask them for the time, to tell you a joke or, if you're so inclined, what's in a burger.

As of yet, these devices can't discern their owner's voice from the voice of say, an actor on TV, which is why crafty advertisers at Burger King were able to pull off the manoeuvre.

Perhaps it was a dumb move, strategically speaking. Consumers are distrusting of advertisers as it is, and many don't like intrusive marketing schemes. Just look at all of the people who use ad blockers to make their web surfing a little more bearable.

Wikipedia edits

The advertisers also made themselves susceptible to a vulnerability of their own; when Google Home hears the activation trigger "Okay Google," it performs a Google search, usually landing on Wikipedia for its response. The team responsible for the ad tailored the Wikipedia entry for the Whopper Burger before the spot launched on television, but they apparently failed to consider that someone else could later edit the Wikipedia entry — which, of course, they did.

Those rogue Wikipedia edits, presumably heard by thousands before Google stepped in and blocked the ad, described the Whopper as "a cancer-causing hamburger product sold by the international fast-food restaurant chain Burger King," and "a burger, consisting of a flame-grilled patty made with 100% rat and toenail clippings…"

So clearly, the ad irked people enough to provoke some to bite back. But it's not all bad. For one, it did get people talking, and considering how many homes now have these smart devices, it's surprising no one tried a stunt like this earlier.

We've become so engrossed in technology that we often don't realize how vulnerable we are to exploitation. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

Sure, it's a misfire, but not a terribly offensive one (certainly not as bad as Pepsi's recent advertisement disaster). In some ways, the ad is actually a really good thing. New technology creeps up on us and changes the way we live our lives, but the truth is, we don't always see that change happening. In fact, we rarely do.

There's a metaphor about change that says that if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately jump out, but if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and slowly heat it up, the frog won't notice and will eventually boil to death.

That idea applies here: we've become so engrossed in technology that we often don't realize how vulnerable we are to exploitation, whether through children accidentally driving up bills, or newscasts inadvertently triggering home devices to order dollhouses, or commercials prompting Google Home to list out the components of a Whopper.

A necessary reminder

Ads are everywhere on Google. Their business model basically is advertising. So when advertisements starts popping up through their proprietary smart home device, it's not all that surprising. But it should make us wary.

That said, Burger King isn't the one to blame here. Its ad team was just doing what marketers have always done, trying to catch our attention. And it did, but perhaps in a way it didn't intend.

Burger King did us the favour of reminding us that as we fill our homes with more and more connected gadgets, we open ourselves up to a whole new wave of advertising, commerce and sales. It's a necessary nudge, prompting us to push back against new tech when it becomes too invasive, before its impact starts to go unnoticed.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.