Ad of the Day: IBM’s Watson Talks Love and Loss With Bob Dylan in Advertising’s Oddest Pairing

And the machine's made peace with Ken Jennings

Headshot of Marty Swant

Most of us know IBM's Watson as a threat to humanity's dominance of Jeopardy and the AI successor to a machine that similarly dethroned chessmaster Garry Kasparov.

But now Watson wants to show us his more warm and chatty side, and he's starting (oddly enough) by sitting down with the likes of Bob Dylan and Ken Jennings, the supercomputer's trivia-spouting archenemy.

In its new campaign, anchored by 30-second spots for IBM's new cognitive computer consulting unit, Watson is shown talking with a guitar-wielding Dylan. The computer brags it can read 800 million pages per second, identifying key themes in Dylan's work, like "time passes" and "love fades."

In some ways, Watson has been for cognitive computing what Dylan was for folk: an icon of an emerging era. And like Dylan, Watson has also evolved (though Watson was always electric).

The Dylan commercial is part of a new campaign created by Ogilvy & Mather to help explain how the 2,000-person division at IBM applies the supercomputer's ability to ingest massive amounts of information such as medical data, media research or even song lyrics.

In Dylan's case, IBM data scientists applied five Watson services to 320 songs from the songwriter's portfolio in order to understand trends within the music. The computer's capabilities in distilling the information also include personality analysis, tone analyzer and key word extraction.

Ann Rubin, IBM's vp of branded content and global creative, told Adweek that the commercials were needed to help people understand the new world of cognitive computing.

"We're focusing on the advertising here, but this is really more than an advertising campaign," Rubin said. "It's a point of view that IBM has, and it's going across all of our marketing, our internal communications, how we engage sellers and our employees. It's really across everything that we do."

IBM says the latest series is meant to help a broader audience—companies, decision makers and software developers—better understand how Watson works. Unlike traditionally programmed computers, cognitive systems such as Watson understand, reason and learn. The company says industries such as banking, insurance, healthcare and retail can all benefit.

Rubin said Watson's abilities "outthink" human brains in areas where finding insights and connections can be difficult due to the abundance of data.

"You can outthink cancer, outthink risk, outthink doubt, outthink competitors if you embrace this idea of cognitive computing," she said.

The commercial is one of three new spots, with others featuring Jeopardy champion Jennings (defeated by Watson in a 2011 televised showdown) and a young actress named Annabelle playing a cancer survivor.

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.