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Hey Alexa, is it true a TV advert made Amazon Echo order cat food?

Amazon Echo Dot
Amazon confirmed that the complainant’s device had placed an unwanted order for cat food, but that it had been cancelled by the customer. Photograph: AP

An Amazon Echo owner has tried to get a television advertising campaign for the smart speaker banned after the Alexa virtual assistant attempted to order cat food when it heard its name on an ad.

An Amazon TV ad for the Echo Dot, which can perform functions such as make shopping lists and play music with voice commands, features people using the device in different situations. In one a man’s voice says: “Alexa, reorder Purina cat food.” Alexa responds: “I’ve found Purina cat food. Would you like to buy it?”

A viewer lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), saying that the ad was irresponsible because it caused their Echo Dot to order cat food. Amazon confirmed that the complainant’s device did place an order for the cat food but it had been cancelled by the customer.

Amazon said it was aware of the potential issue and “marks” ads so that Alexa is not triggered. In addition, customers are required to confirm a purchase, which is automatically cancelled if they do not do so, the company said.

Earlier this month Amazon used its technology to stop devices from interacting with its Super Bowl TV spot, which featured celebrities including Gordon Ramsay, Rebel Wilson and Anthony Hopkins taking over from Alexa when she “loses her voice”.

The word “Alexa” was mentioned 10 times in the commercial, made by the London agency Lucky Generals, but it did not trigger action from devices in viewers’ homes.

The ASA assessed the complaint about the phantom cat food order but did not find it in breach of the UK advertising code.

It is not the first time that Amazon has run into trouble with Alexa taking orders from the TV. Last year an episode of South Park that featured the characters repeatedly yelling commands at cartoon versions of Alexa and rival Google Home wreaked havoc with some viewers’ devices.

Similarly, a TV presenter in San Diego commented on a story about a six-year-old girl who had asked Alexa to order her a dollhouse, which triggered orders for the dollhouse by Alexa on devices owned by viewers.

“The real problem, I think, is that it’s much harder for manufacturers of this kind of device to guard against ads created by a third parties,” said Geraint Lloyd-Taylor, of the law firm Lewis Silkin. “There’s not much Amazon can do to proactively guard against that.”

This article titled "Hey Alexa, is it true a TV advert made Amazon Echo order cat food?" was written by Mark Sweney, for The Guardian on Wednesday 14 February 2018 06.00am


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