The advertising industry has a love-hate relationship with artificial intelligence.
In recent months, technology has made ads easier to generate and track. It is writing marketing emails with subject lines and delivery times tailored to specific subscribers. It gave an optician the means to stage a fashion shoot on an alien planet and helped the Danish tourist board animate famous tourist sites. Heinz turned to it to generate recognizable images of his ketchup bottle, then paired them with the symphonic theme charting human evolution in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
However, AI has also plunged the marketing world into crisis. There has been much debate about the technology’s potential to reduce the need for human workers in fields such as law and financial services. Advertisements, already plagued by inflation and other economic pressures, as well as a loss of talent due to layoffs and increased automation, are especially at risk of being overhauled by AI, marketing executives said.
The conflicting views flooded a co-working space in downtown San Francisco where more than 200 people gathered for an “AI for marketers” event last week. Copywriters were concerned and skeptical about chatbots being able to write ad campaigns, while startup founders showcased AI tools to automate the creative process.
“It really doesn’t matter if you’re scared or not: the tools are there, so what do we do?” said Jackson Beaman, whose AI User Group organized the event. “We could stand here and do nothing, or we could learn how to apply them.”
Machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence that uses data and algorithms to imitate how humans learn, has quietly driven advertising for years. Madison Avenue has used it to target specific audiences, sell and buy advertising space, provide user support, create logos, and streamline operations. (One ad agency has a specialized AI tool called the Great Lebotsky to help customers compose advertising texts and strengthen their profile on search engines).
The enthusiasm came gradually. In 2017, when the advertising group Publicis introduced Marcel, an AI business assistant, his peers responded with what it described as “outrage, banter and negativity.”
At last month’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the glittering pinnacle of the advertising industry’s calendar, Publicis experienced its “I told you so” moment. Around the festival, where the agenda was filled with panels about AIs being ‘unleashed’ and affecting the ‘future of creativity’, the company pasted artificially generated posters that mocked the original reactions to Marcel.
“Is it okay to talk about AI in Cannes now?” joked the ads.
The answer is clear. The industry has wanted to discuss little else since late last year, when OpenAI released its ChatGPT chatbot and sparked a global arms race around generative artificial intelligence.
McDonald’s asked the chatbot to name the world’s most iconic burger and spread the answer – the Big Mac – across videos and billboards, drawing AI-generated responses from fast food rivals. Coca-Cola recruited digital artists to generate 120,000 riffs on its brand image, including the curved bottle and swoopy logo, using an AI platform built in part by OpenAI.
The wave of AI experimentation has brought forth a host of legal and logistical challenges, including the need to protect reputations and avoid misleading consumers.
A recent Virgin Voyages campaign allowed users to ask a digital avatar of Jennifer Lopez to send custom video cruise invitations, including the names of potential guests. But to prevent Ms. Lopez from appearing to use inappropriate language, the avatar could only say names from a pre-approved list and otherwise use standard terms like “friend” and “sailor.”
“It’s still in the early stages – there were challenges to get the models right, to get the look right, to get the sound right – and there are a lot of people in the loop,” said Brian Yamada, the chief innovation officer of VMLY&R, the agency that produced the campaign for Virgin.
Extensive interactive campaigns like Virgin’s make up a minority of ads; 30-second video clips and captioned images, often with slightly modified variations for different demographics, are much more common. In recent months, several major tech companies, including Meta, Google, and Adobe, have announced artificial intelligence tools to handle that kind of work.
Big advertising agencies say the technology could streamline a bloated business model. The ad group WPP is working with the chipmaker Nvidia on an AI platform that would allow car companies, for example, to easily include footage of a vehicle in scenes adapted for local markets, without the hassle of filming various commercials around the world.
For many of the people working on such commercials, the rise of AI feels like imminent obsolescence, especially in light of several years of slowing growth and a shift in advertising budgets from television and other legacy media to programmatic ads and social platforms. The media agency GroupM predicted last month that artificial intelligence will likely influence at least half of all ad revenue by the end of 2023.
“There is little doubt that the future of creativity and AI will be increasingly intertwined,” said Philippe Krakowsky, the CEO of the Interpublic Group of Companies, an advertising giant.
IPG, which hired Chief AI officers and similar executives years before ChatGPT’s debut, now hopes to use the technology to deliver highly personalized experiences.
“That said, we need to apply a very high level of commitment and discipline, and work together across industries, to reduce bias, misinformation and security risks to maintain the pace of progress,” added Mr. Krakowsky.
AI’s ability to copy and mislead, which has already found widespread public expression in political marketing from the likes of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has alarmed many ad agencies. They are also concerned about intellectual property issues and the direction and speed of AI development. Several ad agencies joined organizations such as the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity, which aims to trace the origin of content, and the Partnership on AI, which aims to keep the technology ethical.
Amidst the doom and gloom, the Wunderman Thompson agency decided this spring to push AI up a notch.
In an Australian campaign for Kit Kat candy bars, the agency used OpenAI text and image generators to create deliberately clunky ads with the tagline “AI made this ad so we can get away from it all.” In one, warped figures chewed on blurry chocolate bars over a script told in a mechanical monotone: “Someone give them a Kit Kat bar. They take a bite.”
The campaign would now be more difficult to get off the ground, in part because rapidly improving technology has erased many of the flaws that were present just a few months ago, said Annabelle Barnum, the managing director of Wunderman Thompson in Australia. Still, she said, people will always be key to the advertising process.
“Creativity comes from real human insight – AI will always struggle with that because it relies purely on data to make decisions,” she said. “So while it may improve the process, ultimately it will never be able to take away anything that creators can really do, because that humanistic element is required.”