The advertising industry is in a love-hate relationship with artificial intelligence.
In the past few months, the 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 set a fashion shoot on an alien planet and helped Denmark’s tourism bureau animate famous tourist sites. Heinz turned to it to generate recognizable images of its ketchup bottle, then paired them with the symphonic theme that charts human evolution in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
A.I., however, has also plunged the marketing world into a crisis. Much has been made about the technology’s potential to limit the need for human workers in fields such as law and financial services. Advertising, already racked by inflation and other economic pressures as well as a talent drain due to layoffs and increased automation, is especially at risk of an overhaul-by-A.I., marketing executives said.
The conflicting attitudes suffused a co-working space in downtown San Francisco where more than 200 people gathered last week for an “A.I. for marketers” event. Copywriters expressed worry and skepticism about chatbots capable of writing ad campaigns, while start-up founders pitched A.I. tools for automating the creative process.
“It really doesn’t matter if you are fearful or not: The tools are here, so what do we do?” said Jackson Beaman, whose AI User Group organized the event. “We could stand here and not do anything, or we can learn how to apply them.”
Machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence that uses data and algorithms to imitate how humans learn, has quietly powered advertising for years. Madison Avenue has used it to target specific audiences, sell and buy ad space, offer user support, create logos and streamline its operations. (One ad agency has a specialized A.I. tool called the Big Lebotski to help clients compose ad copy and boost their profile on search engines).
Enthusiasm came gradually. In 2017, when the advertising group Publicis introduced Marcel, an A.I. business assistant, its peers responded with what it described as “outrage, jest and negativity.”
At last month’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, the glittering apex of the advertising industry calendar, Publicis got its “I told you so” moment. Around the festival, where the agenda was stuffed with panels about A.I.’s being “unleashed” and affecting the “future of creativity,” the company plastered artificially generated posters that mocked the original reactions to Marcel.
“Is it OK to talk about A.I. at Cannes now?” the ads joked.
The answer is clear. The industry has wanted to discuss little else since late last year, when OpenAI released its ChatGPT chatbot and set off a global arms race around generative artificial intelligence.
McDonald’s asked the chatbot to name the most iconic burger in the world and splashed the answer — the Big Mac — across videos and billboards, drawing A.I.-generated retorts from fast food rivals. Coca-Cola recruited digital artists to generate 120,000 riffs on its brand imagery, including its curved bottle and swoopy logo, using an A.I. platform built in part by OpenAI.
The surge of A.I. experimentation has brought to the fore a host of legal and logistical challenges, including the need to protect reputations and avoid misleading consumers.
A recent campaign from Virgin Voyages allowed users to prompt a digital avatar of Jennifer Lopez to issue customized video invitations to a cruise, including the names of potential guests. But, to prevent Ms. Lopez from appearing to use inappropriate language, the avatar could say only names from a preapproved list and otherwise defaulted to 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 very much humans in the loop throughout,” said Brian Yamada, the chief innovation officer of VMLY&R, the agency that produced the campaign for Virgin.
Elaborate interactive campaigns like Virgin’s make up a minority of advertising; 30-second video clips and captioned images, often with variations lightly adjusted for different demographics, are much more common. In recent months, several large tech companies, including Meta, Google and Adobe, have announced artificial intelligence tools to handle that sort of work.
Major advertising companies say the technology could streamline a bloated business model. The ad group WPP is working with the chip maker Nvidia on an A.I. platform that could, for example, allow car companies to easily incorporate footage of a vehicle into scenes customized for local markets without laboriously filming different commercials around the world.
To many of the people who work on such commercials, A.I.’s advance feels like looming obsolescence, especially in the face 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 was likely to influence at least half of all advertising revenue by the end of 2023.
“There’s little doubt that the future of creativity and A.I. will be increasingly intertwined,” said Philippe Krakowsky, the chief executive of the Interpublic Group of Companies, an ad giant.
IPG, which was hiring chief A.I. 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 diligence and discipline, and collaborate across industries, to mitigate bias, misinformation and security risk in order for the pace of advancement to be sustained,” Mr. Krakowsky added.
A.I.’s ability to copy and deceive, which has already found widespread public expression in political marketing from Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida and others, has alarmed many advertising executives. They are also concerned about intellectual property issues and the direction and speed of A.I. development. Several ad agencies joined organizations such as the Coalition for Content Provenance and Authenticity, which wants to trace content from its origins, and the Partnership on AI, which aims to keep the technology ethically sound.
Amid the doom and gloom, the agency Wunderman Thompson decided this spring to take A.I. down a peg.
In an Australian campaign for Kit Kat candy bars, the agency used text and image generators from OpenAI to create intentionally awkward ads with the tagline “AI made this ad so we could have a break.” In one, warped figures chomped on blurry chocolate bars over a script narrated in a mechanical monotone: “Someone hands them a Kit Kat bar. They take a bite.”
The campaign would be trickier to pull off now, in part because the fast-improving technology has erased many of the flaws present just a few months ago, said Annabelle Barnum, the general manager for Wunderman Thompson in Australia. Still, she said, humans will always be key to the advertising process.
“Creativity comes from real human insight — A.I. is always going to struggle with that because it relies purely on data to make decisions,” she said. “So while it can enhance the process, ultimately it will never be able to take away anything that creators can really do because that humanistic element is required.”