Why artificial intelligence will not create more engaging ads

Wunderman London's creative director is sceptical that AI technology will create better engagement with consumers. After all, it's comedy, rather than telepathy, that connects with people.

This ad by M&C Saatchi was claimed to be the first artificially intelligent poster
This ad by M&C Saatchi was claimed to be the first artificially intelligent poster

The launch of a poster site that reads people’s engagement and emotion and then responds accordingly by changing the creative work (or eliminating it completely) marks a progress, of sorts.

But just how clever an innovation it will become, or how widespread it will become in the future, is down to opinion.

While few doubt that using an algorithm that tests executions based on features such as copy, layout, font and image linked to a camera that measures people’s response is a clever – if logical – response to the mantra of using technology to help provide the appropriate creative solution, there is something here that lacks soul.

The best ads have always surprised us rather than confirmed or conformed to our own prejudices or preferences.

Seeing artificial intelligence technology in poster sites react to your thoughts is, at first glance, certainly surprising but once the novelty has worn off will anyone pay attention?

Or will the passer-by conclude that the technology is intrusive and creepy, reminiscent of the sort of unwelcome determinism outlined in the film Minority Report?

In an age where consumers are more aware of the value of their data, it’s not inconceivable that this could prompt some sort of backlash against the advertiser using the AI tech.

Equally, the way that certain executions are simply eliminated seems to suggest that this would be a race to the bottom, with only the blandest and least challenging executions that appeal to the widest demographic possible surviving the cull.

But most fundamentally I think that AI poster ads won’t engage consumers deeply. We already have advertising that appeals to our emotions – the launch of John Lewis’ Christmas ad campaign has almost become a national event (it’s certainly an industry one), and it has spawned countless competitors.

The fact that the original John Lewis ads weren’t created through the use of algorithm but rather the power of the human imagination and empathy is revealing. 

Technology that appears to read our minds will never have wide appeal – it’s comedy rather than telepathy that is better at connecting with people.

The best books, shows and films are written by people, not algorithms, and we respond to them emotionally because they’re true, because they’re crafted to strike a chord with us rather than because they reflect our emotional state at the time. And the same is true of the most effective advertising.

While some have said that applying technology in such a way is tantamount to the death of creativity, I’m not sure that I’d agree.

That said, there’s something a bit demoralising and dehumanising to see a headline generated by an algorithm that reads something like "wake up now to your extra roasty roasty flavour time".

Personally I prefer the philosophy espoused by Bill Bernbach who pointed out: "You’ve got to say it in such a way that people will feel it in their gut. Because if they don’t feel it, nothing will happen."

Nigel Webb is a creative director at Wunderman London. 


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