By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

April 24, 2024 | 7 min read

The private sector has been awash with fervent enthusiasm towards generative AI. But now, a small number of brand leaders are beginning to adopt a different posture, highlighting the potential harm of technology more than its immediate commercial value.

Nearly 17 months since the release of ChatGPT sent a shockwave across the world, generative AI remains the most vibrant tech obsession among marketers. Legions of brands – even those in the food and drink companies that ostensibly have nothing to do with emerging tech – have recently launched some kind of AI-powered advertising effort.

Many have speculated that the current generative AI hype will inevitably collapse, comparing it to the bursting of the dotcom bubble in the early aughts and to the short-lived cultural obsession with the metaverse just a couple of years ago. But so far corporate interest and investments in generative AI seem to only be climbing, with no end in sight (barring the introduction of some sweeping government regulation around the technology).

We are, however, beginning to see some early signs that perceptions toward generative AI among some marketing teams are beginning to shift. Slowly but surely, some brands are beginning to focus more on the dangers of the technology (its propensity for hallucination and bias, for example) rather than on its benefits (such as its ability to create an image of a cat in an astronaut’s suit standing behind a can of Coca-Cola).

To be sure, none of these brands – as far as we’re aware – are fully throwing the AI baby out with the bathwater. No marketing team has released a public statement pledging to never use the technology in any capacity; such a move would almost certainly be a professional death sentence: AI, warts and all, is here to stay, and any marketer that hasn’t been living at the bottom of the sea since late 2022 understands this.

But in contrast to the basically undifferentiated chorus of AI enthusiasm that’s held sway among brands over the past year or so, a small number of voices are now starting to chime up to say, Hmm, maybe this tech isn’t all it’s been chalked up to be – and maybe we, as a brand, have a responsibility to exercise restraint. As VML chief innovation officer Brian Yamada recently put it to The Drum while describing his views on the use of AI within marketing: "just because you can do something does not necessarily mean you should."

Brands that are oriented around a “natural” ethos, for example, might be more inclined to take a stand against the use of AI. Earlier this year, for example, Tropicana pulled a marketing stunt during the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas by distributing bottles of orange juice labeled “Tropcn” – the company’s name minus the “A” and the “I” – a cheeky way of making the point that “there’s no place for artificial in orange juice,” as Julia Low, head of integrated marketing communications at Tropicana, told The Drum.

Dove provides another illustrative example of this natural-versus-artificial dichotomy. Earlier this month, the beauty brand marked the 20th anniversary of its Real Beauty campaign with a pledge that it would never use generative AI to represent women in ads. (Cryptocurrency exchange company Binance recently did precisely that in a bizarre campaign aimed at attracting more women to the crypto industry.)

“We believe we have a responsibility to make sure that representation is happening in a way that is real, in both the real and the virtual worlds,” Firdaous El Honsali, vice-president of Dove masterbrand global and North America, told The Drum in an interview.

“We’re not going to use AI to represent women. Our content will keep the beauty real [and] free of any digital distortion … and stay very far away from unrealistic beauty standards of any kind because we know the impact it has on women. (As part of the campaign, the brand also conducted a survey which found that one in three female participants felt pressure to alter their physical appearance as a result of the content that they were exposed to online – regardless of whether they knew that content to be authentic or AI-generated.)

Last year, Dove launched a similar campaign against the use of the Bold Glamour filter on TikTok, which some believe promotes unrealistic standards of beauty, particularly among women and girls.

Honsali emphasizes, however, that Dove is by no means against the use of AI as such: “Today we have an incredible opportunity to harness AI as a tool for positivity and creativity,” she says. Rather, her team is concerned with using the technology in a manner that directly and positively impacts their audience. To that end, Dove accompanied its pledge against the use of generative AI to represent women in ads with a set of guidelines instructing users of generative AI on how to prompt the models to create images that are more diverse and inclusive. The company also released a short film on YouTube that shows a woman of color prompting a generative AI model to generate images of, for example, “the most beautiful woman in the world,” and being met with a slew of portrayals of white, blue-eyed women.

It should be noted that a recent debacle from Google, in which its Gemini model was found to have a tendency to represent ethnic diversity even at the expense of historical accuracy, highlights the dangers of this approach being taken to extremes.

The new campaign “not only reaffirms Dove’s brand identity but also resonates with consumers increasingly concerned about the societal implications of AI,” says Sam Yates, chief solutions officer at AI Studios, part of marketing agency Jellyfish.

Inqwire, a public benefit corporation concerned with using technology to enhance “human natural intelligence,” provides another illustrative example. The company prominently describes itself on the homepage of its website as being “100% LLM-Free“ – an exceedingly rare statement in a corporate landscape that’s come to believe that the energetic adoption and deployment of AI is essential for any brand’s survival.

100% LLM free

Inqwire founder Jill Nephew believes that AI, at least as it’s currently being developed, is polluting our minds with junk information and preventing us from reaching our full potential – both as individuals and as a society. “The principles behind the way these [AI systems] are built are not on track to help us,” she says. “When we consume the outputs of the AI, it’s like eating plastic or something that’s just not at all designed for consumption.”

But like Honsali, Nephew (who has a background in software engineering) doesn’t advocate for the complete abandonment of AI. Her company’s commitment against the use of LLMs is, she believes, reflective of a broader attitude-shift towards AI that will eventually spread throughout society at large.

“We’re making a really important distinction in the market that we think will matter, [even] if it doesn’t matter now,” she says. “With these technologies, you have the initial Wow factor, hype and adoption, and then the slow seeping in of the realization of [its] shortcomings … Once the Wow factor is gone, people are likely going to be open to what’s next.”

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