Written by AdTonos SVP of Commercial, Paul Smith

Every company wants to be a trailblazer. And what better way to prove your innovation than using the latest developments in AI creatively?

As AI technology progresses and its uses become not only more sophisticated and complex, but also more mainstream, more and more brands are looking to experiment to prove how innovative and exciting they are. However, Capitol Records’ recent PR fiasco over AI rapper FN Meka demonstrates there are many ways this can go wrong, sometimes leaving a brand’s reputation left in tatters.

Of course, this doesn’t mean there haven’t been successes in the AI sphere: indeed, there are a number of positive collaborations and initiatives that have proved beneficial for society, which by extension elevated the profile of the brands that pioneered them.

When we think about when, why, and how brands either succeeded or failed, it often has to do with ethics – so let’s explore.

Giving life to old and new: the Frankenstein effect 

In the case of FN Meka, it’s very clear how the project was condemned as offensive and distasteful: the AI-generated artist perpetuated racist stereotypes by using the N-word in its songs and was also portrayed being beaten by a police officer.

Black activist group Industry Blackout denounced the venture for depicting “gross stereotypes” while feeding off “appropriative mannerisms”. The fact that neither Anthony Martini and Brandon Le, co-founders of Factory New, the company behind the 3D animated character, are Black added further insult to injury.

This isn’t the first (controversial) time AI and machine learning was used in the realm of culture. But whereas in the case of FN Meka, AI helped create someone or something ‘new’, most often AI was employed to recreate, or rather revive, someone who has passed: a documentary about the chef Anthony Bourdain included a synthetic rendering of his voice, while Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia were both brought back to the screen as deepfakes.

Beyond the realm of music and film, Amazon was criticised for pushing a voice assistance feature that replicated the voices of dead loved ones, an endeavour that is not the only one of its kind. As I mentioned when I first discussed Alexa’s most recent feature: a voice assistant that can imitate/ reproduce a specific human voice, audience and critic reactions varied from unease and disgust to amazement. In general, these experiments received far from a positive reception. To quote Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

Creating with compassion

The use of video and audio deepfakes is contentious, to say the least. Even when wielded artistically and tastefully, this is a technology that inspires caution. Furthermore, even those who want to wield AI in a progressive way will fall short if leaders, creatives, and developers do so without considering how algorithms reinforce bias and inequality. Indeed it’s likely the project will not only backfire, but further contribute harm to minority communities.

But this does not mean that all brands should categorically refuse to explore the opportunities of AI, voice assistance technology, and machine learning. Instead, what we can learn from previous failures is to incorporate diversity, inclusivity, and compassion into our businesses, and keep these values front and centre when building our staff, our structures, and therefore, our goals.

There are very positive and inspiring projects out there that we should aspire to. These include Project Understood, Gold winner of the 2022 Creative Effectiveness Lions, which made voice technology more accessible to the Down syndrome community. Voice commands and handsfree options can also make life easier for those that need it, while artistically crafted immersive transcription technology can support – and excite – those with learning disabilities. In short, smart technology can make everyday tasks easy for those with accessibility challenges.

Exploring the unknown

When it comes to brands and agencies, many are looking for new ways to engage audiences, or create something new and exciting. In an audio environment, sound and voice hold a lot of power, but as we saw with the deepfakes and Amazon’s ‘dead voice’ feature, it’s also something that gets under the skin in the wrong way. Using AI can build more immersive experiences through channelling our senses, but it needs to be handled with caution.

When it comes to experimenting with these new and ever-growing technologies at our fingertips, it is worth asking yourself a few questions before you get started. These apply to campaign strategies as well as product development:

  • Are you working with a diversity of viewpoints?
  • Is your message or your product helpful to a variety of communities?
  • Are you using AI technology just for the sake of it, or does it add quality and meaning to your process?
  • How does this contribute to the product or message?
  • How does this serve my audience?

More often than not, it isn’t the technology that is problematic, but those that build and guide how it is used.