By Imogen Watson, Senior reporter

October 6, 2020 | 9 min read

With the clock ticking and one candidate presently incapacitated with Covid-19, it’s nigh on impossible to escape news of the upcoming US presidential elections. Considering what’s at stake if this election is as dirty as anticipated, anti-corruption organization RepresentUS has deployed ‘deepfake dictators’ to ensure its strictly nonpartisan message cuts through the election noise with a poignant message about the fragility of democracy.

The US presidential elections are almost upon us and all signs point to it being a dirty affair. Already deemed “the most corrupt election in history“ by the president himself, uncertainty over voter suppression, a biased Supreme Court and the potential of foreign interference are among a long list of voter concerns.

Anti-corruption by design, the mission of non-profit organization RepresentUS is to tackle government misconduct. “When we set out in 2012, there was no standout organization fighting for democracy, so we figured it needed to exist,” says co-founder Joshua Graham Lynn. ”From the beginning, it’s been all about bringing conservatives and progressives together to fix the broken political system.”

Lynn says RepresentUS’s style is to be loud and upfront in its drive to make boring issues sexy and palpable in the American mind. During Trump’s presidency alone, it has won more than 120 transformative anti-corruption campaigns that have helped to fix broken elections, to fight against gerrymandering, stop political bribery and end secret money.

Sensing democracy is currently under attack, RepresentUS felt the need to deliver a harrowing reminder ahead of next months elections of how easily a republic can collapse, before pointing viewers in the direction of ’six steps to save the vote’.

Wishing to create equivalent noise to the Sandy Hook Promise’s hard-hitting ’Back to School Essentials’, Lynn approached Dini von Mueffling, whose comms agency had worked on that BBDO campaign, who connected him with the creatives behind it.

Now at Mischief @ No Fixed Address, the executive creative director Kevin Mulroy says they were tasked with coming up with something that would both really resonate and remain nonpartisan, figuring out how to talk about American politics in a way that was not divisive. “It’s not easy to do right now,” admits Mulroy. “Anything you say can be turned, in some way or other, into some partisan ideology."

Mulroy’s co-executive creative director, Biana Guimaraes, says: “The campaign was concept-led. We had to create an ad that appealed to every American, so we thought: ’What is something that we can all agree on?’ Well, we all want democracy. And the fact it is in our hands to keep it means that, if we don’t act, our democracy is in jeopardy.“

And so they started thinking beyond the US, from the outside looking in. “That got us thinking about the idea of dictators who have a vested interest in collapsed democracies,“ says Mulroy. “It’s a chilling thought when you think all they need to do is sit back and let us do it to ourselves.“

And so North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin became the medium for RepresentUS’s critical message. “Through the voices of the dictators, we wanted to illustrate how fragile democracy is by showing we’re not that far from becoming them, so we turned to deepfake as a technique to bring that idea to life,“ says Guimaraes.

From script to finished product, the creative process took 10 days to complete. Lynn explains that getting the script right was crucial to ensuring the message was exactly right. “It was a highly collaborative process. It’s easy to start talking about politics, but people either get frustrated and polarized, or they totally glaze over.“

He explains that the team spun the script over and over to make sure it struck the balance of speaking to people where they are and telling them what’s really going on. Adding to this, von Mueffling says: “It was important to make sure people don’t immediately drone out at what the dictators are saying because it sounds too political. But you also don’t want it to be overly inflated either and fall into the category of satirical, which is therefore not believable. It was a lot of literally going over every single word.“

When it came to recording the script, von Mueffling points out that the task at hand was all the harder as Jong-un rarely speaks in public: “So we had to do a lot of imagining there.“

“There’s a lot that went into getting it to look as good as it does,“ says Mulroy. “When you do just the standard deepfake, most people can tell right away. So it was a blend of a traditional shoot, mixed deepfake and post-production visual effects.“

He explains that it was the first time deepfake was adopted at the audition process, whereby around a dozen actors were given AI ’makeup’ before selections to see who would best fit the deepfake from an appearance and features point of view.

“We worked really closely with deepfake artists at Playtime Media to make sure that the people we cast had similar face shapes, hairlines and necklines. Those are the hardest things to duplicate. We then shot them with the script against the green screen and added tracking dots, before handing over to the deepfake artists who ran it through the machine to ’bake’ it several times.“

With the critical message now at hand, RepresentUS needed to get the word out. “We’re a nonprofit, so we don’t have a Coca-Cola style advertising budget where we can create whatever message we want and make sure 100 million people see it,“ says Lynn. “That’s just not how it works in the nonprofit world, because we have a fiduciary responsibility to our donors to put the money towards the work.“

To amplify the message, Mischief devised a tight media strategy that covered social and TV, with media buys for CNN, Fox News and MSNBC for the Washington DC area.

Originally billed as the first time deepfake technology was to be used for a major US TV broadcast in the political space, ’Dictators’ was due to go live after last Tuesday’s ’chaotic’ presidential debate.

However, the team was met with disappointment a mere day before it was scheduled to go live when it was landed with a TV ban. “We still don’t have a reason for why the ads were turned down,“ says Mulroy.

From the point that ’deepfake’ began floating around in 2017, the concept has been met by an equal measure of praise and scepticism, marred by its ability to falsely claim someone’s identity. “Even though we used deepfake, we never meant to trick people or for them to go off at the end and be like: ’was that real?’“ says Guimaraes. “We had a big disclaimer that at the end that says: ’this footage isn’t real, but the threat to democracy is.’“

Lynn says: “We’re actually looking into where we still might be able to run it on TV, finding out exactly what the issues are. Maybe it needs more of a disclaimer, or to run one at the front end.

“Watching the debate was such an interesting moment for so many of us and it was frustrating that the strategy of having this ad run right after didn’t come off, as I think people would have been so raw and emotionally open to the message that it tells us it was the correct marketing strategy. The debate was indicative of all the things we’re talking about in these ads, and it just felt exactly on message. So we’re looking into it.“

Despite the last-minute TV set back and social media limitations set for political advertising, the campaign managed to organically go viral, racking up hundreds of thousands of views. The team feel this is down to its strong, smart message, which has been shared by a number of high-profile celebrities, including Amy Schumer.

Lynn says that the three days following the campaign launch last week were the highest traffic days on the RepresentUS website all year, despite these hurdles. “It says a lot about the effectiveness of the message and the virality of it.“

With time ticking closer to election day, he says the next step (beyond getting the ads on TV) is to optimize the website so the traffic coming in gets higher conversion rates. “In terms of the bigger picture, over the next days until the election, we need to get the American people really fired up about making sure their votes are counted, that the rules are followed. Not some loose bent interpretation of the rules, but that the winner of the presidential election is chosen based on an honest vote count, with high integrity.

“And that’s what this campaign is really poised to bring attention to. And so we need to convert that intention into action.“

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