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By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

May 24, 2023 | 10 min read

AI-generated videos parodying TV commercials have the internet laughing. But the underlying technology could soon have very real impacts on the marketing industry.

On a slower-than-usual Monday afternoon in April, Jeff decided he was going to make a commercial.

He doesn’t work for an ad agency (he’s a motion graphic designer), nor did he have any kind of experience producing ads. What he did have was access to a collection of AI models that could produce text, voiceovers, images and video – all of the key ingredients he’d need in order to cook up a parody of a TV commercial. There wasn't any kind of pay involved with the project; he just wanted to experiment and possibly make his friends laugh.

Less than three hours later, he was putting the finishing touches on a 30-second video ad for ’Pepperoni Hug Spot,’ a completely fictitious restaurant concocted entirely by AI. Even the title was suggested by ChatGPT.

Straddling the boundary between humor and horror, the video has the appearance of a classic Pizza Hut commercial remixed by Hieronomous Bosch or Rob Zombie. A family of vaguely human figures which look like melting wax dolls, with empty eye sockets and toothless grins, sit around a table piled with plates of stuff dimly resembling food; a delivery driver who moves like Vincent D’Onofrio’s character in the original Men in Black – the guy possessed by a giant cockroach alien – appears to be breaking into someone’s home. “Knock knock, who’s there? Pizza magic,” the AI narrator says in a deep male voice.

The fake ad closes with a slogan that has arguably already become an internet classic: “Pepperoni Hug Spot: It’s like family, but with more cheese.”

AI-generated video: for laughs or for real?

’Pepperoni Hug Spot’ might make you giggle or want to curl up in a ball of fear under a weighted blanket, but it probably doesn’t leave you with the impression that AI-generated video is a technology that’s going to upend the marketing industry anytime soon.

One Twitter user, in a recent post which included another equally bizarre AI-generated commercial for a fake beer company, seemed to poke fun at the idea that anyone in their right minds would sincerely believe that AI might soon displace humans in the workplace:

These videos may be going viral online, but it’s doubtful that any ad agency executives are watching them and thinking: ’That’s it, fire everyone – we need to hand over our creative production keys to AI.’ At present, watching AI try to replicate the tropes of American advertising is a bit like watching a third-grader wear an adult-sized suit and attempt to blend in during a board meeting: it’s entertaining, but no serious adults in the room are actually going to allow that kid to make real decisions that'll affect the company.

On a recent Zoom call, Jeff (which isn’t his real name) told me that when he first saw ’Pepperoni Hug Spot’ being shared on LinkedIn, he was struck by the tone of dismissive levity he noticed cropping up in the comments section. “A lot of the comments I saw there were like, ‘Haha, our jobs are safe,’ and, ‘stupid AI.’” Such responses are understandable: Both Pepperoni Hug Spot and the fake beer ad were obviously created as gags, and much of their humor stems from the fact that everything about the videos is so ungainly and alien.

Beneath the humor, however, lies a legitimate and rapidly improving technology that could soon have major implications for the marketing industry.

“A year ago, Midjourney [an AI model which generates images from text-based prompts] was outputting garbage,” Jeff says. “And now, I could give you a series of images from Midjourney, and I don't think you could tell me which ones are photographs or which ones are AI-created. I don't think video is going to move quite as fast – in a year, we may not have HD video where everything is correct – but I do think we're going to be surprised at how fast this stuff moves.”

Sprinting towards the future

The videos in ’Pepperoni Hug Spot’ were generated by Runway, an AI-powered platform designed specifically for that purpose. Its second and newest iteration, dubbed Gen-2, allows users to create original videos from text-based prompts. Runway's Gen-2 is currently in closed beta and, according to the company’s Discord channel, will soon be accessible to the public.

In a brief explainer video on its website, Runway demonstrates its Gen-2 platform by displaying a variety of brief AI-generated video clips above simple text prompts, like “Apartment interior, sunset,” and “Walking through the jungle.” The clips have a distinctly kaleidoscopic, almost psychedelic quality, and they fall far short of the so-called ’uncanny valley’ – a phrase invoked to describe hypothetical humanoid robots or virtual characters that are almost completely indistinguishable from real people. We’re starting to see some convincingly photorealistic AI-generated images – some recent examples include fake images of Pope Francis wearing a Balenciaga coat and Donald Trump in prison – but it will likely be a while before we can say the same about AI-generated video.

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One of the biggest inherent technical challenges in the burgeoning field of AI-generated video is fluidity – that is, creating a chain of still images that seamlessly merge, manufacturing the illusion of smooth motion.

“Creating coherence across the whole thing is fundamentally a huge challenge, especially because we are so incredibly attuned to even small oddities,” says Alex Persky-Stern, CEO of Waymark, a platform that leverages AI to create short videos ads. “It's hard enough to make one [AI-generated] image that makes sense.”

Still, the progress that’s already been made in this field in a very short amount of time is impressive – and suggestive of things to come. “We’re only at the beginning of a revolution, and there is much room for improvement,” says Runway cofounder and CEO Cristóbal Valenzuela. “Just a few months ago, generating videos with just [text] was not possible. However, with the rapid progress being made, it’s easy to see where we’re headed.”

Where we’re headed, Valenzuela believes, is a world in which a broad swathe of creative tasks (like those required in many marketing roles, for example) are managed by AI.

“It’s evident that a significant shift is currently taking place, with various creatives and companies utilizing AI to generate new content and streamline traditionally tedious and costly editing processes,” he says. “As the demand for content continues to rise across industries, these [AI] tools will become increasingly efficient and [will] further enhance creativity. Ultimately, this will drive down the cost of content to zero, revolutionizing the way we produce and consume creative works. The shift towards AI-assisted content creation is already underway.”

That prognosis is now shared by a growing number of marketers, many of whom have been paying close attention to recent developments in generative AI – notably the rise of ChatGPT and also that of text-to-image models like Dall-E 2 and Midjourney – and have arrived at the conclusion that this technology is well on its way to completely reshaping their industry.

Jeff, who tells me he’s been spending lots of time recently familiarizing himself with new generative AI models - “to learn as much as I possibly can and hopefully add them to my repertoire” – is confused by the lukewarm reactions to these tools he's seen from some marketers.

“I've talked to some agencies in the last couple of weeks,” he says, “a lot of people aren't paying attention to this, and I really don't understand it. It's like a buzzword to them, and they're not interested, or worried or excited.”

I asked him if there was any advice he’d like to offer those agencies who didn't seem to appreciate what he considers to be the huge import of generative AI. “Wake up,” he said. “This is coming, and it's gonna be here really fast.”

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