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By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

August 15, 2023 | 7 min read

The video spot features a virtual simulation of legendary Brazilian singer Elis Regina, who died more than 40 years ago.

An ad for Volkswagen that launched in Brazil last month has been rekindling debate about the use of deepfake technology within the marketing industry.

Created by São Paulo-based agency AlmapBBDO in observance of VW’s 70th anniversary, the ad features a song performed by an unlikely duo: Grammy Latino-winner Maria Rita and her mother, the legendary Brazilian vocalist Elis Regina who died in 1982 when Rita was four years old.

The two-minute video spot opens with a shot of Rita, now aged 45, driving alone in a modern VW van down a long stretch of desert highway singing the opening lines to Como Nossos Pais (Like Our Parents), a song her mother released in 1976. We then see a montage of grainy and hazy clips that are obviously meant to elicit feelings of nostalgia and familial warmth: an old VW Beetle driving down a beach and waving at the camera, a woman breastfeeding her baby and so on.

Cutting back to the desert, a classic VW van suddenly emerges from behind Rita’s car and pulls alongside her in the opposite lane. Sitting in the driver’s seat is a virtual rendering of Regina, who continues to croon out the lyrics to her hit song where her daughter left off.

“We believed that giving people a chance to witness the scene would touch their hearts and strengthen their emotional connection to [Volkswagen] in the process,” says Rodrigo Almeida, executive creative director at AlmapBBDO.

The AI-generated deepfake of Regina, while certainly lifelike, is also slightly unsettling; her eyes never seem to focus completely on any particular object, and her features continually shift into different emotional complexions in a manner that is obviously not entirely human. She’s in the Uncanny Valley, that perceptual zone in which an artificial simulation of a human being looks similar enough to the real thing to be at least momentarily convincing but dissimilar enough to be disturbing.

In a process known as performance capture, AlmapBBDO fed a huge amount of images and videos of Regina to an AI model, which was trained to track and simulate her unique facial features and movements. The agency then painstakingly adjusted the color and lighting of each frame produced by the model to maximize the photorealism of the finished product.

The ad, which was generally well-received in Brazil, has nonetheless raised questions about the morality of using AI to simulate the image and likeness of a deceased person. Following the video's release, Brazilian marketing watchdog Conar launched an investigation to determine whether or not the Regina deepfake constituted an ethical breach. And some, as The Guardian pointed out, have criticized the VW ad in light of the brand’s collaboration with the military dictatorship that governed Brazil from 1964 to 1985, of which Regina was reportedly an outspoken critic.

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When asked how AlmapBBDO planned to mitigate potential ethical fallout at the beginning of the ad’s production, Almeida said the team started by approaching Regina’s children. “Even before presenting the idea to Volkswagen, we spoke to the people with the biggest stake in protecting Elis Regina’s image: Maria Rita and her brothers, João Marcelo and Pedro,” he says. “We had to be sure they found it a good idea and thought the concept made sense.”

According to Almeida, all three gave their blessing “and were immediately moved by the prospect, especially because it meant a dream come true for Maria Rita. Their initial reaction to the idea was very positive. But nothing could compare to what happened when they saw the final product. It was truly moving to watch Maria Rita seeing herself duetting with her mother. Nobody who witnessed that moment will ever forget it.”

AlmapBBDO also aimed to create an authentic and truthful portrayal of Regina. “We were careful to never put words in [her] mouth,” Almeida says. “In the film, she’s singing one of her biggest hits and we used her original voice, with no adjustments whatsoever.” True, she never makes any explicit statements in the ad beyond the lyrics of her song. But could her portrayal in a VW ad be construed as an implicit statement endorsing the brand? That’s a question that’s up for debate.

Almeida is content with the ad’s turnout – criticisms and all. “We believe that the discussion it has sparked about the use of AI has been quite positive,” he says. “This is a new technology and that’s naturally alarming because, as a society, we haven’t decided where to draw the lines around its use … We’re pleased that it raised important talking points and we believe that all the opinions about the film, even the negative ones, are legitimate and have to be taken into consideration.”

And while he acknowledges that AI can be misused “to sow confusion and misunderstandings,” thus presenting serious social risks, Almeida also says that in the case of the VW 70th anniversary ad, the ends justify the means. “We were careful to make it clear that it was a tribute [and] in no way trying to mislead the public. Brazilians are well aware that Elis hasn’t been among us for over 40 years and even critics understood that the goal of the campaign was to provide an emotional moment for the country by using technology to bring about a reunion that would never have been possible otherwise.”

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