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Will Super Bowl LVIII be a breakout moment for AI-powered marketing?

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By Webb Wright | NY reporter

February 8, 2024 | 10 min read

AI is definitely going to be spotlighted in ads during Super Bowl LVIII. But for the most part, the technology's role is taking place behind the scenes.

"Field of Fake"

In its Super Bowl LVIII ad, Bodyarmor opposes all things artificial in sports. / Bodyarmor

For more than a year now, artificial intelligence – and especially generative AI – has dominated the discourse within the advertising industry. In both agencies and brands, marketers have been seeking new ways to apply AI throughout the creative process without bumping up against some of the ethical and legal challenges raised by the technology; this has been, to put it mildly, a delicate dance.

How likely is it that AI will play a conspicuous role in advertising during this Sunday’s Super Bowl? Given the fact that it’s been virtually all marketers have been able to talk about since ChatGPT broke on to the scene in November 2022, can we expect AI to be a central theme during some of the gameday ads – whether that be in the form of AI companies themselves airing ads or generative AI being used to create some elements of ads from other brands? The Super Bowl is, after all, one of the biggest events of the year for marketers in the US, with brands jockeying to portray themselves as the most memorable, creative and innovative. Could AI be to Super Bowl LVIII what cryptocurrency was to Super Bowl LVII?

The short answer, according to many marketing experts, is: Yes, AI will probably play an outsized role in advertising during the game this year – but it’s not going to be directly in the spotlight as much as you might expect.

On the one hand, AI-powered products will be directly promoted in a couple of spots during Super Bowl LVIII.

Google has debuted a Super Bowl ad which centers on an AI-powered feature for the Pixel 8 smartphone, called Guided Frame. The 60-second ad features a vision-impaired man going through daily life, courting a lover and eventually becoming a father. The story is told largely through the (much clearer) view of his Pixel 8, which uses Guided Frame to identify faces and tell the man when the subjects of his photo are being captured by the camera. The ad features a short voiceover from Stevie Wonder.

Microsoft, whose recent investments in OpenAI helped it to briefly supplant Apple as the most valuable company in the world last month, has also unveiled a Super Bowl ad focused on AI. Titled “Watch me,” the 60-second spot showcases some practical applications of Copilot – the brand’s AI-powered software that was recently deployed across its Office suite of platforms – which enable a cast of creative professionals to overcome obstacles and inch closer to their dreams. Through Copilot’s chat interface, for example, one of the characters in the spot asks the system to write code for a 3D open-world video game, which it promptly (no pun intented) proceeds to do.

The only non-tech brand that appears to be featuring AI in its Super Bowl marketing efforts this year is sports drink brand Bodyarmor, which has debuted a regional Super Bowl ad incorporating unsettling and apparently fully AI-generated visuals, along with an AI-generated script.

This portion of the ad – which Bodyarmor included in order to mock the very notion of artificiality itself – looks like some kind of fever dream: we see a sweaty, dead-eyed football player whose head has become fused to a sports drink bottle, another who's on some kind of mid-field roller coaster ride with a screaming Orca whale-hammerhead shark hybrid, and a third – with a mouth for eyes – who's standing victoriously before a large cake and holding a trophy that’s been molded into the shape of a pig’s head. It makes absolutely no sense, and that’s the point. The ad then cuts from the AI-generated nightmare to flesh-and-blood athletes: “Bodyarmor knows nothing in sports should be artificial,” a (human) narrator says.

For the most part, however, the role of AI in gameday ads this Sunday will likely be taking place behind the proverbial curtain.

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According to Forrester principal analyst Jay Pattisall, AI has likely been applied more subtly in the creative process behind some of the ads that will air during the game this Sunday: “Super Bowl viewers will witness AI-generated advertising during the game – they just won’t know it,” he says. “It’s likely [that] AI will be used in the production process in the form of virtually rendering products or scenery using 3D processors or game engines … But the technology is not ready for the Big Game when it comes to conceptualizing the advertising idea.”

In other words, human beings are – at least for the time being – still doing the brunt of the creative legwork, while AI is being confined to minor digital touch-ups.

While generative AI is unlikely to have an outsized presence during gameday marketing this year, other experts echo Pattisall’s point that it could have been used in other, less direct ways. For example, ChatGPT – while it’s probably not being used by any major agencies to concoct the entirety of an idea for a Super Bowl ad – might’ve been used to offer some creative hints, which could then be picked up and elaborated upon by human marketers. “We won’t see ads created by gen AI fighting for the top spot [during the Super Bowl],” says VML’s global chief creative officer of innovation Bas Korsten, but “maybe a few front-runners will have used gen AI tools to inspire their work – which is exactly what it should be used for to enhance human creativity, not to replace it.”

In addition to being used (directly and indirectly) to inform the creative process, some brands and agencies are also likely to leverage AI during the Super Bowl this year for what Matthew Dunn, Havas Media Network’s senior vice-president of strategy and innovation, calls “insights generation”: that is, analyzing vast amounts of audience data gathered during and after the game to glean new insights about a campaign’s effectiveness, which in turn can inform future strategies. “Marketers have many variables to consider in how, when and where they can best reach their audience to create a meaningful media experience, particularly during a time where there are many brands shouting for attention,” Dunn says. “AI can help marketers sift through the data and find the moments and messages that matter to their audience.”

Aside from the Bodyarmor ad – which is, after all, poking fun at the currently limited capabilities of AI-generated video – many brands that may have been tempted to use generative AI in their Super Bowl marketing schemes could have thought twice after considering the fraught legal waters in which the technology is currently embroiled.

Scores of authors, actors and other artists have taken action – some of them in the form of filing lawsuits – against what they regard as the nonconsensual use of their intellectual property in the training of generative AI models, whether those are text-to-text models like GPT-4 or text-to-image models like Midjourney. The New York Times, for example, sued OpenAI and Microsoft in December for copyright infringement, claiming that the plaintiffs illegally used the publication’s materials to train OpenAI’s large language model.

Given the state of these morally complex and ongoing legal battles, many marketers are, for the time being, probably reluctant to incorporate AI-generated images or text into ad campaigns. As TBWA/Chiat/Day LA creative director Bert Marissen puts it: “There are still many legal challenges for brands to widely adopt generative AI in high-profile spots.”

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