Lexus' new AI-written TV ad, and the rise of emotionally manipulative algorithms
Using a script written by IBM's Watson supercomputer, trained with a long list of award-winning luxury brand commercials and human emotional response data, Lexus has shot a TV ad digitally designed to make you feel things. Does it work? Well, kind of.
How it was done
The supercomputer was given 15 years' worth of TV ads that won Cannes Lions International awards for creativity. To keep things from getting too formulaic, in addition to car ads the team threw in advertisements from across the luxury spectrum. Visual deep learning algorithms collected information on objects, locations, actions and "emotionality," building a catalog of types of shots to work with.
They also fed it with emotional response information, based on data from MindX, the applied science division of Australia's University of New South Wales. A custom-designed experiment put a group of people through the dreary task of watching a number of car adverts, and tracked what they felt at each moment, giving extra weight to the responses of individuals identified as "intuitive," meaning that they were more reactive to emotional cues when it comes to decision making. These individuals were tracked across a range of stimuli to see which types of imagery, situations, sounds and even voices they respond to best.
Finally, advertising folk also slopped the company's brand guidelines into the pot – an ingredient far too toxic for the average human brain – and let Watson give it a stir before spitting out its own version of a luxury car ad script.
That script, plus general recommendations like "limit the amount of speech," was then given to director Kevin Macdonald – whose One Day in September took out the Best Documentary Oscar in 2000 – presumably along with a pile of money commensurate with his Oscar-winning status.
Watson scripts an ad
The resulting ad spot, which you can see at the bottom of this article, has a surprisingly coherent miniature storyline. A Lexus engineer polishes up a car that's clearly his baby, before anxiously sending it off to a crash test. We see the previous car to go through the crash test, completely destroyed, and we see our hero, the Lexus, being hooked up to a medieval apparatus with a rusty chain.
A news reporter is on the scene, and the engineer and his daughter are tensely tuning in to watch the crash test like some sort of reality TV show crossed with a live execution. When the car's emergency braking system activates and saves the car from destruction, engineer and daughter embrace in joyful relief to the sound of a thumping heartbeat.
You'll recognize familiar elements: the lighting tunnel, the white glove once-over, the illumination of the dash and headlights signifying the car is waking up or gaining sentience, the nervous gulp, the ubiquitous slightly rotating drone shot as the car drives by a forest, the paparazzi gallery, the worried news anchor … it goes on.
We'd love to see the actual script the computer spat out for this one, because AI-written scripts we've seen in the past have been nowhere near as logical. They have a tendency to devolve into surreal weirdness, as well as a having difficulty putting things in context or sticking to an idea. Certainly, this one benefits from the fact that there's no dialogue, but we suspect many of its wacky AI edges have been smoothed over by its human director.
For his part, Macdonald is quoted as saying, "When I was handed the script, the melodrama of the story convinced me of its potential. The fact the AI gave a fellow machine sentience, placed it in a sort of combat situation, and then had it escaping into the sunset was such an emotional response from what is essentially a digital platform. The charmingly simplistic way the AI wrote the story was both fascinating in its interpretation of human emotion, and yet still unexpected enough to give the film a clearly non-human edge." He also says his input on the script was kept to "a nudge here and there."
The rise of creative AI
At the end of the day, if this is a fair representation of the AI-developed script, it's an impressive achievement that stands alongside Watson's 2016 effort at cutting a movie trailer, to show that machines can indeed take a pretty good stab at putting together a series of elements that play on human emotions.
And make no mistake, there are plenty of people working on how AI and deep learning can be used to produce creative content. It's only a matter of time before machines become highly sophisticated in their ability to manipulate humans on emotional levels that we have very little understanding of or control over, and which drive our decision making to degrees that we're profoundly unaware of.
Advertising, more than music, movies, art or entertainment, is the perfect incubation bed for this kind of technology. It's already massively data-driven, for one, and it's one of few forms of "creative" expression that's directly designed to produce a measurable result in the decision making of its audience. Where you have a measurable result to grade the art against, it's easy for an algorithm to decide what has been effective and what hasn't, and tune itself up to improve its performance over time. Advertising is an art form designed purely to manipulate. You better believe that ad agencies will use every tool in their arsenal to get the job done.
But coming back to Earth, this is also a great example of the fact that no matter how good car ads get, they're still going to be car ads, and thus any positive feeling resulting from the emotional content of the ad is tainted with a smudgy stain of cold commercialism. If the point of this exercise by Lexus was simply to get us to watch their car ad more closely, then consider us rubes.
The video below describes the process of creating the ad, and is interesting in itself – but you can skip to 8:30 if you just want to see the final spot.