Thursday, June 27, 2024


More than a decade ago while working at Ogilvy on IBM Watson, I wrote an advertising campaign that never made it off of my computer.

The campaign could be summed up in four words: "In Praise of Hard." It was about the hard-work involved in gaining real advantages from Artificial Intelligence. Or, for that matter, any technology.

The way AI was being sold, the way everything new is always sold, is that it's going to make life so easy, all you have to do is flick a switch and voila: the answer. All at about 1/100th of the cost and the time.

Humans--back then I knew a few--have a natural propensity to fall for "something for nothing-isms." You can find examples of miracles, for instance, in every foundational text from Gilgamesh, to the Torah, to the Iliad and Odyssey and more. You can find more examples today just by turning on the TV. You'll see commercial after commercial that promises the world, with absolutely no side-effects and little cost.

We all really wish alchemy, turning base metal into gold, was real.

What was happening in the world of AI was that people thought they could ask it a question--what's the next big fashion trend--and get an answer. They didn't realize the amount of work that had to be done to allow a computer to derive an answer. Data has to be organized and fed into the machine. You can't just stick it alongside the Encyclopedia Brittanica and hope for the best. 

What's more, most sources of data are so sullied by bias and sloppy accounting as to be veritably invalid. Inconvenient truths are conveniently wiped out. The most popular stories, like executives at Disney, prefer happy endings. They don't even like having bad guys to overcome.

Just yesterday in the social media world an absolutely horrific AI-created spot for Toys R Us went viral. It's badness was so bad I could barely make it past the first clich├ęd piano note.

Then, what made matters worse, was people critiquing the spot but praising its production values. Its 'how far AI has come.' They normalized crap. 

I keep seeing commentary like this. People saying "wow, look how real this image AI made is--it's just amazing, and so fast and cheap." In fact, half my Facebook feed (I'm on Facebook about 30 minutes/month) is AI generated prostitutes who are gorgeous yet lonely. Maybe because they're nothing but pixels.

There are many historians, or just people with a sense of history, who trace the decline of America to the efforts of the Lyndon Johnson administration to simultaneously pay for both social-welfare programs and the massively-expensive Vietnam war. All without demanding sacrifices from American citizens.

That's something-for-nothing-ism and its rot has rotted our country. 

We could get cheaper goods from China without paying the cost of displacing jobs in America. We could cut back on roads, healthcare and education without paying the cost of a decaying state. We could get get get without working or paying.

For most of human life on the planet we dumped forever chemicals into our environment, or 200 billion plastic bottles a year and we pretend it's all ok.

To be all-george about this, I'd say that something-for-nothing-isms have destroyed what used to be the ad industry. Remember, digital advertising was founded on the notion that you could reach people at an incredibly low cost and with no waste. And it would all be so great, they'd talk about your work and spread it for you. Remember?

What's more, targeting would be so accurate and timing so adroit (the right message to the right person at the right time) relevance would obviate the need for creativity. Brands could "dull their way" into peoples' hearts.

Just when I want a Snickers, I'd get a coupon for one.

Nearly everyday I see someone extolling the virtues of AI. Again, its speed and its gee whiz magic. "Wow, it made a duck in a chef's hat on a yacht making a cherry pie! That's fantastic."

No one thinks about what consumers think. They prefer to think the purported gee-whiz-ness of the ones and zeroes will carry the day and get people to notice. "Look how realistic it looks, and so fast and cheap."

I'll go out on a limb here.

The same things that made stories interesting, shareable, illuminating and mnemonic in 3000 BC are the same things that will work today.

Apocryphal or not, this six-word story is better than anything any AI system as ever regurgitated. 

Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn.

When Homer was singing his tunes no one asked, "was that writ on the latest technology, papyrus? Or was it scratched on a clay tablet?" No one care because the way we make something doesn't matter. The radio commercials I recorded digitally were not inherently better or more interesting than the ones I recorded on magnetic tape. Shooting on pixels is inherently no better than shooting on film.

What we're supposed to be is interesting, valuable, informative and memorable.

That takes work.

No machine can do it.

And never will.

Yes, they can make a car crash or an alien fly through the air, but to make something interesting to humans takes an understanding of what's interesting to humans. I think that's a job for humans.

I'm not sure you can program humanity into a machine. 

I think that I shall never see,
A bot that acts with empathy.
It's a test most humans fail to pass,
So I think your brand's a bloody ass.

Below is how humans judge work. It doesn't matter who makes it or how. It matters how it makes you feel.

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