Chris Daplyn is UK managing director of Wunderman, the world’s biggest agency-owned digital agency. Prior to Wunderman he worked at Lida where he was group account director for the Mini UK account, where the agency relaunched the iconic vehicles, under the BMW Mini name via an award-winning direct ad campaign. Over the past 13 years he has worked for global brands including Diageo, Audi, Volskwagen, Skoda, the RAF and Shell, where he helped to set up a global CRM and loyalty programme.
Desert Island (AI) Ads
Robots and AI are no longer a thing of fiction. Automation is creeping into our lives more and more each day. With the likes of Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant set to revolutionise our households, artificial intelligence will soon be the norm. The future really is coming. Or, as William Gibson said: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
I choose Gibson’s line not only because he’s one of the world’s sharpest storytellers, but also because he had a handle on that future-gazing business before everyone else. Well…almost everyone else.
The Martians Came, They Saw, They Smashed
While Gibson’s Neuromancer predicted the World Wide Web and Virtual Reality in excruciating detail back in 1984, the American-Canadian author was pipped to the prediction post by an unlikely rival: the Smash Martians. In the late seventies and early eighties, these automated beings would watch humans struggling to mash potatoes. They’d laugh. They’d mock us. Then they cut out the human element, bringing in Smash instant mashed potato and eliminating the laborious ritual of boiling, peeling and so on. Smash’s Martians remain an icon of eighties childhood, but they also represented a future where robots would eventually start to automate laborious tasks.
Robots fascinated a generation. In the 80s, Hasbro’s Transformers hit our televisions, and brought with it a promise of robots that could blend in to the world as everyday items. The iconic ‘Transformers, robots in disguise’ catchphrase dominated playgrounds and predicted a future where multi-functionality in tech would be key. Connected cars, self-driving cars – even cars that can fly, are now a possibility. As us kids grew into adults, we were thinking big.
It must’ve been fun to dream up the future. Hollywood didn’t get everything right and neither did the ads, but speculation is human. It seemed far-fetched. Fantastical. Then we wanted it a little darker. The mid-eighties’ New Coke ads featured Max Headroom, a rude AI personality who dished the dirt on Pepsi. Shot by Ridley Scott, the ads’ comedic skits were sandwiched betwixt noir cyberpunk grittiness. But looking back, how on the nail was this ad? A talking, anthropomorphic AI. Science fiction truly started to predict the future.
Take Motorola’s Startac phone, which warped into existence come 1996, heavily influenced by Star Trek’s Communicator device. The look was futuristic, but so was the functionality. You could finally set your phone to ‘vibrate’ mode, you could plug in a second battery and it was small enough to clip to your belt and not look like a complete loser.
Channel 4’s Humans
Fast forward to now, and you can see science fiction is still predicting the future. We can now buy robots to help in our daily lives – in the form of drones, vacuum cleaners, connected fridges and more. It all becomes more believable. Take Channel 4’s spoof Persona Synthetics ad for the TV series Humans. Aided by a roll-out of Persona Synthetics vans, billboards and actors transporting the ‘products’ across the UK – the campaign duped some viewers into believing it was an actual product launch and subsequent recall. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Suddenly, the tech is real.
The Robots Are Here And They’re Taking Us To Task
AI is now creeping into our homes and carrying out tasks you don’t want to do. Alexa, Siri and the Google Assistant are highly innovative pieces of tech, but that’s nothing when you look at the capabilities AI is offering in the realm of marketing.
In the face of falling sales, lingerie brand Cosabella reacted in the most extraordinary way. It replaced its digital team with Albert, an AI platform. As a result, Albert tripled Cosabella’s ROI and boosted its customer base by 30 per cent, thus rendering us humans free to do something else. This isn’t an isolated incident either – the benefits AI and machine learning can bring are huge. IBM’s Watson is personalising and serving ads programmatically, while it also helped assemble a film trailer last year for 20th Century Fox’s Morgan.
Life is not only imitating art now – it’s trying to perfect it. Coca Cola, not content with fake-AI in the form of Max Headroom in the eighties, is now aiming to use real AI to generate its ads. But, like IBM’s Watson, Coca Cola’s bot will need a guiding hand – for now, at least. The tech still needs a human touch. Our fallibility, our unpredictability and our emotions make us different from AI, and that’s why we’re still relevant in marketing.
However, tech is playing a stronger and stronger role, and it’s down to us as advertisers to adapt to this new age of AI, robots, tech and more. When advertising and tech hold hands and refuse to let go, that’s when the magic happens.