T&P’s Dave Bedwood: how artificial intelligence took over from me for Lexus’ ES launch

Must be at peak Artificial Intelligence surely? Well, at least in terms of people talking about it. It’s one of those subjects I’ve read copious column inches on, yet still know alarmingly very little about. Will it take our jobs? Can it ever be ‘creative’? Will my fridge finally, for the love of god, be able to order milk for itself? Burning questions. Sometimes the best way to deal with one’s ignorance is to actually, practically, grapple with the thing in question.

As luck (not an AI term) would have it, I was afforded this very opportunity with the launch of the Lexus ES. Now, behind all of the show and bluster of futuristic technology and Artificial Intelligence, the idea was in fact born out of a very old-fashioned way of working: you find a product truth and then you dramatise it.

The product truth for the Lexus ES is that it’s an ‘intuitive’ car – with safety features that aid the driver. It is man and machine working together for a better driving experience.

After several rounds of ideas, the obvious finally surfaced – like the car itself, the advert should be a product of man and machine. The ‘machine’ (A.I) writes the script, a human (director) brings it to life. In effect a simple product demonstration. But one that would be expressed via a technology we had no idea how it would actually perform. To their credit Lexus understood that they were signing up for a process, and committed to staying true to that.

Once the process began in earnest most of us (excluding wunderkinds Alex and Will from Visual Voice) spent meetings asking “what does the A.I look like,” “just exactly what and how are you ‘feeding’ ‘it’” and “will it be able to speak to us?” Despite not understanding the answers to these questions, I felt my understanding of the project was pretty good.

My presumption was the A.I. would give me some interesting and weird thought starters from which I would write a script. Sort of like those prompt cards Brian Eno used to give musicians to kick-start their writing ideas. This would be the ‘man & machine’ element to the campaign.

But, after three months of ‘feeding’ the A.I, the project took a sharp handbrake turn.

The A.I. delivered a fully fledged script. It decided I was no longer needed, as leaving the script untouched spoke more to the original idea. Man and machine was now a collaboration between the A.I and the director – Oscar-winning Kevin MacDonald.

So how did I get the sack from a machine that frankly, owes me its goddamn life? Well, the maxim ‘you are what you eat’ holds even more true for machines. Our A.I was fed 15 years of award-winning car and luxury ads from Cannes advertising awards. Then came emotional data from the Unruly network, with added analysis by the big daddy of A.I: IBM.

On top of this was primary data – interviews that we conducted with marketing experts, and the real show stopper a commissioned academic experiment by Mind X, part of New South Wales University. They did a study on intuition, testing what colours, words, images are most impactful to intuitive people. From this the A.I. not only harvested tiny details (intuitive people like to see a car driving with water on the right, evergreen trees on the left!) but also confirmed notions us humans already harboured: we like excitement, danger and feel emotional when shown someone else experiencing emotion.

The final step was feeding in the Lexus brand guidelines, tone of voice, visual world. To offset the possibility of just creating a Frankenstein’s monster of a car ad it had to have elements that were innately Lexus, its heritage its values. It was from this ‘soup’ that the script emerged.

So, my initial question was, considering the extensive study of award winners, why wasn’t the script a stand alone ‘award winner?’ It’s a cheap shot, as this was never the intention of the experiment. We are still in an era where the advert needs the precursor “Written by A.I.” to become truly interesting. That said, a machine writing a story about a machine coming to life and saving itself isn’t a bad first go.

This wasn’t a validation of human creativity, it was validation that A.I. can be a useful tool in the creative process. Throughout the project there were many insights unearthed by A.I. that could have been turned into a great script. We chose not to, as that wouldn’t have served our idea. But would it be a welcome intervention on future projects? I think it would.

Dave Bedwood is a creative partner at The&Partnership.

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