Viewers tuning into ESPN’s Michael Jordan docuseries may have done a double take when the show led straight into what appeared to be a 1998-era clip of SportsCenter anchor Kenny Mayne predicting in far-fetched detail the exact circumstances of the documentary’s airing.
The attention-grabbing stunt was the culmination of three weeks of scrambling on the part of ESPN, State Farm—which sponsored the segment—and their respective agencies. They attempted to parse an emerging technology better known for its nefarious potential for fake news: AI-powered deepfakes.
The team was caught flat-footed when the onset of Covid-19 and subsequent early release of the documentary shut down production for a promotional spot.
“The timing of it was, um, expedited. We’ll say that,” said Julia Farber, group account director at agency Translation. “There were shifts working nonstop on the actual production and post work on the face mapping.”
These aren’t the only brands to explore deepfake fabricated footage in this era of constrained production. A confluence of advances in CGI and generative AI technology has made it possible to create passable real-fake footage for the first time, and as production shutdowns mean stars can’t easily get to a physical set, it is a suddenly attractive alternative for video creation.
Hulu recently used it to superimpose the faces of various pro athletes on different bodies in a spot to promote its live sports offering, and Spotify rolled out a digital listening experience featuring a virtual avatar of R&B star The Weeknd. Agencies like Deutsch L.A. and Mischief in New York are also experimenting with the tech.
“We continue to be in a space where production is challenged,” Farber said. “Face mapping—or even beyond the use of faces—but that sort of post work is going to become a more viable option and something that I’m sure brands are working on now in their respective executions.”
While experts worry these capabilities might be used for everything from fake news to extortion crimes, creatives and artists had already started experimenting with its creative potential. And though certain deepfake methods may not always be cost-effective in times where full-scale production is possible, the pace of research in the field suggests it will become easier and more accessible in the future.
“The technology has made tremendous progress,” said Holger Mueller, a principal analyst and vp at research firm Constellation Research. “Led by the gaming industry, you can now create reality-equivalent CGI movies.”
But those who’ve used it also say the technology is still far from reaching its full potential. The process of training the system is still too exhaustive to be useful for many campaigns.
“I think it works, but I also think it will get better,” said Michael Schneider, Hulu’s vp of brand marketing. “It depends on what the objective of the creative is. I don’t think that anything can ever beat a real live production shoot,” but it served its need for what Hulu did.
Chris Allick, vp and creative technology director at Deutsch L.A., said the real potential of the technology beyond serving as a makeshift production method will be manipulating footage in real time to have the subject of the fake footage interact with viewers.
Allick recently pitched a project along those lines involving a Zoom call with a historical figure. He also worked on a campaign that yielded one of the earlier examples while at Goodby Silverstein & Partners.
“The power of [machine learning and natural language processing] and interactive portion could make for really cool interactive work,” Allick said.