An AI Tried to Write the Perfect Lexus Ad. Here’s a Scene-by-Scene Look at What It Was Thinking

15 years of Cannes Lion-winning spots were analyzed

Agency The&Partnership partnered with Lexus to create an ad written by AI and directed by an Oscar-winning human. Lexus
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When it comes to the creative side of advertising, the promise of artificial intelligence—that it could create ads optimized in every possible way—has mostly been the subject of satire.

Twitter gave birth to a meme about forcing bots to watch 1,000 hours of programming to write hilariously flawed (and fictional) scripts, and Burger King took the joke mainstream by making an ad campaign supposedly written by AI, which celebrated a chicken sandwich that “tastes like bird.” In launching that campaign, Burger King’s global head of brand management, Marcelo Pascoa, noted, “Artificial intelligence is not a substitute for a great creative idea coming from a real person.”

Now Lexus has put that claim to the test.

The automaker and agency The&Partnership have created what they describe as the first ad both written by an AI and directed by an Oscar winner  (Kevin Macdonald, who won Best Documentary for One Day in September in 2000).

Creating the ad required a massive amount of back-end work, including the visual analysis of the past 15 years of Cannes Lion-winning car and luxury ads. But before we get into the details of how it was made, let’s take a look at the ad itself:

The ad tells the story of a Lexus engineer putting the finishing touches on the new ES model, which then enjoys a scenic drive before being subjected to an odd and highly publicized crash test.

To be clear, in terms of copywriting and overall creative, it’s not a stellar ad.  While shot beautifully and compellingly by Macdonald, the spot’s script is definitely like a Sunday drive through the uncanny valley, with disjointed ideas forming a storyline that’s less of a narrative than a series of checked boxes.

“I thought I'd be writing an ad with the assistance of AI. Instead, it took over and wrote the whole script."
Dave Bedwood, creative partner, The&Partnership London.

That said, it’s a worthwhile project for the industry to take a close look at. While relatively primitive in its storytelling ability, the technique shows an eerie amount of potential.

“I thought I’d be writing an ad with the assistance of AI,” says Dave Bedwood, creative partner at The&Partnership London. “Instead, it took over and wrote the whole script: a machine telling the story of a machine coming to life. A lot of other AI work to date has been interesting because of the process itself. This has been fascinating–maybe scary–because the end product is good in its own right.”

So why did the AI write what it did? Here’s another look at the ad, this time pausing to explain the data point behind each scene:

“This was both a challenging and fascinating project to be a part of,” says Alex Newland, co-founder of Visual Voice, the lead tech provider on the project. “From the outset, it was almost impossible to know what level of quality or intelligibility the AI would produce. To see the project brought together with such a rich finished piece is extremely satisfying to witness. We believe this project moves AI-generated content from being a novelty gimmick into the beginnings of true, stand-alone creative merit.”

While the AI review of 15 years of Cannes Lion-winning ads was the backbone of the creative process, it was supplemented by several other injections of data and insight. Emotional intelligence data from Unruly helped the machine learning process understand which parts of ads sparked responses from viewers. The agency then attempted to coach the AI on “intuition” and how intuitive viewers respond to ads, through an experiment with applied science lab MindX, based at the University of New South Wales

“Working on a collaboration between Lexus, Kevin Macdonald and an AI creative has been our most exciting foray into ‘big, bold and bionic’ creativity to date,” says The&Partnership London’s CEO Sarah Golding. “It’s fascinating to see how the AI has absorbed and drawn on Cannes Lions’ most prized car and luxury ads–but the dollop of magic sauce is in our AI’s insights into human intuition, and how to provoke an emotional response in an audience.”

So what can other advertisers take away from Lexus’ complex outing in machine learning? This summary of the campaign lists some of the takeaways:

“Some of the key findings from the AI in terms of the ingredients for a perfect car advert were that: the car doesn’t need to drive at all, unless this is part of the story; the driving should be peripheral to the story; characters in the story should have an emotional designator, for example a husband or father over driver or engineer; and the use of children helps increase the emotionality of an advert. Additionally, strong facial expressions are more powerful than strong language; ads are most effective where use of the spoken word is limited; use of a midpoint or twist is important to keep the story moving and to maintain interest; and the midpoint should involve an unexpected event, for example a crash or near miss.”

Here’s a scene-by-scene look back at the AI’s logic behind its narrative:

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@griner David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."