Several years ago, I launched a website called rentaminority.com where — clue is in the name — you could quickly and easily rent a minority. If you were a multinational corporation who’d realized, in a panic, that your conference panel or client meeting consisted entirely of white men, you could go on my site and, with just a couple of clicks, order the minority of your choice to make your organization look more woke. It was like an Uber for diversity.
Obviously, my site was a joke. It was supposed to satirize the superficial way some companies approach diversity. The way in which DEI is often treated as a tick-box exercise rather than seen as a business imperative, as something to take seriously and invest time and money in. Rather than putting in the work, a lot of companies want a quick and easy solution. Indeed, that was borne out by the fact that, shortly after launching, Rent-a-Minority received some genuine business enquiries. I could probably have made a lot of money if I’d monetized it.
Alas, it seems my fake business has now become obsolete, because there’s an even more low-effort way to fake diversity: AI. Lots of new services are popping up which let you project the image of diversity with the push of a button. Finally, you can have diversity without getting any pesky humans involved!
Earlier this year, for example, Levi’s caused a kerfuffle when it announced that it was partnering with Lalaland.ai, a digital studio that creates AI-generated fashion models. The idea was that you’d be able to customize the model to represent your body type and ethnicity. In a press release Levi’s said that it would use these AI-generated mannequins to “supplement human models, increasing the number and diversity of our models for our products in a sustainable way.”
I’m not trying to bash Levi’s idea, because it was actually very clever and addressed a genuine consumer need. Who wouldn’t want to personalize the models on an e-commerce site? Not to mention, that level of customization is entirely unfeasible at scale without AI: the costs involved for getting multiple models for each piece of clothing would be astronomical.
However, there were two big problems with the campaign.
The first was the way it was messaged, which made it seem like the AI was purely focused on generating ‘diverse’ models. The human models, the messaging insinuated, would still be conventionally attractive skinny white people—everyone else would get replaced by AI. Which is obviously problematic. Had Levi’s positioned the initiative as customizable avatars rather than AI-generated diversity it would have faced a lot less backlash.
Second, there was the timing. I suspect that if Levi’s had come out with the initiative six months earlier it wouldn’t have generated so much anger. But it came out after ChatGPT had been released and the world was suddenly enthralled with the power of generative AI. There’s an article every day about how AI is going to steal all our jobs. And guess whose jobs are going to go first? The people with the least amount of power. The people who are already struggling to get a seat at the table as it is.
Fears about AI have only mounted since the backlash against the Levi’s campaign back in March. Indeed, AI is at one of the issues at the centre of the Hollywood writers’ strike, which has been going on since May. Studio executives are salivating at the idea of using AI to drastically cut costs. The talent, meanwhile, are understandably worried their careers are going to be gobbled up code.
“Artificial intelligence poses an existential threat to creative professions, and all actors and performers deserve contract language that protects them from having their identity and talent exploited without consent and pay,” Fran Drescher SAG-AFTRA president said in a July news conference. “If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines.”
It’s not just Hollywood that needs to grapple with AI replacing talent, this is something the advertising industry needs to be having serious conversations about. The industry tends to suffer from Shiny Object Syndrome: it’s always jumping on the next hot new thing, eager to be the first brand to do a metaverse/NFT/virtual reality/crypto/latest hot new trend campaign. AI is no different. And while I’m all for rapid experimentation, it’s important to realize that diving head first into AI can cause real-world harm. Just look at the over-reliance of facial recognition technology in policing: there have been at least six documented instances of people in the US getting arrested for crimes they didn’t commit because of faulty, and racially biased, AI-powered facial recognition technology.
I don’t have any easy solutions for what the advertising industry should do about AI. What I do have is a plea that the industry has thoughtful and inclusive conversations about it. In order to help generate those discussions, I’ve got three conversation-starters for you:
1. Who is the room for your discussions about AI?
If your AI strategy is being developed by a room of people who all look the same, then it’s already flawed. One of the most important things you can do is listen to a wide range of people. Constantly ask yourself whose views aren’t being heard.
2. What is at the heart of great advertising?
Remember the best advertising is human and authentic. Don’t let excitement about the new blind you to timeless truths.
3. In a world of technological solutions, can you turn humanity into a competitive edge?
It doesn’t matter how new-fangled the tech, true inclusivity can never be computer-generated.
This is an article by Arwa Mahdawi, Guardian columnist and author of “Strong Female Lead”.