How the ad industry is making AI images look less like AI

Creators, production studios and advertising agencies are finding workarounds to make AI imagery more palatable to consumers. (Image: Pixabay)
Creators, production studios and advertising agencies are finding workarounds to make AI imagery more palatable to consumers. (Image: Pixabay)

Summary

Generative AI has the power to massively speed up the creative process and deliver personalized ads to customers on a large scale. But many images AI models generate feature cartoonish smoothness, telltale flaws or both.

Unhappy Lego fans recently accused the toy maker of using artificial intelligence to generate images of Ninjago characters on its website.

The pictures showed hallmarks of what has quickly become recognized as the AI aesthetic, including oversaturated and dramatically lit images of characters with impossibly shiny faces and hair. One character even had an extra finger, turning its C-shaped grip into a claw. The AI-generated pictures were swiftly removed from the website.

“These images were used in a test, which happened outside of our usual approval processes, and we will take all necessary steps to ensure that it won’t happen again," a Lego spokesperson said.

For commercial artists and advertisers, generative AI has the power to massively speed up the creative process and deliver personalized ads to customers on a large scale—something of a holy grail in the marketing world. But there’s a catch: Many images AI models generate feature cartoonish smoothness, telltale flaws or both.

Consumers are already turning against “the AI look," so much so that an uncanny and cinematic Super Bowl ad for Christian charity He Gets Us was accused of being born from AI—even though a photographer created its images.

Creators, production studios and advertising agencies as a result are finding workarounds to make AI imagery more palatable to consumers. They’re using well-worn tools such as Adobe’s Photoshop to add, rather than take out, imperfections; learning to write elaborate AI prompts to achieve the aesthetic they want; and collaborating with AI artists who have mastered specific styles.

A team effort

Some advertising executives see a time when the monthslong production schedules and expensive, labor-intensive photo and film shoots currently required to make some ads get replaced by a creative director and a computer running generative AI software. Right now, that isn’t the case.

Creatives are finding campaigns built on generative AI still require the expertise of scores of professionals, sometimes as many as for a campaign without AI. And to avoid that “AI look," some marketing companies are working with talent not usually called upon in advertising circles.

Digital marketing agency Media.Monks in February introduced a roster of AI artists: animators, colorists, directors, photographers and other creatives who have mastered the art of AI generation and offer a distinct visual aesthetic. Media.Monks maps specifications of these aesthetics, such as the artists’ preferred color grading, lighting, saturation, signature camera angle and depth of field in a photo or film, as part of long, detailed, generative prompts, so the final product is highly stylized—and miles from the generic polish of AI.

Production studio Tool and WPP agency Ogilvy have both designed systems for turning the brand assets of clients such as style guides and products into parameters, and using them to generate new work aligning with a brand’s aesthetic.

This method also generates imagery that reduces “hallucinations" such as extra fingers and weird-looking teeth that still haunt AI imagery, although it doesn’t get rid of them altogether, said Antonis Kocheilas, Ogilvy’s chief transformation officer.

For many creatives, the key to avoiding extra digits, unnaturally shiny hair and the overall jarring AI look is to also use tools developed long before the AI era.

“You may have to start with an AI prompt, but then you need to refine it, and you might even need to use some traditional tools like Photoshop to make it even better," said Vaunn Yevo, a visual artist and designer who uses generative AI for commercial work. Yevo routinely uses standard editing software to add details like textured facial hair and skin pores to otherwise flawless generated imagery.

Prompting some AI models to make such tweaks doesn’t always end well, according to Yevo. “Sometimes if you [tell the AI model to] add freckles the skin just turns so odd," he said.

‘Conversing’ with technology

McCann Worldgroup, the creative agency network owned by IPG, so far has blended generative AI with other forms of media. Last year, it created print and digital ads for Mexican food company Grupo Bimbo, generating foreground pictures of different hamburgers and hot dogs using one kind of AI model and creating backgrounds using another, while designing poster lettering by hand.

“It’s a back-and-forth conversation with technology and technology experts, but against a unifying and evolving creative vision that really involves layers," said Ian Mackenzie, McCann Worldgroup’s global AI creative lead and chief creative officer at its Canada agency. The company is experimenting with a new crop of fine-tuning programs, such as Magnific, that “humanize" some of the perfect looks generated by AI with details like wrinkles and under-eye shadows.

Most experts predict the shiny, sometimes odd AI aesthetic won’t be a problem for long as models get better at producing more realistic outputs. But until then, some creatives are concentrating on using the technology to generate visuals like surreal imagery and motion graphics, rather than photo-real imagery.

“I don’t think generating artificial people is necessarily the way to go right now," said Dustin Callif, president of production company Tool. Callif also cited ethical concerns over taking jobs from models and actors, as well as the potential for AI to misinterpret race and gender.

Others are leaning into AI’s idiosyncrasies.

Advertising holding company Publicis in January used AI to help create videos of Chief Executive Arthur Sadoun personally thanking some 100,000 employees by name for their work. The videos also featured fantastical scenes such as the company’s global chief strategy officer climbing K2 and Sadoun sporting an impossibly smooth arm tattoo of each employee’s name.

“We did a lot of work to try to avoid it but ultimately realized that the look could be part of the medium," said Evan Schultz, an executive creative director at Publicis Groupe’s Le Truc creative unit. “We could play with it in a way that’s fun and interesting, and you could tell that it’s AI and we’re not trying to hide it."

Write to Katie Deighton at katie.deighton@wsj.com

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