What is a “human-centric algorithm”? And what business does it have in the advertising space here in the UK? As more and more column inches are dedicated to the role of artificial intelligences in our daily lives, and generalised scaremongering perpetuates the idea of an imminent code-overlord coming for us, there is space (dare I say, the need) for reflection on the use of such technologies in an industry that can significantly shape popular culture: ad land.
Myself, unwittingly papped on the panel at SMW.
Last month I spoke at Social Media Week on the use of AI within the “diversity in advertising” debate. My host Lobster, an AI-based startup whose platform allows creatives to find imagery that (more) justly reflects the society (s)he wishes to represent, crafted the event to deliver messaging from two sides of the fence: the innovators pioneering technologies for use by advertisers; and the ad men themselves. Interestingly, the split did not become a chasm. I opted for a viewpoint which reflects my beliefs of technology as a means for creativity, and explored the topic of diversity in ads, and what on Earth that might mean for us, now. Here’s what I concluded.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines “diversity” as the state of being diverse. And it defines the latter as showing a great deal of variety, or being very different.
Diversity has become an inflammatory word. It gets plenty use in the press, and everyone has their own opinion of it (whether they care to share it openly, is another question). With so much hyperbole around these nine little letters, I found it useful as I embarked on my journey into the depths of “advertising diversity” to have a long, hard think on what we really mean when we speak of it. I came to this conclusion:
When we speak of diversity, we are simply speaking of different states of being human.
Some of the ways we differ are so clear one would question their high-lighting, but there are also less obvious differentiators worthy of mention.
If colour and gender are the more obvious segregators of human beings, let’s also consider those which might lurk beneath the surface: sexual orientation, religious or political belief, and mental health state are just a few such factors. Going even further, there are even completely invisible factors. Those things that make us different that no one can know, if they don’t know us. The past experiences which have shaped our now.
Why is this all important?
The Importance of Diversity in Advertising
We cannot speak of diversity in this setting without also speaking of normality. They are two sides of the same contextual coin. A contentious word (indeed, topic) at the best of times, it has become provocative of late, with everyone feeling the social pressure to have an opinion. In the middle of this newfound societal interest in a word that can mean so much, I find it grounding to remember this: when we talk about diversity, we simply mean showing a wider range of states of being human, and for these different states in turn to be considered by the average person as “normal”. That is what we’re striving for. And ads are an important way to help do this.
The more academic literature I read on the shaping of cultural norms, the more the same theme kept cropping up. I’ve boiled it down to this three-step process:
What we are exposed to becomes what we find acceptable.
What we find acceptable becomes what we take to be normal.
What we consider normal, shapes our world.
What we are exposed to in our daily Western-lives is largely shaped by our industry, and a few other large complexes.
How Does “Normal” Come About? Is This All Our Fault?
As Oscar Wilde famously said, the truth is never plain, and rarely simple. To boil down the plethora of actions and reactions towards the representation of human beings in pop culture to two or three macro factors would be a gross oversight — even reckless. The following is not meant as a comprehensive overview, merely a starting point (focused, of course, on what we care about: ad land).
Norms around what humans do, and should look like come from many places. Four important areas are:
The advertising industry
The way brands talk to the general public is hugely important in subconsciously, or in some cases extremely volatilely, impacting our thoughts on what humans look like. The Protein World “Beach Body” debacle of 2015 is testament to the reaction one advertisement can elicit, when it strikes into the heart of a sensitive national obsession (in this case, our nation’s body fat percentage, and its impact on our ability to don apparel of the itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny-yellow-polka-dot variety).
Then there’s darling Hollywood.
The Entertainment Complex
Perhaps even more adept at pushing ideals on societies across the globe is the entertainment industry. Since the inception of the Silver Screen and gossip magazines alike, Hollywood has been making a living out of telling us how we should look, feel, and act.
But it’s not all mega-corp bosses. We’re pretty good at finding idols for ourselves.
Our Immediate Environment
Our friends, colleagues, and family massively influence us in our day to day lives. Whether consciously (think family argument), or unconsciously (peer pressure, anyone?) the people we interact with every day affect the way we see our world.
Our Idols — The True Influencers
Whether yours is Malala, Steve Jobs, or Lady Gaga, the people we elevate on pedestals are visions of our ideal life, and change our perceptions of what is acceptable and what is normal. Furthermore, a small but important note: our heroes shape our actions too, insofar as they cause us to aspire.
Each of these could warrant a Ph.D thesis unto themselves, which I could never undertake for lack of wits. Suffice to say we all have day jobs to be getting back to, so let’s zoom in on the sector we are most concerned with.
What Is The Advertising Industry Doing To Address “The Diversity Issue” Right Now?
The short answer is a fair amount. And also, not enough. On one end of the Spectrum of Effort, we’re lazy. On the other, the task of correctly reflecting our diverse society through the medium of moving and still image is one that is surely bigger than can be accomplished by one industry alone.
It must be said that many fantastic initiatives, networks, and awards are now actively powering change in our industry (which of course it is sad to think, has taken this long). Frankly, I’m not inclined to embark on a he-said-she-said tit-for-tat as to whether advertising in the UK is doing everything it could to promote true diversity across all media it uses (although I do have a soft spot for Y&R’s very own Mrs Claus for Marks & Spencer – crafting a strong female icon from a traditionally sidelined character). There is always more that can be done. But before we talk about the constraints upon us, and the proliferation of technological tools that can help us make smarter choices, let us first define our goal. What are we actually striving for, anyway?
We should not strive for perfect equality in all media, at all times. This is not a true reflection of our world. Although research shows millennials are over 40% more likely to purchase a product that has been “diversely advertised”, this doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate to put a man and a woman of every ilk in every ad. Beyond the obvious paradox of including everyone to exclude noone inherently killing the very notion of true societal representation, the potential for being perceived as hopelessly tactless or simply out-of-touch is never far away.
If blanket “diversity” is not the answer then, what is? Let us strive instead, for the ability to make choices about how we talk (and show humans) based on what is actually important to complete the task at hand. Unhindered by cultural conventions, pressures, or technological limitations.
Task at hand, you say? To those of you with a subscription to the Harvard Business Review (or a bizarrely niche library of American business strategy books at home: present company falling into the latter) that might sound similar to Professor Clayton Christensen’s seminal “jobs to be done” theory (of product and service development). Here I’m applying it not to the end user however, but to the advertiser (me! You! Us! Hurray for thinking about oneself!).
The Cold Harsh Reality: Ads Aren’t Created In Vacuums
If you go off into a cool, darkened room to meditate your next TVC into existence, then you’re definitely the outlier (FYI, you could probably charge people to attend your creative-cool-storming sessions. It’s like I work in marketing, or something). For the rest of us, there are constraints. Lots, and lots of constraints.
The truth is that advertisements are made to sell a product, and meet our clients’ business needs. They must make commercial, as well as cultural and creative sense. It is thus our responsibility, as thinkers in the sector, to bring the right solutions to the table — serving both the higher societal purpose of crafting ads in our diverse likeness, and helping our clients to smash their quarterly targets. Our ads must be relevant to the audience, and the product, and moreover the brand should have authenticity to talk in the space we dare to have them play. To recap:
When we create an advert, we must make sure our work:
- Is creatively interesting
- Is relevant for the target audience
- Allows our brand to speak with credibility and authenticity
- Helps the client deliver on the key metrics they are being measured against (sales! Brand recognition! Affinity!)
- Does our society justice (i.e. does not harm the societal ideals we hold dear), perhaps even pushing us to do better for our society’s future
That’s a fair amount to have in mind. We can do it. But what if we had some help? Would you take it?
Technology In All This: Can You Harness It?
Since technologies have been around to change the way humans do things (I’m talking about the wheel, not e-commerce) they’ve been touted as the answer to all our problems. This is (literally) unbelievable, and in an industry with many skeptics jealously defending the creative process, it’s not surprising the conclusion often quickly arrived to is one that rejects the use of emergent technologies in favour of “how we’ve always done it”. Couple this further with the staggeringly bad press that artificial intelligence-based technologies have garnered in the last year, and there’s never been more reason to cast machine-learning-powered “solutions” to the side.
Google Photos AI incorrectly identifying people of African descent as gorillas, Twitter bots touting Nazi propaganda, and Facebook’s AIs creating their own (incomprehensible to humans) language are just some of the headline horror stories of late. Not forgetting the Microsoft-backed AI code that labelled a man as a woman, just because he was photographed in a kitchen. But what if we scratched the surface, and found something that sits even more uncomfortably with us than our almost “certain demise” at the hands of an uber-machine?
This is what computer scientists call the phenomenon of software exhibiting prejudices from either its creator, or the data set it was trained on (aka “brought up” on). AI does not carry a moral compass inside it’s beating heart, to help correct for sentiments it knows are inappropriate like humans do. AI is not inherently racist, xenophobic, or sexist, so if it acts as so, the uncomfortable truth is that we made it that way. As such, we all have a responsibility to change that going forwards. And ads can do a great deal to shift the needle on the dial of how humans are seen (and computed) in the 21st century and beyond.
Once we digest the discomfort of these ugly coded truths being our own doing, the fog starts to lift. The nebulous, grey cloud of technological solutions can be seen for what it is: a group of potentially useful tools, fit for the arsenal of brilliant creative minds while they dream up their next big hit. When we stop villainising technology as:
- Inherently “bad”
We can start to consider how it might enable us to do better work, rather than replace us in our quest to do so. To this end, the agency world must open its mind to the use of AI-powered technologies to supercharge their creative processes, and those building futuristic solutions must take their industry peers on a journey, to show how their code can help rather than hinder the amazingly fragile process of making something beautiful from nothing.
Lastly, if you’re a consumer (we all are), you must speak up
Have you also been in rooms with clients insisting on one particular avenue of creative inquiry because the target audience have overtly expressed their opinion one way or another? Brands design products and market them to satisfy their dream customer. And we are all dream customers to someone. What we think counts, and can influence the future of how brands communicate to the world. If we let them know.
In order to build the next iteration of advertising — a fairer, more inclusive, more compelling story of us humans, in ad form — we should marry technology with our humanity.
AI is not unto itself enough – it gets it wrong all the time. Humans have long since been enough – but we can do more. And at the intersection of both, we might just make magic.