Automakers are obsessed with promoting high-tech concepts in an effort to prove to investors and the general public that they aren’t falling behind the times. While artificial intelligence remains the gold standard, what constitutes A.I. can get a little foggy. However, in the present, the term can be used to describe any machine that effectively mimics cognitive behaviors, like the ability to learn or create.
Car manufacturers want to fine tune specific A.I. examples to be implemented in autonomous driving hardware and high-end, modern infotainment systems. For example Mercedes-Benz wants to use the technology to build a more serious relationship between drivers and its cars by allowing future vehicles to “learn” about the driver. Meanwhile, General Motors decided to branch out to see how such a system would handle marketing by linking up OnStar Go with IBM’s Watson, an A.I. which famously beat Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings.
Watson is now working with Lexus and taking things a step further. The automaker just released a new advertisement it claims was written by IBM’s machine and directed by Kevin Macdonald.
The commercial isn’t nonsensical but there is a strangeness to it that could be confused by westerners as “distinctly Japanese.” While it does have some Japanese flare, there’s really nothing that overtly ties it to the nation.
In truth, the Land of the Rising Sun’s best television spots are reminiscent of high-energy, Western toy commercials from the 90s. Intense scenarios are downplayed while mundane ones are elevated for comedic effect. Costumes and wild antics are par for the course and can appear in everything from candy ads to commercials promoting employment agencies.
This car ad is comparatively somber, focusing on a Lexus Takumi Master Craftsman frets over the new Lexus ES he ushered down the assembly line. But how did the computer know what direction to take with the script and why isn’t it a jumbled series of themed images?
Lexus’ creative agency The&Partnership London collaborated with technical partner Visual Voice to “create the A.I. scriptwriter,” using Watson to analyze years of audio, text, and visual data and extract “what makes content award worthy” and entertaining for an audience. It was also primed with “emotional intelligence data” from the video marketplace Unruly to learn which moments connected most strongly with viewers and understand how actions, objects, locations, and emotionality are used in different combinations and sequences to communicate the desired messages. From there, Kevin Macdonald (director of The Last King of Scotland) was approached to direct.
However, while Lexus is framing the event as the first advertisement written by a computer, that’s not entirely accurate. The A.I. may have drafted the script and outline, but the creative agencies had to finalize the plot. Although, that’s not terribly uncommon when advertisers are using human writers.
The big difference is that, by using an A.I., Lexus can tie the ads’ very existence to its technological might. It’s not a coincidence that the big twist in the commercial is when the Lexus’ automatic emergency braking stops it from being demolished in a crash test — which is being nationally televised from a sketchy looking warehouse for some reason.
“When I was handed the script, the melodrama of the story convinced me of its potential,” said Macdonald.
“The fact the AI gave a fellow machine sentience, placed it in a sort of combat situation, and then had it escaping into the sunset was such an emotional response from what is essentially a digital platform. The charmingly simplistic way the AI wrote the story was both fascinating in its interpretation of human emotion, and yet still unexpected enough to give the film a clearly non-human edge.”
That non-human edge is an essential part of the marketing campaign and getting eyes on the project. In fact, other portions of the marketing team were claiming computers were on the cusp of becoming legitimate artists.
“This was both a highly challenging and deeply fascinating project to have had the privilege to be a part of. From the outset, it was almost impossible to know what level of quality or intelligibility the AI would produce,” said Alex Newland, Co-Founder of Visual Voice in a statement. “To see the project brought together with such a rich finished piece is extremely satisfying and exciting to witness. We believe this project moves AI-generated content into the beginnings of true, stand-alone creative merit.”
Considering Rutgers University already has A.I. systems producing new works of art, although none of them are screenwriters, we’re not certain Lexus’ “Driven by Intuition” marketing campaign is so much the birth of a new creative moment as it is a good opportunity for a car-brand to promote its technology. That said, the artificial intelligence angle does make the ad more enticing to unpack — even if there isn’t anything of substance to clear up. We’ll probably never know if the computer decided to script the bit where the car chose to save itself, pleading for humanity to acknowledge its sentience, or if that was added by the marketing team later.