In Marketing, AI Cannot Duplicate The Human Element

This is the published version of Forbes’ CMO newsletter, which offers the latest news for chief marketing officers and other messaging-focused leaders. Click here to get it delivered to your inbox every Wednesday.


Yesterday, TikTok made good on its vow to challenge the new law forcing its ban or sale to a non-Chinese entity in nine months. The short video social media platform, owned by Chinese company Byte Dance, sued the U.S. government in federal court yesterday, assailing the new law as an overreach that violates the First Amendment rights of the company—and the 170 million U.S. users of the social platform—plus installing a new set of rules on freedom of speech.

“There are good reasons why Congress has never before enacted a law like this,” the companies’ attorneys from Mayer Brown and Covington & Burling wrote in a 67-page complaint. “Congress has never before crafted a two-tiered speech regime with one set of rules for one named platform, and another set of rules for everyone else.”

The law’s intent was to stop the possibility of China using the app to spy on Americans—which it has done to Forbes journalists—as well as packaging other data on U.S. companies and their finances. However, TikTok is a vital form of communication for brands and messaging nowadays, and is the preferred place where younger consumers go to find information. A poll from Reuters and Ipsos late last month found that 58% of American adults agreed with a statement that the Chinese government uses TikTok to influence public opinion in the U.S., and half supported banning the app. But, Reuters points out, this poll didn’t cover people under 18, who make up a large contingent of TikTok users.

Forbes’ Alexandra S. Levine breaks down the arguments TikTok makes in its lawsuit. One of the big ones: American social media companies already pose the same risk. Misuse of user data and taking advantage of a social platform’s ability to influence people can be done by any application, regardless of where the parent company is located. Also, TikTok argues that ByteDance cannot sell just that one social app. Its algorithm—which is what makes it so valuable—is proprietary, and TikTok’s operations are deeply entwined with the rest of ByteDance, which owns a large suite of social apps.

The filing of this case brings a new chapter to the fight between the U.S. and TikTok, and it’s not clear what the final outcome will be. One thing that feels certain, however: It won’t be decided by the Jan. 19, 2025 deadline the legislation sets for TikTok’s sale.

TikTok is a popular technology for marketers to use, but it is no longer the newest tech available. The up and coming and exciting tool for communicators today is AI, and many brands and marketing firms are deriving mixed results from experimenting with it. I talked to John McNeil, CEO of John McNeil Studio, about who is using AI now and what its place should be in marketing. An excerpt from our conversation is later in this newsletter.

BRANDS + MESSAGING

A legacy brand that is often associated with childhood, values, patriotism, camping and life skills is getting an official rebrand next year. The Boy Scouts of America will be known as Scouting America as of February 2025. The organization says the name change is to promote inclusivity in the organization. The 114-year-old Boy Scouts of America began allowing girls to join five years ago, and changed its name at that point to Scouts BSA. Forbes senior contributor Kim Elsesser writes the name change should help make girls feel more welcomed in the scouting community. Girls are still a tiny minority of the organization’s membership—there are more than 1 million members of the group, and more than 176,000 are girls.

Of course, sounding inclusive isn’t the only thing the group will get from a new name. A rebrand can disconnect the group from a massive sex abuse scandal, in which tens of thousands of people claim to have been abused as children by Boy Scouts volunteers and leaders since the 1960s. The organization filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2020, and emerged in 2023 with a Victims Compensation Trust valued at $2.4 billion.

NOW TRENDING

Earlier this week, many eyes were on the annual Met Gala’s red carpet (rather, the green and cream-colored carpet) as celebrities and other notable people used fashion to channel the theme of “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion,” wearing couture meeting the dress code of “The Garden of Time.” Ordinary people gawked at the dresses, suits and sand that attendees wore, but they also started talking about the designers and brands. This year, writes Forbes editorial fellow Hyunsoo Rim, Tommy Hilfiger led social media mentions after the gala. The American designer outfitted K-pop group Stray Kids in black, red and white suits. Other well-known design houses, including Burberry, Loewe and Maison Margiela burned up social media following the gala. Thom Browne was the design house with the highest value media exposure from the gala.

But fake fashion at the Met Gala also turned heads. Forbes senior contributor Dani Di Placido writes about the AI-generated red carpet images of Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Rihanna at the event that drew thousands of likes, though none of them even attended the event. The photos look realistic enough—even fooling Katy Perry’s mother—but feature a different red carpet and somewhat distorted people in the background. It’s easy not to notice on a social media scroll, Di Placido points out.

IN THE NEWS

Banana Republic CEO Sandra Stangl stepped down last week, following steep sales declines for the Gap Inc.-owned retailer, Forbes senior contributor Pam Danziger writes. Banana Republic’s fiscal year 2023 revenues were down 8% in its most recent earnings report. Stangl, who joined Banana Republic in late 2020, helped the brand known for its wardrobe staples build revenue in her first years at the company. Before Banana Republic, Stangl’s career had been in the home furnishings sector, including 23 years at Williams Sonoma. In 2023, Stangl brought Banana Republic into home furnishings with the new BR Home Collection. But furniture and rugs failed to resonate with Banana Republic consumers. In a March earnings call, Gap Inc. CEO Richard Dixon said that the way forward for Banana Republic is a new focus on “go-to wardrobe pieces and BR classics like sweaters, oxfords, suit separates, and khakis, those products that Banana Republic has been known for and will be again.”

ON MESSAGE

John McNeil On AI’s Place In Marketing

Generative AI has several capabilities that could make it an indispensable tool for marketers. But its ability to generate images and videos have some marketers worried that it might be used to make their jobs less relevant and dilute the human element of the creative process that has built the industry. I talked to John McNeil, CEO of John McNeil Studio, about where he thinks AI can help—and harm—the marketing industry.

This conversation has been edited for length, clarity and continuity. A more complete version of this interview is available here.

What makes an AI-generated creative aspect well-received?

When a human made it, that’s what makes it well-received, frankly.

I think that there’s a spectrum of ways to think both ethically, and also just creatively, about how AI ought to be used in advertising. If you look at all of the complaints about the Under Armour ad, for instance. It got all this press, not because it was a good ad, but because it was an ad created by AI. As a matter of fact, it was a really kind of trite, awful ad. It was really not particularly anything. It had all of this flowery writing that was all about power and passion and drive, what it means to be an athlete, a fighter. But really, the language wasn’t particularly well-written. It wasn’t particularly memorable. It didn’t have a core idea or insight or thought in it. And then there was a whole host of AI-built special effects and footage, some of which came from previously used spots that Under Armour owned. The end result was just a mediocre ad.

There are tons of things that have been created by AI, or assisted with AI. I’ve shot commercials where we do character replacement, and we do automated masking and things like that using AI. It’s not that AI as a tool is bad. It’s this idea of relinquishing all creative standards and all craftsmanship to this novel thing that’s going to make it for you quick and fast.

I think that’s the fundamental challenge that we have. If we as makers—and also we as consumers—relinquish our standards, there’s a real problem there. It’s a real spiral that I think is going to change the way in which we view art, frankly, not just commerce. Some of it is that we’ve lost this idea of this human dialogue, this continuum, where we’re building on art history, we’re building on the definitions of what we’ve come to understand a creative idea to be, or what we’ve come to understand marketing and communication to be. And we’ve passed off a lot of the memorable aspects of that for the desire for something that could be made quickly, much cheaper, and on the fly.

What kind of a statement does it make as a creator to come out and use AI? Is there any case where it is the right statement now?

As much as I’m critical of the way in which folks are starting to deploy AI, I think that the reality is that you have to use AI, and AI is actually a phenomenal tool for creative people. I came up in advertising at a time when we would turn to photo books and the work of artists and film directors and people like that to grab reference in order to sell our ideas. That was a problem 30 years ago, 20 years ago: They’d turn to the greatest photographers and filmmakers of the world and they’d steal their work.

The cliche in any kind of art making is that it’s all been done before. And frankly, what is AI if not the manifestation of it’s all been done before? It conjures up supposedly new things based on large data sets, that are things that have been done before. I think the statement that it makes for a creative person to use AI is [it] depends on how you’re using it, and if you’re going to relinquish control of your own abilities as a creator, as a thinker, as a creative person to the tool that’s helping you create. AI is the first tool where you could actually relinquish control, and that’s actually the challenge.

We’re in the early days of the AI revolution. What role do you see AI playing in marketing in the next three years?

I think AI is going to be fundamentally the thing that we turn to and use every day in making the work that we make. If we don’t actually start adopting standards right now around what is good and responsible and valuable use of AI and what isn’t, it’s just going to run away from us. There was a piece in Adweek about clients wanting very strict guidelines on agency use of AI without their permission. There’s a whole host of guardrails that people are already starting to put up, and I think it’s critical.

Advertising agencies are still saying they make advertising. Advertising has changed a lot. Agencies today are spending less and less of their time making ads, and more of their time helping marketers market. If our industry can start to rethink the value of that—which operates at a higher level than making an ad or making a billboard or a radio spot or a social post or whatever—and thinking about tactical marketing, AI has enormous opportunity because it’s really the ability to ideate everything from getting better and more targeted search to being able to really understand in a richer, more nuanced way audience trends and interests. It’s about being able to envision and depict ideas in ways more rapidly than ever before. It’s going to be about changing the production model, where as we get better at writing prompts, as we get better at refining these tools, you’re really going to see this explosion of visual and video content that is AI-generated. I think that in a best case, it’s a balance between using that as a way to make human-generated work better.

In a worst [case], it’s going to really upend production companies, photography studios, illustrators, a whole host of people who have been critical to the process. And I hope against hope that that’s not going to happen.

FACTS + COMMENTS

Disney fell short of analysts’ estimates in its quarterly earnings report on Tuesday, but it surprised investors with a profit on its Hulu and Disney+ streaming services.

$47 million: Operating profit for Disney’s streaming arm in the most recent quarter

$587 million: Disney’s streaming loss in the same period a year ago

‘We fully expect streaming to be a growth driver for the company in the future’: CEO Bob Iger said on the earnings call

STRATEGIES + ADVICE

Consumers want “authentic” marketing, but what does that mean? Here’s some advice to figure out what they want to see.

AI can do many things, but how can it apply to your own business? Former OpenAI leader Zack Kass gave a keynote address detailing its capabilities for retail and marketing.

VIDEO

QUIZ

Dating app Bumble recently made a major change. What is it?

A. Men can make the first move

B. The time to respond to a first message is doubled

C. Users no longer need to include pictures of their faces

D. It uses AI to suggest in-person meeting places, and can automatically make restaurant reservations or buy event tickets

See if you got the answer right here.

Related posts