The AI influencer ads are coming

TikTok announced a new set of tools that will allow brands to create ads using avatars generated by artificial intelligence that look like real people. — Unsplash

If you are scrolling through TikTok and see an ad, it is likely that the person trying to sell you something in that ad is a real human. In the near future, that might not be the case.

On June 17, TikTok announced a new set of tools that will allow brands to create ads using avatars generated by artificial intelligence that look like real people. There will be two types of avatars, TikTok said in a release.

Brands can choose from an array of stock avatars “created from video footage of real paid actors that are licensed for commercial use”, or they can opt for a customisable avatar that could be designed to look like a specific creator. (TikTok is currently testing these new features.)

Brands will be able to modify the avatars to meet their specifications, placing them in different settings – like a bathroom, kitchen or garden – and telling them what to say or do. A new dubbing tool will allow the avatars to speak in multiple languages.

Ads made with these new features will be labelled accordingly, TikTok said, noting the new tools are “designed to enhance and amplify human imagination, not replace it”.

Jessy Grossman, founder of the networking group Women in Influencer Marketing, said she thought AI would allow creators on the platform to work faster and at a greater volume, without sacrificing creativity.

“I feel like people who don’t really have much experience with AI tools assume that it will take in information and spit out a final product,” Grossman said. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth. It just helps put you on the right track and then you put your spin on it.”

“For everybody who claims to be wanting to do influencer marketing at scale, I don’t see any other way to achieve that,” she said.

Over the years, TikTok has made itself into an advertising juggernaut, drawing major brands to the platform and generating billions of dollars in ad revenue. The company remains bullish on advertising, even as it faces an uncertain outlook in the United States. (Other tech platforms have also made forays into AI features: As of April, Instagram’s influencer chatbots were in early stages of testing.)

TikTok has also previously come under scrutiny for blurring the lines between what is organic content and what’s actually an ad. Some worry the introduction of AI could make advertising on the platform bring about more confusion.

Mara Einstein, a marketing professor at Queens College and the author of the book Black Ops Advertising, said the avatars TikTok unveiled Monday were a far cry from being easy to confuse for real humans, describing their speech and behavior as “stilted”. (Einstein is also a TikTok creator herself, with just over 18,000 followers.)

“I think that people who spend any time on TikTok at all are going to be smart enough to realise that they’re looking at an avatar,” she said.

If the ads lack that human element, they could fall short of reaching consumers, she added.

“The biggest problem with AI is AI builds on what already exists – so, you know, it’s searching around and finding information, but it’s that you’re only going to find what’s in the database,” Einstein said. “You’re not going to find what’s creative and new. People don’t want things they’ve already seen.”

Still, she noted, the technology will probably only improve, potentially making the AI-generated avatars more convincing.

Arielle Fodor, 32, a kindergarten teacher turned content creator, said while she was excited by the accessibility potential of the new technology, she also was wary – particularly given last summer’s actors strike, when the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union members raised concerns about how AI would affect their jobs and the wider entertainment industry.

Fodor, who has 1.3 million TikTok followers, said it was “a little freaky” to imagine an AI version of herself appearing in videos on the platform.

“The humanity that you can bring to an ad or any video, that’s what people bring to the table that AI just doesn’t do,” she said. – The New York Times

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