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Memphis Flyer Inside the Box

Ad execs replaced by computers? Well, not exactly.

By Jim Hanas

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  "Computer Wins Out As Creative Advertiser" read The Commercial Appeal's headline on a recent story about a study that found that some advertisements created by computers rated better with judges than ads devised by humans. "Computer Ads Beat Human Ones in Creativity Study" was Reuters' headline on a similar report.

As usual when science hits the mainstream, both stories (the CA's version originated in The Boston Globe) oversold the actual findings, but the underlying study did produce some fairly startling results.

Researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem found that 89 percent of award-winning ads they surveyed were created using one of six "creativity templates," with 25 percent of those using "replacement," a procedure by which a product that has a certain attribute is shown in a situation closely linked to that attribute. For example, an ad for Nike-Air shoes displays the shoe's cushioning-capacity by showing a group of firefighters holding a shoe instead of a life net in order to rescue people escaping from a burning building.

The researchers developed an algorithm for performing such replacements and let computers take a stab at creating ads for cars, electronic appliances, alcoholic beverages, and food products. Here's what they found, as reported in the journal Science: "Judges rated award-winning ads highest in creativity and originality, although their ratings were not significantly different from those for the magazine ads and the computer-generated ideas. However, in both cases, ads generated by laymen were rated as inferior."

So, are ad executives scurrying to make alternative career plans? Hardly, although the study -- circulated in an e-mail bearing the subject "You Are Completely Worthless" -- has sparked some amused discussion in the local industry.

"I was kind of surprised by it," says Gary Backaus, creative director at Archer/Malmo Advertising. "But after I read it, I realized all they were doing was feeding it formulas, which you could have probably done for anything and come up with something reasonable. If they fed it a formula to design a car, it would probably come up with a reasonable-looking car that someone would like."

And, as Backaus notes, "somebody had to invent the formulas in the first place." In this case, the formulas were derived from the survey of award-winning ads; that is, from the actual practices of human ad creators.

"We are doing what the computer does," says Dan Conaway, chairman and creative director at Conaway Brown. "I don't think the computer is ever going to go as far or reach as far as a human being will to make those associations. It will probably produce something that will be an acceptable ad for some purpose, but what it won't do is produce an exceptional ad for that purpose, or the ultimate exceptional ad for that purpose. That will be done by people."

In fact, Conaway says he agrees with the basic finding of the study, which is that effective creativity is not unbridled but governed by certain rules.

"There's that buzzword/cliche about thinking outside the box," says Conaway. "What I tell everybody here is that it's not thinking outside the box, it's how creative you are inside the box. That's what a lot of people don't realize about the creative process. There are parameters."

Far from trembling at the prospect of a Deep Blue of advertising, local ad-types remain confident that a computer will never be able to duplicate the essential unpredictability of human beings. As Conaway notes: "It's that risk-taking and opposable thumbs that make humans different from everything else."

The computer isn't super-human after all. One ad the computer created depicts a domed mosque with the look of a tennis ball to advertise a tennis tournament in Jerusalem, an idea that has been done, according to Patty Reynolds, creative director at Sossaman Bateman & Associates Advertising, in an award-winning ad for Penn's sponsorship of the French Open that morphed a tennis ball into a croissant.

"Even the computer can't come up with new ideas," says Reynolds.

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