Alexa, write my copy.

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[The following was published recently by D&AD.  The cartoon appeared in Punch in 1981.]
 

I once wrote a 3,200-word ad in a weekend.  I would have killed for a copywriting bot at the time.  A giant silvery worm that hoovered up the endless briefing documents and pooed out whole sentences would have been a godsend. Instead, my long defence of British Satellite Broadcasting ran in Monday’s FT.  On Tuesday, Rupert Murdoch bought the company out and it ceased to exist. The ad wasn’t just fish wrap.  It was a shroud.

Nevertheless, riffing about Artificial Intelligence Writing Tools to a creative audience is close to shooting fish in a barrel. It’s easy to take aim. I think I know which side you’re on. Do any of us welcome these gizmos at all? No one wants to be replaced by a machine, ever. Yet, in this gig economy, the mechanical genii are very much out, about and fucking difficult to stuff back in the lamp.  (Do AI tools swear, I wonder?)

Search the subject and Google will tell you that they’re all about content writing, SEO dominance and how to fashion data as text.  I get that. AI gear can churn out functional, factual information that bounces about the top of search lists. Think 21st Century equivalent of Dymo tape that sticks to the subject and labels it with clarity, shrieking ‘look at me’ louder than most, humanly applied intelligence can do.

Truthfully, even Google Search itself is a better, faster friend to the copywriter than the late, lamented Daily Telegraph Information Line. That chatty telephone service was used to fact-check every ad I wrote in my first two agencies. But equally truthfully, closer inspection of the information written by AI bots – or the terms and conditions that have been vomited out of their various app’s sequencing gubbins – reveal it to be phenomenally, catastrophically boring.

For instance, you could throw the whole AI suite of digital tools at an ironmonger’s shop. By return, you could expect crystal clear descriptions of all the nails, tacks and screws. Everything will be written into its place according to length, diameter and more.  Never, ever, in a trillion years, would any one of them come up with “Fork Handles” and keep their readers or viewers amused, absorbed and repeating the phrase over and over for years as Ronnie Barker’s famous sketch did. That requires human genius.

The obvious point to make is the Bill Bernbach one. Persuasion is an art, not a science. However many microchips conspire to produce something emotional and artistic, the results are tellingly cold. The algorithms behind writing tools are the product of committee thinking. Google Translate has democratised understanding, but that committee-effect is rubbing out local character, nuance and idiosyncrasy.  No machine  – yet – can ever capture the glorious, madcap, inconsequential and illogical lunacy of human beings as they really communicate.

Pure logic as a selling tool –  Ronseal and precious few others excepted – falls on stony ground in the limbic brain.Twenty years after Flat Eric, the curiously yellow puppet employed by Tony Davidson and Kim Papworth to advertise stay-pressed Levi’s, that ad strikes as being as far from a logical sell as you could conceive.  Further back still, Chris O’Shea’s “My shout, he whispered,” for reassuringly expensive Stella and Frank Budgen’s incomparable “Which of these three kids is wearing Fisher Price anti-slip roller skates?” (with only one child visible) would never, for simple mathematical reasons, have been spawned by Artificial Intelligence.

If we default to AI tools wholesale fashion, we’ll make the business of communication even less attractive to the next generation (and the communication itself even more ignorable). Yes, there are vital roles for AI copy that, like Desert Orchid, can overcome all the handicaps and finish first when the snapshot is taken. But they are only part of the picture.

If there’s one handy, look closely at the copywriter nearest to you. Imagine them going all Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner suddenly.  “I’ve seen body copy on fire off the creative director’s desk,” they might say. “I’ve watched pronouns glittering in the dark near paragraph ends. All that punctuation will be lost like tears in the rain. Time to delete,” before expiring as small batteries start firing out of their nose, ink cartridges leaking visibly under their skin.

Honestly, I don’t think we’re in any real danger yet. AI is really about helping, not replacing us.

A closing shot should go to one Keaton Patti. On Twitter, he declared he’d forced a bot to watch over 1,000 hours of commercials for Olive Garden (a casual Italian dining chain in the US).  He then asked it to write a script of its own. If you haven’t read it, you should. It is so brilliantly funny, it could never have been written by anything other than a human being.

Whatever the debates, there’s one conclusion of which we scribes can be absolutely certain. AI Writing Tools would never dream of winning a D&AD pencil, even if we all do.

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