Deepfakes and digital avatars: the new celebrity brand ambassadors

Deepfake Tom Cruise
Deepfake Tom Cruise

Can an imitation be better than the real thing?

Deepfakes often get bad press, but they hold a largely untapped upside for creators, especially brands that use celebrities in their advertising.

Whether creating fake Tom Cruise TikToks, generating new episodes of The Simpsons by recreating Homer’s distinct voice, or a celebrity-fronted campaign where a superstar footballer can send a near-infinite permutation of personalised video messages to fans, deepfake’s AI-led technology means digital people and their voices can be recreated in faster and more cost-effective ways than ever before, without sacrificing authenticity.

What’s more, the resulting content becomes 100% ownable and flexible, thus opening up a new world of long-term possibilities.

Steady maturation of the technology

"Deepfake" has been around for a while, but it fully hit radars in 2017 when videos seemingly featuring famous actors caused viewers to do a double-take. The technology has matured since then and evolved to incorporate super-efficient production processes that make creation quicker and more effective. So it’s no wonder this AI technique is growing in popularity – if you’ve used the face-swapping app Reface, you’ve been deepfaked.

Taking its name from "deep learning" – where a machine teaches itself using artificial neural networks, similar to how the human brain works – deepfake content alters or swaps faces to create reproduced images and videos that look convincingly real.

Ethical concerns can be raised if used without consent, but with the protagonist’s permission, deepfake becomes a highly effective tool to create jaw-dropping content that entertains and engages.

Poor quality creation used to give the game away, with fuzzy edges and odd facial movements throwing some iterations into the "uncanny valley". But with technology advancing at speed and techniques being finessed, the deepfake process now offers a very viable and lifelike alternative to creating content with "real" people. And that’s where it becomes interesting for brands, particularly those looking to leverage talent partnerships.

A panacea for limited celebrity availability

Back in the old days, celebrity-fronted campaign shoots were dictated by said A-lister’s hectic diary, making it hard for brands to pin them down and maximise the budget. But deepfake has freed us from this hindrance. Why? Because all the deepfake process needs to get rolling is fundamental reference footage of the celebrity’s basic movements and conversational phrases… content that can be captured in mere minutes, rather than days, but go on to generate a content store of near limitless potential. Once the building blocks are in place, the deepfaked celeb can be made to do anything, providing the consent is in place.

Opening up an intimate dialogue

Deepfake’s flexible nature means content can be personalised, creating a fully rewarding experience for the consumer. There’s already a huge appetite for conversational connection, as shown by the runaway success of the celebrity video messaging platform, Cameo.

Deepfake technology furthers this opportunity for personal dialogue while using only a fraction of the talent’s time. From chatbots to voice AI technology, brands often investigate implementing technology that reduces costs and improves customer engagement across digital products. Deepfake is the new kid on the block, giving brands warm humanity, helping them move from cold automation to intimate customer communication.

The growing appetite for digital avatars

The pandemic-accelerated shift to online has furthered the growing trend for "fully digital avatars" like Lil Michaela, Samsung's Neon and Magic Leap’s Mica. These are particularly prevalent in the music and entertainment worlds, but gaining traction elsewhere, as can be seen in H&M’s use of a digital Maisie Williams for its new Looop garment recycling campaign. These virtual humans can appear incredibly lifelike when created with volumetric capture, requiring only a short amount of studio time with talent.

Unreal Engine’s super realistic new Metahumans tool means that building and manipulating avatars has never been easier. Between these advances and deepfake tech, brands can now immortalise their collaborators in an ownable virtual form, with infinite options to quickly respond to social trends, attend virtual events, or be placed within a branded game. And all without requiring the talent’s additional time.

Creating influencers at the speed of culture

With maturing technology enabling the creation of increasingly realistic digitised versions of famous faces, there is huge innovation potential for brands to create customisable, inclusive and ownable sponsorship content that has real impact.

By gaining approved control of a digital version of a real person, creative possibilities around the resulting avatar become compellingly endless. Thanks to the evolution of tech like deepfake, brands can now create ownable brand ambassadors beyond the standard TVC; human faces that offer helpful, rewarding and personalised experiences. And all created at the lightning-fast speed of culture.

James Murray is business director at Unit9

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