To Bot Or Not
Like everyone else on the planet who’s read, heard, or seen the news about AI bots becoming more capable of things like writing like a human, I was intrigued. I had to see for myself what all the hype was about. So, I cruised over to ChatGPT, the darling of the AI writing scene.
I’m not super-susceptible to “the machines are coming for us” hysteria that gets ginned up every time there’s an AI innovation. In fact, the very day I heard about the AI-powered design tool called DLL-E (same folks behind ChatGPT, by the way), I gave it a couple-hour test drive. It was…interesting. Enough so, that the design team in our shop actually ended up using a couple of the bot-generated art pieces as inspiration for a pitch concept. But design-AI seemed a little more novel than threatening. At least from my perspective – I’m no designer, after all.
But I am an editor (at least at heart), and words are where I like to play. So, while I may not be a hysteric, I am not immune from concern when I hear about the invasion of the word-bots.
THE BURNING QUESTION
It was hard to know where to start with ChatGPT. So, I decided to get right to the point: “Why shouldn’t advertising writers be afraid of AI.”
The reply, a few short seconds later, started scrolling out on screen like someone banging away on a keyboard somewhere out there in the cyberverse. Grammar and spelling were flawless as expected, and the message was vaguely in the tone of every benevolent, gentle robot from pop culture, assuring that AI is a helper. A tool. As the actual bot puts it:
“Advertising writers should not be afraid of AI because it can actually be a useful tool to assist them in their work… Overall, advertising writers should view AI as a helpful tool rather than a threat to their livelihood.”
I asked ChatGPT to explain that same rationale to a kid. Then for a “scientist.” The bot does a pretty solid job of scaling content up and down in terms of tone – shaping things for audiences.
For kids: Hey there! Do you know what AI is? It’s a cool technology that can help advertising writers with their work!
For Scientists: Artificial intelligence (AI) has emerged as a powerful tool for advertising writers, and scientists are increasingly recognizing its potential applications in this field.
Generic, but proficient. Just like a lot of writers I’ve encountered over the years. I ran some web copy we’ve been working on for a few clients through the engine and asked for rewrites that were more casual or more serious, and the outputs were similarly serviceable.
But for a lot of questions, ChapGPT chickens out. Ask it to make an argument and it pulls the whole “I am a robot. I don’t have opinions” move. And ChatGPT can get really list-y at times. At one point I asked three different questions (what’s great about Wyoming, what’s the difference between types of penguins, describe how the digestive system works) and got three different 4- or 5-point lists.
I get it. Maybe I shouldn’t be using an AI writing bot as a search engine and expect anything but lists. But there are some essential tasks a marketing writer has to master: digestion of facts, generation of an argument (a hook), and a final assembly that has some style, originality, and, hopefully, flair. So far, the human scribes seemed pretty safe.
But damn, when it comes to rewrites, the bots can really blaze. I had ChatGPT re-write a paragraph from a book I published a couple years ago. I asked it to be funnier. Here’s what happened:
ORIGINAL: A generation (or two) ago, American food was pretty simple; we ate what companies marketed to us with little analysis. Young American families starting out on their own were able to get by on a healthy dose of sugary cereal, peanut butter, instant mashed potatoes, TV dinners, and cheap domestic beer. The golden age of American food marketing brought us low-cost, shelf-stable starchiness to fuel our days, and the vast majority of grocers sold mostly the same food.
REWRITE: Back in the day, American cuisine was as basic as a vanilla ice cream cone. We just gobbled up whatever the food companies shoveled our way without much thought. And when young American families first moved out on their own, they survived on a diet of sugary cereal, peanut butter, instant mashed potatoes, TV dinners, and beer that tasted like it was made in somebody’s bathtub. It was the heyday of American food marketing, where cheap and carb-loaded sustenance was king, and grocery stores carried the same boring grub as everyone else.
As the creator of the original, I have to say…not terrible. I won’t argue that it’s funnier, or that it’s even conveying the core point in the same way, but it is an intriguing option. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe the bot wasn’t lying about itself, trying to cover up some nefarious scheme to take all our jobs. Maybe it is a helpful tool. Here’s that same content with the simple instruction “make this more serious.”
Several decades ago, American food choices were relatively limited, and many people relied on mass-produced, highly processed foods as a staple of their diet. Convenience was prioritized over nutritional value, and families often turned to products that were quick and easy to prepare, but lacked the nutrients and diversity necessary for optimal health. This era of American food marketing saw an abundance of low-cost, long-lasting, and highly-processed foods dominate the grocery store shelves, leaving little room for fresh and nutritious options.
Clearly, ChatGPT can help a writer see ideas and content through different tonal lenses, saving a lot of time laboring over the same content to create different versions and voices. When it comes to generating options, ChatGPT is aces.
TAG, YOU’RE (NOT) IT
But what about the Mt. Everest of ad writing? What about the tagline? For the final test I asked my robot auteur to crank out a few taglines for a “Wing Restaurant Chain.” Here are the outputs:
“Wing your way to flavor town!”
“Satisfy your cravings with our finger-licking good wings!”
“Where wings and good times take flight!”
“Bringing the heat to your taste buds, one wing at a time!”
“The best wings in town, period!”
Let’s just say that I might encourage the bot to revisit the brief (though the Guy Fieri-ness in the first one is distinctive). Also, sorry, but I don’t think the “finger-licking good” would make it through legal.
Let’s try again with insurance companies, since currently they seem to spend more money in advertising than any other category. “Write me a tagline for a car insurance company.”
“Drive with confidence – we’ve got you covered.”
“Protect your ride and your wallet with our affordable car insurance.”
“Accidents happen, but with us, you’re always in good hands.”
“Drive worry-free knowing you have the best car insurance in the business.”
“We’re not just your insurance company, we’re your peace of mind on the road.”
Nope. And again, there will be a problem with Karen in legal with the whole “good hands” thing.
I gave it one last go – beer commercials. I asked for a five-word tagline for a beer company. I got “Raise a glass to adventure” which, honestly, I could see if Captain Morgan (or maybe Yeti?) ever came out with a beer.
Experiment complete. My verdict? ChatGPT (terrible name aside) may have a place in the writer’s toolbox, especially as a way to look at content through different content lenses. As a generator of original, witty / clever / funny ad content, I’m going to guess it may take a minute. But the bots are (probably) coming.
One side note, the interface for ChatGPT is pretty fantastic in its simplicity. You don’t need any special context or syntax – you ask it to do something, and it pretty much does it. You can also highlight individual portions of the output and have it remove or rework. Simple, effective, awesome interface.
POSTSCRIPT: BEHOLD, THE CREATOR
Words are more my business than my pleasure, but I thought I’d check out how the bot creates the ultimate in original content – fiction. So, I fed it a couple of my worst possible fiction sentences and asked to “write the next paragraph, more graphically.” Here’s what it spit out:
INPUT: The goblin came to the door, holding a candle in one hand. His tongue flicked in the moonlight, and his nostrils flared as he searched for the scent of the girl’s hair.
OUTPUT: The goblin’s twisted grin widened as he caught the scent of the girl’s hair. His bloodlust surged, and he felt a primal urge to feast on her flesh. With a sickening cackle, he raised the candle, revealing his grotesque features in the flickering light. The girl trembled in fear, her eyes wide with terror. She knew that this was no ordinary goblin; this was a creature of pure evil. As the goblin approached her, his long, bony fingers reached out, ready to snatch her up and carry her away into the darkness. The girl could feel his hot breath on her face, and she knew that her fate was sealed. Her scream was cut short as the goblin clamped his hand over her mouth, dragging her away into the night.
Not exactly “watch your ass, Stephen King,” but I’ve read worse. All hail our new bot-author overlords.
Try ChatGPT out for yourself – have it rewrite portions of this post “more smarter.” Or maybe I already did that…