Copywriting, Dennis Bergkamp, my mum, and why I’m not worried about AI

Posted by Sean Kelly

November 20, 2019

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When I was 11 years old, I saw one of most beautiful things I had ever seen. Arsenal were playing Newcastle under the floodlights at St. James’ Park. It was 11 minutes into the first half when Robert Pires picked up the ball on the left-hand side and spotted Dennis Bergkamp running towards the box. The ball gets played into him with his back to the goal, and with the deftness of a ballet dancer he spins the ball with his left foot and he turns simultaneously in the opposite direction. The spin on the ball means it falls perfectly back into his path. Dabizas (the man unluckily marking him) is in no man’s land, Bergkamp carresses it into the net. 


When speaking about that goal, David Winner, Bergkamp’s biographer, said Bergkamp created a perfect moment. Not because this was typically silky and nonchalant as you expected from the Dutchman. It was because he had taken the route that most made sense to him, even if it seemed impossible. There was a moment when capability, muscle memory and pure brilliance combined for one beautiful moment. 


Now, it may not seem like a smooth segue, but this is where copywriting and AI come in. Writers all over the country are snapping pencils at the news of JP Morgan Chase signing a five-year deal with a tech firm whose AI-generated marketing copy is said to be more effective than anything written by a human. Naturally, I’m worried. But can AI really function better than a human copywriter?


AI’s creativity


There have been good examples of AI producing creative writing. A group of coders called Botnik created an algorithm to ghost write a new instalment of Harry Potter. This was achieved by instructing a bot to read all seven Harry Potter novels and have a go at writing its own. In fairness there are sentences where the tone is spot on, but ultimately most are just strange and there’s no real narrative flow. However, it does throw out some lines like this, “rain fell like it was 'leathery sheets' on top of Harry's ghost as he walked the grounds. Ron stood there doing a tap dance, but once he saw Harry, he started eating Hermione's family.”


There still seems to be enough of a clear gap between human and AI creativity, this is best shown in a Turing Test called Winograd Schemas. This test helps us differientiate between human and robots through questions which rely on knowledge and commonsense. In this instance vague pronouns and the use of either ‘advocated’ or ‘feared’ give one sentence different meanings:


  • The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they advocated violence.


  • The city councilmen refused the demonstrators a permit because they feared violence.


AI has a tough time trying to pick these sentences apart. But as humans, we have a previous understanding of the typical relationships between and behaviour of councilmen and demonstrators, so the use of ‘they’ doesn’t throw us. Even from a single test like this, you can maybe understand the benefits of AI when working on something functional. Or using an algorithm to find out how to say a message in its most pure and effective form, but it seems AI still comes unstuck in creative writing. We can put this down to our own understanding of context rather than just pure dictionary definition. 


Human creativity


So what makes human creativity better or different from AIs? In his article for Creative Review, Perry Nightingale talks about how human vision is a form of AI which our brain uses to tell us what things are. Our imagination essentially turns objects into maps, and those maps include all our experiences, thoughts and feelings for those objects. And the real creativity starts from combining thoughts in the deepest corners of those internal maps. 


If we take that logic and look at something as basic as a mug. AI could tell you about its structure, it’s material, how it’s made and even every advert that’s included a mug. But you give the same mug to a human and we begin to explore these internal maps and come up with different responses. Like how you’re reminded of one of your earliest memories; drinking soup from a mug as you were watching fireworks. Or even how every Christmas you play the same trick on your mum of getting her a cup of tea but instead returning with an empty mug and pretending to spill it all over her (sorry mum). 


It’s in these instances where you can see how individually we bring such richness to this industry, and how AI just can’t match us. We all bring different opinions, memories, dislikes - everything, and that in itself is something very exciting. From this you begin to understand how humans could create an advert or a piece of creative that AI simply couldn’t. If you look at the famous Surfer ad by Guinness. It’s not the most logical; surfers surrounded by horses crashing through the water selling a stout, but it works and it’s brilliant. Similarly, if you look at the Cadbury’s drumming Gorilla, it doesn’t make sense to use that to sell chocolate, but it worked, and it’s something that AI couldn’t pull together through data. 


So now if we return to Dennis Bergkamp’s goal from all those years ago. AI in the same position would have assessed the options, “should I lay it off to a midfielder, hold the ball up, or even take a heavy touch to pull away from the defender?” It can’t pull together clashing experiences, knowledge, dreams and come up with something impossible – but we can. 

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