Exploring AI at a Mile High

AI ‘R’ Us? Toys ‘R’ Us ad, made with generative AI, incites fear & loathing

Phil Nugent

Boulder, Colorado

Last updated on Jul 9, 2024

Posted on Jul 9, 2024

Have you seen the latest Toys ‘R’ Us ad? If not, you really need to check it out.

It’s gotten a lot of attention because it’s the first ad from a major brand that’s been produced almost entirely by generative AI. It was created with Sora, OpenAI’s not-yet-released-to-most-people, text-to-video tool. So, that sounds kinda cool, right?

But, wow, it’s gotten a lot of hate. And not just comments like “Meh – I’ve seen better.” That would be understandable. Instead, there’s been an unending cacophony of comments along the lines of “ghoulish,” “this is trash,” “this is horrible,” and “woof.” An off-the-cuff estimate of the percentage of negative comments would be something like 95%. (And that might be low-balling it.)

Forbes documented the animosity toward the ad in an article titled, “Toys ‘R’ Us AI-Generated Ad Controversy, Explained.” As the article reports, “In this ad, there are many clues [of AI’s involvement] — half-bicycles that melt into each other, wonky window panes, and the dead-eyed stare of an AI-generated man.”

Well, sure. But as one YouTube commenter wrote, he showed the ad to one friend without teeing it up as a product of AI, and the friend thought it was fine. The commenter showed it to another friend, this time telling her that it was AI-made, and that friend immediately groaned and started picking out all the technical flaws.

That wasn’t exactly a scientific survey, but it proves my point. There’s a lot of angst about AI in the marketing community – and in many other communities – these days. And rightly so. It's a scary world out there right now.

But I think it’s important not to reflexively denigrate everything that’s even partially produced by AI. That won’t get you anywhere you want to go. It’s kind of like the legend of John Henry, the "steel-driving man" who raced against a steam-powered rock drill in the 19th century. (In case you don’t remember the tale, it did not end well for John Henry.)

Instead, it’s important to take a critical eye (and ear and brain) to what AI is putting together, and to figure out what’s working well and what isn’t. Embrace the good and reject the bad. But keep coming back to what you rejected a couple of months ago. Because above all, it’s essential to remember one thing: All of this generative AI is only going to get better. Much better. At this point, we're still at the bottom of the hockey stick curve.  

So, is the ad Clio-worthy? Not necessarily, but I actually liked it. It's cute and I think it’s kind of compelling. Is it art? Maybe not, but how many ads are?

The point of an ad is how it makes you feel. Even without knowing that this ad was the product of generative AI, I think it would be safe to say that it has a bit of The Polar Express quality to it. They’re both kind of dreamy, fantasy-like, feel-good productions. And not everyone liked The Polar Express, either.

But is the movie or the Toys ‘R’ Us ad “trash”? I don’t think so. They're both examples of pretty decent storytelling. And those who get too hung up on the technical details are missing that all-important piece.

But what do you think? Let us know in the member discussion below.

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