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Does it really matter if an ad is 'fake'?

If you didn't catch it, we're republishing some of our most popular stories of the year so far. We look at how 'fake' ads are capturing attention and redefining the social media landscape

By Dani Gibson

Did you see the massive activation that Maybelline launched last week with TfL? No? Well unless you were on social media, you wouldn’t have.

Maybelline added eyelashes to Tube carriages and London buses, but only in the digital world. At first, people thought it was real. And why not. This 3D rendered video looks very real to the untrained eye.

Brands are experimenting with CGI marketing campaigns, from Jacquemus turning bags into buses during Paris Fashion Week to British Airways outdoor ads “appearing” at Glastonbury.

The rise of surrealism is helping brands stand out in the social feed more than ever so that users will pause in their scroll, but where does this leave traditional media owners? Does it matter if an ad is not what it seems?

We ask industry insiders to weigh in with their thoughts.

Celine Saturino, managing director, Total Media

In a world where brands are battling for share of attention and share of wallet, approaches like that of Maybelline are impressive and no doubt the envy of many. Delivering more than 670,000 engagements on TikTok and creating talkability on and off the major media platforms speaks volumes to the cut-through of this ‘fake’ ad.

In general terms it shouldn’t matter if an ad is ‘fake’ providing that firstly it is managed by the brand and is not a ‘spoof’ ad; and secondly that the element of ‘fake’ is well executed – pertaining only to the experience of the ad – NOT extending into misleading advertising regarding the product or service itself. All around us, we see the rising popularity of ‘fake’ through the lens of virtual reality experiences and virtual worlds which have significant appeal to some audience categories that brands can take advantage of when done well.

Whilst surrealism is an increasingly popular approach in some categories, this should not be seen as a significant challenge to ‘traditional’ media where there are just as many opportunities for stand-out and innovation e.g. via 3D installations, the integration of sensory technology be that motion enabled, the use of smell etc. It’s fair to say that innovations of this order come with higher investment and longer lead times than their digital counterparts, but they also often offer different audiences, higher dwell times and lived experiences which deliver their own value. As always, a brand's approach to marketing is rarely either/or but rather a range of complimentary strategies that support the overall business goal.

Julian Vizard, creative partner, St Luke’s

I absolutely love it. It was specifically designed for social media and served as a refreshing example of advertising. A similar concept was executed during Paris Fashion Week, where buses were transformed to resemble handbags so convincingly that people mistook them for real. Just last week, a 3D creator produced a TikTok video for the Mission Impossible movie, featuring a metal bouncing ball falling down a xylophone to the film's theme tune. The entire sequence was rendered in 3D, making it purely fictional. We are witnessing a surge of creativity on social media, and this form of digital advertising is not merely intrusive but truly engaging.

With Maybelline, it generates a certain level of debate, leaving people wondering whether it is real or not. The execution is flawless, and this is precisely what social media is all about—encouraging engagement, stimulating discussions, and eliciting feedback. Traditional media has no reason to worry; a remarkable poster will always stand out. At St Luke's, we transformed a poster site into a large microwave for Butterkist. It was a simple yet captivating display of popcorn swirling around inside, deviating from the conventional billboard format. Just as traditional sites continue to innovate their appearance, they need not fear becoming irrelevant. This approach complements social media advertising and brings a breath of fresh air to the industry.

Creating visually appealing AI-generated ads requires a diverse skill set. By harnessing the creative community found on social platforms and actively engaging them in the process, advertising agencies can explore unconventional methods of advertising. Through the utilisation of these exceptional creators, it becomes feasible to produce advertising content that not only ignites conversations but also yields tangible outcomes on these smaller channels.

Ben Richards, chief experience officer, VMLY&R London

Visual trickery that blurs reality and art can be inspiring and fun when crafted with respect. This was my feeling when I saw the piece of social content from Maybelline—an audacious, unreal spectacle.

A sight that if seen on a station platform in reality would be an awe-inspiring, albeit unfeasible sight that would never get past health safety legal etc etc.

This "fake fakeness", as I'd call it, is art—creative, fun, a stage for imagination to shine. It’s an enchanting illusion meant to amuse, not mislead.

Yet, there's a darker side to fakery, what I term "deception fakeness".

It's when the trickery intends to deceive rather than delight.

A classic example - in the 1990s, campaigns that airbrushed models beyond reality, setting unattainable beauty standards.

Modern AI and digital tools, in the wrong hands, deepen this deceit, making it dangerously seamless, accessible and distributable.

A stark example is the recent deepfake incident involving money saving expert Martin Lewis. Highly accessible technology was misused to defraud unsuspecting audiences of their hard-earned money. An artifice that crossed from art into crime.

In this intricate world, we must distinguish between reality and fabrication. We can revel in fakery that stirs imagination but must stay vigilant against deceitful illusions that exploit our trust. The magic of art lies not in deception, but in transformative power.

If you start with bad ethics, you end with bad ethics. As an industry that trades eyeballs and emotions, it’s just as much our responsibility to be ethical as it is to stretch technology to create new worlds.

Mark Boyd, founder, Gravity Road

We’re going on as if a cosmetics brand invented ‘fakes’ in the last two weeks. Switch on your streaming platform and watch a movie. Godzilla, the zombie army and that big wave heading towards us is not real. It’s the special effects guys who’ve been getting busier ever since they started filming movies.

Perhaps it’s the language. Fake is pretty loaded and emotive. After all, the moment you start editing the thing you’re playing with it becomes less real. Audiences are smart and will get this. It feels less threatening if you suggest this is reality but it is just being enhanced or augmented. The Maybelline work is brilliant and rooted in the product brand. Generative AI production is going to become a lot more common and we’d better get used to it. There will be good and bad and they have just set the bar high.

There are significant issues for rights owners. Did they get TfL approval for using the tube or that of the architects behind the Gerkin? I don’t know. You might get away with it but not for long. Rights owners will quickly get savvy to protecting their assets and others will get savvy to the commercial opportunity.

Gen Kobayashi, chief strategy officer UK and EMEA, Weber Shandwick

One of the most useful quotes from David Ogilvy has to be: “Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them; and sometimes it’s an ad”. Whilst the media landscape has completely changed since Ogilvy uttered these words, I think the premise remains the same. People consume content they are interested in and sometimes it happens to be content funded by a brand.

Whether an ad is “fake” or not isn’t something a normal person would ever consider. If they like something they will watch it. And if they REALLY like something they will share it. So the fact that this Maybelline ad isn’t “real” is not really the point.

The average person scrolls through over 300-foot of content on their mobile phones each day. That’s the equivalent of scrolling the height of Big Ben on your phone on a daily basis. We are drowning in content that most people scroll past without a moment’s thought.

So, the point here is that Maybelline has managed to cut through the piles of content landfill and create something so thumb-stoppingly brilliant that thousands of people are willing to share it on their social feeds. They have successfully earned coverage and conversation by creating a piece of content that is valuable enough to someone to want to share it.

The giant eyelashes may not have been “real” in the film but the overwhelmingly positive response to them has been, and that’s all that really matters.

Richard Huntington, chief strategy officer, Saatchi & Saatchi

Fakery in advertising troubles us.

Not because it is dishonest but because it lacks effort.

Great advertising is so hard that when people take short cuts it feels they are cheating. When they bypass the need for a real client. When they avoid the pain of convincing multiple stakeholders. When they don’t have to incur the cost of buying any media. Or when they don’t devote the time and effort to build anything in the real world. It sticks in our throats.

But I fear we are just going to have to get over it.

Just because an ad never ran as your outdoor mock up suggests or you created what looks like live action digitally, it doesn’t mean it didn’t have an impact.

And that is what’s important after all. Not the effort but the impact.

It’s not whether the work is real that matters but whether the audience is. Whether people that buy things were reached and convinced in sufficient numbers to deliver a commercial impact. That is all that matters.

But this is nothing new.

We hate scam, not because of the lack of effort but because work created for juries and juries alone has no impact – it renders our industry impotent.

But by this measure the Maybelline work passes the test. It’s fake work that looks like it had a real impact.

Of course, the purist in me still sheds a tear for how awesome this would have been if they had actually done it.


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