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Media pros respond to AI images from A24: ‘a huge misstep for their reputation’

A series of AI-generated images promoting Alex Garland’s new dystopian flick, Civil War, has the internet up in arms, sparking fresh concerns about the technology’s role in entertainment and the need for labeling mechanisms.

Independent film studio A24 is facing controversy after using AI-generated images to promote its latest film, Civil War.

The film, starring Kirsten Dunst and Wagner Moura, follows a team of journalists as they travel through a war-torn East Coast to reach Washington D.C., where they hope to interview the authoritarian president before rebels descend on the White House. It premiered at South by Southwest in March and was released in theaters across the US earlier this month.

Yesterday, A24 posted six images to its official Instagram page, each depicting an iconic American location in the midst of some kind of armed conflict. Sphere in Las Vegas, for example, is shown as a smoking husk lying in rubble, and the fountain in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park is ringed by heavily armed military transport vehicles.

There’s just one issue: none of the scenes captured in the stills were actually included in the film.

It didn’t take long for fans to realize that the images had been generated by AI.

Looking closely, one can discern certain sloppy details that wouldn’t have been included by a human artist. The layout of the roads depicted in the image of Washington Square Park doesn’t look quite like the real thing. Another image shows one the Marina Towers in Chicago in the middle of the river – both buildings are, in real life, located on the same side of the water. The misalignment of small details like these is a hallmark of current text-to-image generative AI models.

Responses to the Instagram post have ranged from baffled to outraged. “I’m really turned off by this marketing campaign,” one person commented. “AI art is theft and it’s aesthetically awful. Fire the person who approved this garbage. It’s repulsive and insulting to your audience.”

Another wrote: “For a company that seemingly values artistry, using AI generated works for advertising is a real bummer.”

A24’s use of generative AI has, in other words, added fuel to a fire that’s already been burning around the subject of AI’s impact in the entertainment and advertising sectors.

“The debate around [the AI-generated images] is really emblematic of where we are right now in navigating the role AI should (or shouldn’t) play in the creative world,” says Alex Persky-Stern, CEO of Waymark, an AI-powered video-generation platform. “A24 was probably trying to do something really innovative with the [images] – but in that pursuit, they may also have temporarily forgotten the importance of human authenticity.”

The incident comes just months after recent Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes, in which union members sought regulations around AI’s use in the TV and film industries.

“​​This use of AI-generated creative comes on the heels of a hard-fought contract negotiation between the Hollywood studios and the Writers Guild of America in which [the latter] came away with significant concessions about the use of AI in film production,” says Forrester principal analyst Jay Pattisall. “The Civil War AI creative symbolically challenges that win. It also touches a nerve in broader American society where a third of US consumers (who have heard of it) distrust generative AI.”

As Pattisall points out, the doctoring of promotional materials for films is nothing new. Posters for the 1976 remake of King Kong, for example, show the eponymous character standing atop the twin towers of the World Trade Center while swatting away fighter jets, when in fact helicopters were featured in the film. More recently, Marvel has been known to digitally alter scenes in its trailers to avoid spoiling significant plot points in its films.

But some regard A24’s use of generative AI – given the current political climate around AI and considering the fact that the depicted scenes are not included in Civil War – as a major strategic miscalculation. “A24 has no valid reason to doctor the scenes we’re seeing in their promotional materials,” says digital PR expert Georgia O’Brien Perry. “It’s a huge misstep for their reputation.”

Since the film itself is a portrayal of a hypothetical political cataclysm, the AI-generated images were reportedly intended to inspire more thought around what such a disaster could look like, according to The Hollywood Reporter, which cited an anonymous source “close to the movie.”

The fact that A24 did not prominently disclose the fact that it used AI to create the images certainly doesn’t seem to have helped matters.

In recent months, as concerns about the role of AI-generated misinformation in the upcoming US election have continued to mount, a chorus of experts in both the private and the public sectors have begun to push for policies mandating that AI-generated content be clearly labeled as such. It’s ironic that the marketing team behind a film that’s about a second American Civil War – with a team of journalists at its center – could have neglected to label its own AI-generated content, especially as we inch closer to a presidential election that’s seen by many as a make-or-break moment for American democracy.

“This episode underscores the need for greater transparency in advertising and marketing produced by AI,” Pattisall says. “Advertisers and their agents must clearly label work created with AI.”

Civil War director Alex Garland first made a name for himself with his 2014 directorial debut film, Ex Machina, which tells the story of a power struggle between a human inventor and his AI creation – and serves as a parable of the dangers of powerful AI.

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