Artificial Intelligence: the end of copywriting as we know it?
January 31, 2023
Could this be one of the last articles written by a human you ever read?
Stephen Hawking famously warned that AI could spell the end of the human race. But until that happens, what about our jobs?
It is with nervous excitement that my colleagues and I test out the recently launched open-source AI ChatGPT. We are like children playing with a new toy, asking it to perform any number of tasks ranging from the mind-bendingly surreal (pen a teleplay about Liz Truss and an invasion of alien ferrets) to the downright practical (summarise a 50-page research paper on government bonds in just 12 words). Our reactions range wildly too, from mild amusement to sheer amazement at the capabilities of this nascent but powerful technology. Yet, in the back of our minds is a sobering thought: could this “new toy” mean we’re all out of a job?
Grappling with the implications of artificial intelligence is nothing new for comms professionals. It has been a looming existential threat to copywriters, marketers, content creators, and even journalists for well over a decade. The main difference now is that this technology is open and accessible to all. Back in 2020, UK broadsheet The Guardian published an article titled: “A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?”. The newspaper invited OpenAI’s text generator GPT-3 to write an essay convincing its readers that robots pose no threat to humanity.
While the premise was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it was nonetheless provocative and raised a number of profound questions. Not because of the Matrix-esque fears of the dreaded “singularity” apocalypse, but because the article was so considered, reasoned and – dare we admit – well written. Years of training as a cub reporter, honing the craft on a local paper or striving for an NCTJ, was seemingly rendered meaningless by a robot that claims to have used just 0.12% of its cognitive capacity. Did it really spell the end of human-originated content creation? Well, not necessarily.
A high level of human oversight
In the editor’s note that accompanied the article, The Guardian wrote:
Editing GPT-3’s op-ed was no different to editing a human op-ed.[…] Overall, it took less time to edit than many human op-eds.
The note also revealed that the article was created by feeding the AI generator specific prompts, which means there remained a high level of human oversight from the very beginning. And that is where the future lies. Even as we play around on ChatGPT (now with 2+ years of additional development under its sleeve), we need to carefully consider our prompts.
In order for the AI to produce something you can actually use, we must ensure our instructions are detailed and specific. We quickly learn its limitations either through trial and error, or by the generator politely reminding us. Once it has produced something, we then need to filter for sense and proof for style and structure. Thankfully, its spelling and grammar tend to be impeccable.
For now at least, the AI has a subtly distinct tone and cadence that isn’t quite human, essentially the content equivalent of the “uncanny valley” phenomenon. By definition, the robot is also lacking in emotional intelligence. Although it appears to achieve a rough approximation that needs sense-checking once in a while. We know as communicators that empathy and emotional connection are by far the most effective tools of persuasion. We are, after all, humans speaking to other humans. For example, the AI would struggle to replicate articles like this that draw on personal insight and reflection.
Upending the creative process
As an experiment, I tasked the AI to come up with ten advertising slogans for a fictitious client brief. Ordinarily, this would take an afternoon of brainstorming with a whole team, fuelled by endless coffee and chocolate biscuits, before settling on three we like and agreeing to meet again tomorrow to pin down the other seven. Instead, the bot produced ten pretty serviceable options in mere seconds:
Come up with ten advertising slogans to sell mackerel-flavoured breakfast cereal to health-conscious 25-40 year olds
- “Rise and shine with the omega-3 boost of mackerel cereal”
- “Fuel your day with the power of fish in every bowl”
- “Get your daily dose of vitamins and minerals with mackerel cereal”
- “Start your day off right with the heart-healthy choice of mackerel cereal”
- “Mackerel cereal: the perfect protein-packed breakfast”
- “Healthy and delicious: the perfect combination in mackerel cereal”
- “Mackerel cereal: the brain food you’ll crave”
- “Ditch the boring cereal, try the taste sensation of mackerel”
- “Mackerel cereal: the ultimate breakfast for fitness enthusiasts”
- “Mackerel cereal: the secret to staying energized all day”
I mean, they’re not going to set Madison Avenue alight, but they’re not bad. Just in need of a bit of polish and finesse. AdAge ran a similar experiment in which they got the AI to generate some Super Bowl ads, to varying degrees of success. As the author notes, we are still working out the nuances, but the possibilities for upending the creative process are undoubtedly exhilarating.
The role of a copywriter is set to transform dramatically within the next five years. As comms professionals, aspects of our roles will morph into those of human intermediaries – essentially AI wranglers, skilled in the art of getting the robots to do as they are told. The cyber equivalent of lion tamers. Like Chris Pratt from the first Jurassic World, but instead of Velociraptors, a super-computer with godlike intelligence.
But as we know, the real value of content is not necessarily the words on a page. While the AI generator will do most of the heavy lifting, its human wrangler will still be required to manage things on the client side, drawing on their knowledge of the subject or the account, and weaving in agreed messaging. Many of the articles we produce originate from interviews with subject matter experts or customers who use the product or service. These require a distinctly human touch.
Nonetheless, we are entering a new age of efficiency, with the ability to churn out content immeasurably faster than any organic copywriter. There are also exciting possibilities for data-driven content, with AI allowing us to analyse vast sets of information, spot patterns beyond our cognition, and summarise it all into something more digestible. What’s more, AI will allow us to automate many of the smaller yet time-consuming duties, meaning we can better apply our skills to higher-value tasks such as devising strategy or exercising creativity. Our roles will inevitably adapt and develop alongside this new tool.
Finally, in the spirit of unbiased reporting, I decided to put the question to ChatGPT itself. Here is what it had to say on the matter:
Will AI replace the role of copywriters?
AI has the potential to automate certain tasks traditionally done by copywriters, such as content generation and optimization. However, it is unlikely that AI will completely replace the role of copywriters. Copywriting requires creativity, empathy, and a deep understanding of the target audience, which are difficult to replicate with current AI technology. Additionally, copywriting is often a collaborative process, and human copywriters are able to provide valuable insights and feedback to help improve the final product.
Now AI is out of the box, we can’t exactly put it back in again. We have crossed the Rubicon and there is no going back. It is up to us to embrace this powerful new technology and ensure we have the skills to stay relevant in a changing world. Our talent as creative communicators will allow our roles to evolve, turning from content creators to content curators making sure the AI behaves itself and that what it creates is fit for human consumption.
While the industry, and indeed the world, grapples with the implications of this emerging technology, I for one welcome our new robot overlords.