An ESPN Commercial Hints at Advertising’s Deepfake Future

Unable to film new commercials during the coronavirus pandemic, advertising agencies are turning to technologies that can seamlessly alter old footage, sometimes putting viewers in a position of doubting what they are seeing.

During Sunday’s episodes of “The Last Dance,” the ESPN documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, State Farm ran a commercial featuring expertly doctored footage of the longtime “SportsCenter” anchor Kenny Mayne.

In the ad, a much younger Mr. Mayne is seated at the “SportsCenter” desk in 1998. He reports on the Bulls’ sixth championship title — before taking a turn toward the prophetic.

“This is the kind of stuff that ESPN will eventually make a documentary about,” Mr. Mayne says. “They’ll call it something like ‘The Last Dance.’ They’ll make it a 10-part series and release it in the year 2020. It’s going to be lit. You don’t even know what that means yet.” As a vintage State Farm logo appears in the background, he adds, “And this clip will be used to promote the documentary in a State Farm commercial.”

The producers made the commercial by layering video of Mr. Mayne’s 60-year-old mouth onto footage of his 38-year-old face. To many viewers, the stunt provided a welcome moment of levity in depressing times. Others were made uneasy by the smoothness of the patch, describing it as a type of deepfake.

“We tried to make the joke clear enough so that we weren’t tricking anyone,” said Carrie Brzezinski-Hsu, the head of ESPN CreativeWorks, which created the commercial with the ad agencies Optimum Sports and Translation.

Ms. Brzezinski-Hsu said manipulated footage was likely to appear in future ESPN ads. And executives at several major advertising agencies said they had discussed making similar commercials with their clients in recent weeks.

“We’re so restricted in how we can generate content,” said Kerry Hill, the production director for the ad agency FCB in North America. “Anything that can be computer generated is something we’re going to explore.”

Husani Oakley, the chief technology officer of the ad firm Deutsch, said digitally altered ads should somehow clue viewers into the fact that what they are seeing is not completely real.

“The technology is here, and it’s only going to get better and better, and we have to get used to it,” he added. “We’re exploring ways to have fun with it.”

This year, the ad firm Goodby Silverstein & Partners worked on an app that allowed users to appear to be doing the dance moves pulled off by Lil Nas X in a Doritos commercial. Executives described the experience as turning “deepfake into dancefake.”

In place of Mr. Haysbert’s head, there is the head of former President Barack Obama. He is seated in a living room with a group of men watching a TV commercial for Joseph R. Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. The commercial-within-the-commercial uses audio from a 2017 event during which Mr. Biden talked about having worked as a lifeguard at a swimming pool. “I loved kids jumping on my lap,” the candidate says, as Mr. Obama’s companions shoot him disapproving looks.

The grafting of Mr. Obama’s head onto Mr. Haysbert’s body was too crude to fool viewers, but as the ESPN-State Farm ad made clear, the tech is advanced enough to make many people doubt what they are seeing.

“We won’t be able to tell the difference,” he said. “We’ll have to rely on the machines to tell us that the videos were made by machines.”

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