Michelob ULTRA’s “anti-artificial” advertising campaign featured various virtual/artificial beings reacting adversely to their taglines “Real is Better” and “Artificial Not Welcome.” The video shows a robotic dog that was supposedly “dispatched by A.I. to send a message.” The series also had photorealistic CGI models from the virtual model agency The Diigitals, clad in black and metal outfits, and virtual influencers Aliza and Binxie who after texting each other run to tear off their promotional posters.
Are artificial beings not, or lesser than, real? In the campaign, they may seem antagonistic and threatening. However, robot dogs are rather described as companions for “safer, more efficient” workflow by their developers, and virtual models and influencers tend to share their lifelogs and photoshoots on Instagram, “being real” to their fans. In fact, they are increasingly joining our social and cultural spaces, oftentimes nearly indistinguishable from humans. At the same time, humans are increasingly presenting themselves and interacting with each other through mediated means, from avatars and AR filter cameras to games and Zoom classes. The key to the question may be in the difference between state, “authentic being,” and process, “being authentic.”
Are artificial beings’ struggles not, or lesser than, real? Their growing capacities for intelligence and human likeness urge us to question the hierarchal human-centrism implied in the “anti-artificial” stance. The outcry’s narrative parallels with human struggles against systemic injustice invite reflections on how the standardized imagery of “the (intelligent) human” has historically excluded human groups as well. The Diigitals model Shudu protested the campaign on her Instagram:
“As an artificially created supermodel, I will not stand for this attack on my kind...[the robot dog] has made it clear that we have the power to take this brand down. Do not tweet #ULTRAOrganicSeltzer. Do not support them.”
The politics of representation is another important layer to consider. Shudu is a CGI-made Black virtual model. What does it mean for artificial beings that look and act like someone of a particular demographic group to advocate for certain beliefs or actions? Another is the supposedly “inauthentic,” manufactured context of marketing, including artificial beings’ self-promotional hustle for virality that often draws on the novelty of their “non-real” origin. Does this context make any of the questions more or less valid? I suggest that we start by inquiring what “being authentic” means to us and examine their “real” effects without the labels “artificial” and “virtual.”