We’ve all seen them and done the double-take. From mascara-clad eyelashes on the London underground and lipstick smudges across the streets of Paris, to giant handbags bouncing across Tower Bridge; 2023 has certainly been a year for computer-generated imagery (CGI) marketing.
But as more and more fashion and beauty brands are experimenting with surrealist technology, which is engineered specifically for virality, it poses the important question: what impact does CGI marketing have on brand trust?
Let’s examine some of the most talked-about CGI marketing campaigns and the impact that it’s having on consumers…
What is CGI marketing? And how long has it been around?
I’m not going to attempt to pinpoint the exact date of the first-ever CGI marketing campaign, but an early example of the phenomenon is the surreal Zara window display that was posted on their TikTok back in 2021.
This eye-catching stunt, which depicts an eerily realistic room of colourful balls moving around a Zara shop front in NYC, is the master work of motion designer Shane Fu, who was commissioned by the brand. The video garnered more than 17 million views online, and had many users believing that it was a real LED window display that they could go and visit – but alas, the window display exists only on the internet.
Fast-forward to spring 2023, and followers of the fashion brand, Jacquemus, may have been surprised to see the brand post a video on their Instagram, featuring giant versions of their Bambino handbags whizzing up and down the streets of Paris.
This also got the internet talking, with users wondering whether the brand had actually forked out the cash to reconstruct giant replicas of their iconic handbags and added four wheels to them, all in the name of marketing. Again, the answer is no. Another virtual simulation.
The trend has since been adopted by the beauty world, with the most notable campaign coming from the Maybelline team this summer, who posted a video on their TikTok channel, showcasing public transport in London with giant eyelashes getting a glow up as they drive by seemingly real tubes of Maybelline mascara. Spoiler alert: it was once again, all CGI.
Why is CGI marketing effective?
It’s pretty obvious to see why so many brands are experimenting with CGI. In a world where we’ve pretty much ‘seen it all,’ this new wave of content, thanks to its authentic-looking nature, certainly makes you stop and stare.
So if you’re in marketing and your objective is simply to raise brand awareness, reach new audiences and generate some online conversation, you’re onto a winner.
So what are the implications?
If you ask me, there’s a lot of things at play here. Whilst CGI content at its core is designed to be fun, playful and engaging, it meets such a high level of realism (often being recorded on what looks like a smartphone video and imitating organic content) that many users are left confused about whether or not the content is ‘real.’ This, naturally, is causing widespread industry debate, with lots of PR professionals worrying about the implications of this kind of marketing for the end consumer.
Brand trust and authenticity
A lot of marketers’ response to this is simply “so what?” The content serves a purpose; driving mass brand awareness, and sparking lots of online conversations, all at a much lower price than any rival OOH campaign could ever create (can you imagine just how much it’d cost to actually curate a giant handbag and stick it on the top of The Shard?!).
However, this question of brand trust is a really valid one. Many industry professionals are questioning just how impactful these CGI campaigns are on consumers, especially in a world that is much more conscious of brand transparency.
With consumers already having to navigate ‘fake news’ within the media, and AI-generated ‘deepfakes’ causing a lot of implications within the film and music industries, could CGI marketing also pose a threat on authenticity? Are consumers going to feel deceived by brands that they know and love, if they feel that they can’t believe what’s real or fake, true or false, or what’s really being advertised in front of their eyes?
And how far will it go? If it’s so much easier and cheaper to generate CGI content, what does the future hold? Will all marketing move to surrealistic CGI content, existing only online and never in-person? Will we ever be able to see and touch an activation again?!
These are all of course extreme forecasts, but authenticity is something that brands should absolutely keep in mind when considering how both their existing and future audiences want to be communicated to.
Credibility and creative license
What’s more, due to the viral nature of this kind of content, such campaigns can be very easily reshared across social media channels without any context or given credit.
Original sources and creators (such as Shane Fu who curated the Zara window display) aren’t always credited for their CGI creations, which can be extremely misleading for viewers who may think that the content is actually real; blurring the line between illusion and reality, and once again, impacting brand trust and credibility.
Something else to keep front of mind with CGI marketing is creative license. We’re already seeing lots of imitation at play between brands (*cough* Kylie Jenner…) and CGI-copycats are causing a debate on originality.
With this still being a fairly new arm of marketing, there’s yet to be any strict ruling on giving credit where credit’s due. But according to the folks on Formroom, “new standards are emerging for production and design companies, and brands too” in “response to this changing landscape.”
Therefore, brands should tread carefully when posting CGI content, if they don’t want to land in hot water with the ASA!
So, what’s the conclusion?
There’s no doubt that CGI marketing is changing the game in terms of how we consume brand content, and it’s a really exciting thing. And let’s be honest, beyond the world of marketing, maybe people don’t really care so much as to whether the content they are seeing is ‘real’ or otherwise.
But brands should consider the impact that this content could potentially have on their authenticity, credibility, and ultimately, consumer trust.
And whilst I do think that CGI content is going to have a huge part in PR & marketing strategies for many brands moving forward, I don’t think it means the end of physical OOH stunts. Consumers love to be able to see, hear, smell, taste and touch things to download information—it’s part of human nature.
Therefore, I’d suggest that brands look at adopting a mixed approach to their marketing activity. Striking a fine balance between both virtual and physical campaigns will be key to maintaining that all-important brand trust, whilst experimenting with new, creative technologies.