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Celebrity ‘deepfakes’ have started appearing in ads, with or without their permission


Celebrity deepfakes are coming to advertising.

Among the recent entries: Last year, Russian telecommunications company MegaFon ran an ad in which a simulacrum of Hollywood legend Bruce Willis helps defuse a bomb.

And last month, a promotional video for machine learning company Paperspace Co. showed telling likenesses of actors Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio.

None of these celebrities has ever spent a moment filming these campaigns. In the case of Messrs. Musk, Cruise and DiCaprio, they never even agreed to bond the companies in question.

All digital simulation videos were created with so-called deepfake technology, which uses computer-generated renderings to make Hollywood and business notables say and do things they never actually said or did.

Some of the ads are broad parodies, and the best-case scenario digital-to-analog mesh might not fool a discerning viewer. Even so, the growing adoption of deepfake software could eventually profoundly shape the industry while creating new legal and ethical questions, experts have said.

Authorized deepfakes could allow marketers to feature huge stars in ads without requiring them to appear on set or in front of cameras, reducing costs and opening up new creative possibilities.

But unauthorized, they create a legal gray area: Celebrities could struggle to contain a proliferation of unauthorized digital reproductions of themselves and the manipulation of their brand and reputation, experts have said.

“We have enough trouble with fake news. Now we have deepfakes, which are looking more and more convincing,” said Ari Lightman, professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy.

US lawmakers have started tackling the phenomenon of deepfakes. In 2019, Virginia banned the use of deepfakes in so-called revenge porn, Texas banned them in political campaigning, and California banned them in both cases. Last year, the US National Defense Authorization Act tasked the Department of Homeland Security with producing annual reports on threats posed by technology.

But experts said they were unaware of any laws dealing specifically with the use of deepfakes in advertisements.

Celebrities have had some success suing advertisers for unauthorized use of their images under so-called publicity rights laws, said Aaron Moss, chairman of the litigation department at law firm Greenberg Glusker. He cited Woody Allen’s $5 million settlement with American Apparel in 2009 over the director’s unapproved appearance on a billboard advertising the risque clothing brand.

Paperspace and reAlpha have had attorneys review the videos and have taken steps to ensure viewers understand that the celebrities depicted do not actually endorse the companies’ products or participate in the making of the videos. said the companies.

The Paperspace video originally appeared on its own website and was designed to educate users about deepfake technology, said Daniel Kobran, chief operating officer.

reAlpha’s Musk video included “strong disclaimers” establishing it as satire, said chief marketing officer Christie Currie. So did a similar reAlpha video posted last year, in which an ersatz version of the Tesla Inc.

The chef sat in a bubble bath and explained the concept of regulatory A+ investing, or equity crowdfunding.

The first Musk video was uploaded days after reAlpha launched a regulatory A+ public offering in 2021. The video eventually racked up 1.2 million views on YouTube and sparked active interest in reAlpha from “22,000 people in 83 countries,” Ms Currie said in an email. She added that the company avoided linking the video directly to its fundraising efforts.

“There’s obviously always a bit of a risk with any kind of parody content,” Ms. Currie said in an interview, “but generally as long as it’s meant to be educational, satirical, and you have disclaimers in place, it doesn’t shouldn’t be a problem as long as you don’t push a transaction.

Many of these companies deliberately go as close to the line as possible in order to almost troll the celebrities they are targeting.


—Aaron Moss, Greenberg Glusker

The likelihood of someone of Mr. Musk’s stature suing a startup over a deepfake video is low, and those companies might decide the risk is well worth the considerable publicity it would generate for them, Mr. Moss said.

“A lot of these companies deliberately get as close to the line as possible in order to almost troll the celebrities they are targeting,” he said.

But the ease of creating deepfakes means some celebrities could soon be inundated with ads featuring their unauthorized, but very convincing, likenesses, Moss said. It would be “death by a thousand cuts” if celebrities tried to go after every small business or individual creator who used the software, he added.

At the same time, the wording of contracts written years before the technology existed can be vague enough to allow marketers to use existing footage to create new deepfake videos. Because of this, actors, athletes and other celebrities will at some point begin inserting clauses prohibiting any further use of their likeness into any commercial contracts they sign, Carnegie Mellon’s Mr. Lightman said.

Tesla did not respond to requests for comment on the videos.

Bruce Willis’ announcement recently led to reports that the actor had signed a contract granting Deepcake, a digital production company based in Tbilisi, Georgia, the rights to his image. Deepcake said the reports were inaccurate.

In 2020, Deepcake was hired by MegaFon and worked with other advertising agencies and production companies to develop the deepfake campaign under a contract between Mr. Willis and MegaFon that has since expired, according to a carrier. word of Deepcake. Deepcake was not a party to that contract, the spokesperson noted, referring requests for further details to MegaFon.

Representatives for MegaFon did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Mr. Willis’ publicist did not respond to questions about whether he had a contract with MegaFon. In March, Mr Willis’ family announced that he had been diagnosed with aphasia and would be retiring.

Companies most often request deepfake videos of celebrities to use internally for training, communications, parties or other purposes, but not for ads, said Daynen Biggs, owner of Slack Shack Films, which has produces Elon Musk’s videos. A client recently requested a video featuring former President Donald Trump as Mr. Potter, the wealthy villain from the classic film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ Mr. Biggs said.

“Deepfake technology has the potential to be extremely harmful,” Biggs said. “We always make sure that what we create is not harmful or misleading, but an entertaining and fun way to share a message.”

But experts and practitioners say deepfake technology will become increasingly popular in advertising because it can help brands and agencies produce more content faster while eliminating many production-related expenses.

“In six months, we’ve created 10 completely different designs and concepts with digital Bruce Willis working with different directors,” the Deepcake spokesperson said. “It’s hard to imagine such a production with a real actor.”

Write to Patrick Coffee at patrick.coffee@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications
Machine learning company Paperspace recently released a promotional video about the deepfake technology on its own site. An earlier version of this article in two cases misspelled the company name as Paperscape. (Corrected October 25.)

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