‘Deepfakes’ of Celebrities Have Begun Appearing in Ads, With or Without Their Permission

Celebrity deepfakes are coming to commercials.

Among the latest contributions: Last year, the Russian telecommunications company MegaFon released a commercial in which a simulacrum of Hollywood legend Bruce Willis helps to defuse a bomb.

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

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

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

Some of the ads are broad parodies, and the juxtaposition of the digital with the analog in the best of cases might not fool an attentive viewer. Still, the growing use of deepfake software could ultimately shape the industry in profound ways while creating new legal and ethical questions, experts said.

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

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

“We have a hard enough time with fake information. Now we have deepfakes, which look increasingly convincing,” said Ari Lightman, a professor of digital media and marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy.

US lawmakers have begun to address the deepfake phenomenon. In 2019, Virginia banned the use of deepfakes in so-called revenge porn, Texas banned them in political campaigns, and California banned them in both. Last year, the US National Defense Authorization Act required the Department of Homeland Security to produce annual reports on threats posed by technology.

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But experts said they are not aware of any laws specifically addressing the use of deepfakes in advertising.

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

Both Paperscape and reAlpha had lawyers review the videos and took steps to ensure viewers understood that the celebrities depicted did not actually endorse the companies’ products or participate in the making of the videos, the companies said.

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

The Musk video by reAlpha contained “robust disclaimers” establishing it as satire, said Christie Currie, chief marketing officer. So did a similar video reAlpha released last year, in which an ersatz version of the Tesla Inc.

boss sat in a hot tub and explained the concept of Regulation A+ investing, or equity crowdfunding.

The first Musk video went live days after reAlpha launched a Regulation A+ public offering in 2021. The video eventually accumulated 1.2 million views on YouTube and attracted active interest in reAlpha from “22,000 people in 83 countries,” Currie said in an email. She added that the company avoided tying the video directly to its fundraising efforts.

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“Obviously, there’s always a little bit of risk with any parody-type content,” Ms. Currie said in an interview, “but in general, as long as it’s meant to be educational, satirical, and you have disclaimers in place, there shouldn’t be a problem as long as you don’t push a transaction.”

Many of these companies purposefully come as close to the line as possible to almost troll the celebrities they target.


—Aaron Moss, Greenberg Glusker

The probability that any of Mr. The stature of Musk suing a startup over a deepfake video is low, and those companies may decide the risk is worth the significant publicity it would generate for them, Mr. Moss.

“A lot of these companies are purposefully getting as close to the line as possible to almost troll the celebrities they’re targeting,” he said.

But the ease of creating deepfakes means some celebrities may soon be inundated with ads showing their unauthorized but very convincing likenesses, Mr. Moss. 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, language in contracts written years before the technology existed can be vague enough to allow marketers to use existing footage to create new deepfake videos. For this reason, actors, athletes and other celebrities will at some point begin inserting clauses prohibiting any new such use of their likenesses into any commercial contracts they sign, Mr. Lightman of Carnegie Mellon.

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

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

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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, which has since expired, according to a Deepcake spokesperson. Deepcake was not a party to that contract, the spokesperson noted, referring requests for further details to MegaFon.

Representatives of 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 that he had been diagnosed with the brain disease aphasia and would retire from acting.

Companies most often request known deepfake videos for use internally for training, communication, parties or other purposes — but not for advertising, said Daynen Biggs, owner of Slack Shack Films, which produced the Elon Musk videos. A client recently requested a video featuring former President Donald Trump as Mr. Potter, the wealthy villain in the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” said Mr. Biggs.

“Deepfake technology has the potential to be extremely harmful,” said Mr. Biggs. “We are always careful that what we create is not harmful or deceptive, 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 of the costs associated with production.

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

Write to Patrick Coffee at [email protected]

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