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PoliticsJune 8, 2023

How to spot an AI political ad (for now)


Where National led, others are sure to follow. So how can we tell which ads feature real people and which are AI-generated fakes? Design guy Tim Gibson has some tips.

What a time to be alive. From Popes in puffers, to Levi’s diversifying their fashion models so fully that they’re not even living organisms any more, to AI-made ‘Aotearoa carnage’ ads from our own National Party, we’re awash with AI imagery.

Can we keep up with it all? How many fingers does Vladimir Putin have anyway? Is it OK to use imaginary people in ads endorsing (or attacking) real political parties? And how much should we care if gran thinks that farmer really grew a strawberry the size of a melon?

I’m an illustrator, art director and creative director in the advertising industry, and I have an unhealthy interest in how AI is changing and challenging creative jobs like mine. In this piece I want to show you how to spot fake images – and why it’s going to get a lot harder to spot fakes in the future. 

Alongside the words, you’ll find some new bespoke political ads for Election 2023, helping our political parties appeal to new market segments with pretend people who may (or may not) look exactly like us.

Each piece was generated using the Midjourney art generator app, and all used a similar prompt structure: a smiling person (described with demographics like age, apparent gender, race and clothing) giving a thumbs up, in a described setting. And voila: hyper-targetted ads in mere seconds, and practically for free.

The main images were generated using Midjourney 5.1 – the latest version – and prompts were not re-rolled or developed, even if they resulted in apparent errors. Each set of images took approx five minutes of labour. 

All this is to say that these images are pretty realistic, but I have also left some obvious ‘tells’ that could have easily been fixed or avoided by someone paid better than an opinion writer, or a social media content creator for the National Party.

Along with the finished product, I’ve included gifs showcasing the incredible advancement in AI image generation, from MidJourney v1 (February 2022) through to v5.1 (May 2023). Apologies in advance for the horror show that awaits.

So, how do you spot an AI-generated image?

The classic tells include faint watermarks, odd-numbered fingers or limbs and giraffe necks. All these still crop up from time to time, but like vestigial tails, they’re being bred out of modern AI models and can be easily avoided with a mere ‘re-roll’ of a prompt. Finding them now is almost retro at this point. I’ve included a few egregious examples in my ads for the trainspotters, even when more ‘perfect’ generations were available to me.

Here’s what is still worth keeping an eye out for:

The ‘AI Grasp’

This is a sort of fumble-fingered, alien grasp of a teacup, sword, pen or placard. Imagine my Pākehā five-year-old using chopsticks for the first time. Or that time John Key tried a three-way handshake with Richie McCaw and Mr RWC Rugbyface guy.

Extra limbs

AI beings have the ability to hold babies and kiss them, while simultaneously handing out fliers to the parents. How do they do that? Extra limbs.

‘Dad drinking’

AI people can’t drink or eat without looking weird. Like when your dad asks for a sip of your soda and then really gums up the lid before re-depositing most of the liquid from his mouth back into your bottle. Like that. Or any of the real photos of John Key interacting with food or drink.

Goblin goat eyes

Strange, possessed eyes out of a horror movie, or like any sheep’s eyes if you care to look at them. Terrifying. 

Lad mag skin aka ‘the Maxim Effect’

Remember when soft-core babe magazines for ‘the blokes’ were all the rage, and the photo-retouchers decided human skin was revolting and needed to have all of its pores replaced with a Gaussian blur? Kinda that.

Spectacles, wallets and watches

The subtle interaction between glasses and faces is still proving tricky for AI, as are human hands interacting with wallets. Any watch or clock face is often garbled like a Dali dream. 

Buckles and buttons

Buttons appear in weird places on clothing, and buckles magically hold up straps, clothing and objects using bizarre foreign shapes and alien logic.

Doodle details

AI art tends to feature an impressionistic approach to tattoos, written text, graphic design and jewellery. As with impressionist art, it’s an illusion of detail that convinces on a cursory glance but breaks down into nonsense when you look more closely.

Whether or not we should accept AI ‘models’ in our political advertising is still up for debate. What is clear is that these kind of images are going to be an increasing part of our everyday lives, and until media organisations and image creators start digitally tagging their AI-generated images we are going to be left on our own in separating real from fake.

So go forth armed with these AI-spotting tools safe in the knowledge that never again will you be taken in by fake AI imagery – at least until Midjourney releases its next update and likely fixes most of the ‘tells’ listed above.

Which will probably be shortly before our elections in October.

Keep going!