ChatGPT is impressive in many ways, says Trevor Thomas of VMLY&R Canada, but think of it as merely the world's greatest psychic, and one that is incapable of original thought. 

Horror movies are having a moment.

From 1995 to 2016, horror’s share of the North American movie market hovered around 5%. Since, it’s been near or above 10%, peaking at 12.9%, in 2021. Through the first month of 2023, horror accounts for 18.1% of total revenue.

While this is not the place for a psychological dissection of our mutual desire to be frightened, it’s fair to conclude that we have a collective love of a good monster.

In the worlds of marketing, advertising and other creative endeavours, there’s a new monster haunting us. Like any good demon, it’s virtually invisible, seemingly omniscient, and morally indefensible.

It’s ChatGPT, and it’s come to kill us all.

Or at least take our jobs, by out-thinking, out-researching us and out-writing us. Consensus has not been reached on the threat-level of this technological boogieman, but the conversation got me thinking about why this monster exists, and why it’s one that brief writers (strategists) or copywriters (creatives) would even consider fearing.

Some horror creatures are scarier than others. Some play on our dreams, or on our subconscious, while others slash and gash their way to screams. Few, though, are as arresting as the antagonists in Us, who are, quite literally, us. Mirror images of ourselves, bent on destroying and replacing us.

Which is perhaps why something like ChatGPT keeps strategists and copywriters up at night. Because it is a reflection of ourselves.

Before we get there, let’s first define what ChatGPT is and, more importantly, what it isn’t.

Technically, it’s a chatbot. Hence, the “chat” in its name. But while a chatbot is designed to mimic human conversation, ChatGPT is much more versatile. It is capable of writing essays, poetry, music, TV spots (re: Ryan Reynolds’s Mint Mobile) and code, playing games like tic-tac-toe or emulating a Linux system.

It’s the GPT that distinguishes it from the typical “what can I help you with today?” chatbots we encounter on so many websites. “GPT stands for Generative Pre-trained Transformer, which basically means that it’s a language model that uses deep learning to generate human-like text. It is pre-trained on large amounts of text data and uses the Transformer architecture to process sequential data, such as language.” At least that’s what ChatGPT told me it means.

The quality of said writing is so strong that it can be near impossible to determine whether its output was created by a human.

If you haven’t tried it, you should. It’s impressive. Just ask my wife about the love letter it wrote to her from me. Touching stuff.

But as strong (or touching) as the writing appears, its main feature is its biggest flaw. Its training is built to take an initial text as prompt, and then produce text that continues the prompt. Nothing original, just a highly advanced system capable predicting outputs based on inputs.

Think of it like the world’s greatest psychic: Give it a specific prompt, and it will expertly read subtle signs and then playback a response closely attuned to your expectations.

That doesn’t seem so scary.

Bill Clinton once said: “Technology is only and always the reflection of our own imagination, and its uses must be conditioned by our own values.”

Like “the Tethered” in Us, ChatGPT is like an ugly genetic clone of a modern marketer. A reflection not of our appearance, but of our behaviors, our values and our imaginations.

As marketers, we now spend infinitely more time and money validating our solutions than we do understanding our problems. We cut corners and costs in learning about our audiences, their interests and motivations, and funnel that time and money into asking them to do our jobs and evaluate our work.

We’ve allowed ourselves to become comfortable with information masquerading as insight, and too often are comfortable regurgitating stats and facts from research as “insights.” Never stopping to consider that the competition has access to, and is using, the exact same report(s) to populate their briefs.

So, year after year, category after category, brand after brand, we write briefs about “people being busy than ever,” “the media landscape being more crowded than ever,” or “young people preferring experience over ownership.”

And, unsurprisingly, the work generated looks, feels and sounds just like everybody else.

Now, suddenly, the ChatGPT monster looks a whole lot scarier.

If all we’re doing is prompting and regurgitating, or regurgitating and prompting, the monster will, in fact, catch us and replace us.

But like all horror villains, ChatGPT has a weak spot.

Original thought.

To defeat it, all we need to do is get back to the things that make our jobs fun. Go wander around a store or a mall and watch people shop. Set up some phone interviews with stakeholders, clients or relevant experts. If you come across an interesting stat, don’t stop there. Dig some more and smash that stat into another one and I’ll bet something even more interesting comes out.

Original thought: it’s the running out the front door, instead of up the stairs of modern marketing.