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

Celebrity deepfakes are coming to advertising.

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

And last month a promotional video for machine-learning firm Paperspace Co. showed talking semblances of the 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 even agreed to endorse the companies in question.

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

Some of the ads are broad parodies, and the meshing of the digital to the analog in the best of cases might not fool an alert viewer. Even so, the growing adoption of deepfake software could eventually shape the industry in profound ways while creating new legal and ethical questions, experts said.

Authorized deepfakes could allow marketers to feature huge stars in ads without requiring them to actually appear on-set or before cameras, bringing down costs and opening 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 said.

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

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

But experts said they aren’t aware of laws specifically addressing the use of deepfakes in commercials.

Celebrities have had some success suing advertisers for the unauthorized use of their images under so-called right of publicity laws, said Aaron Moss, chair 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 risqué clothing brand.

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

The Paperspace 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 included “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. chief sat in a bubble bath and explained the concept of Regulation A+ investing, or equity crowdfunding.

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

“There’s obviously always a little bit of risk with any parody type of 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, there shouldn’t be a problem as long as you’re not pushing a transaction.”

A lot of these companies purposefully get as close to the line as possible in order to almost troll the celebrities they’re targeting.

— Aaron Moss, Greenberg Glusker

The likelihood that someone of Mr. Musk’s stature would sue a startup for 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 purposefully get as close to the line as possible in order to almost troll the celebrities they’re targeting,” he said.

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

At the same time, the language in contracts written years before the technology existed may 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 that prohibit any new such use of their likenesses in all commercial contracts they sign, said Mr. Lightman of Carnegie Mellon.

Tesla didn’t respond to requests for comment on the videos.

The Bruce Willis ad 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.

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In 2020, Deepcake was hired by MegaFon and worked with other ad agencies and production companies to develop the deepfake campaign under a contract between Mr. Willis and MegaFon that has since expired, according to a Deepcake spokesperson. Deepcake wasn’t a party to that contract, the spokesperson noted, referring requests for further detail to MegaFon.

Representatives for MegaFon didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. Mr. Willis’s publicist didn’t respond to questions about whether he had a contract with MegaFon. In March, Mr. Willis’s family announced that he had been diagnosed with the brain disorder aphasia and would retire from acting.

Companies most often request celebrity deepfake videos to use internally for training, communications, parties or other purposes—but not for ads, said Daynen Biggs, owner of Slack Shack Films, which produced the Elon Musk videos. One client recently requested a video starring former President Donald Trump in the role of Mr. Potter, the wealthy villain in the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Mr. Biggs said.

“Deepfake technology does have the potential to be extremely harmful,” said Mr. Biggs. “We are always careful that what we are creating is not damaging or deceitful, 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 expenses involved in production.

“In six months, we made 10 completely different creatives and concepts with digital Bruce Willis working with different directors,” said the Deepcake spokesperson. “It is difficult 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 ran a promotional video about deepfake technology on its own site. An earlier version of this article in two instances misspelled the company name as Paperscape. (Corrected on Oct. 25.)

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