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. Just last week, Elon Musk seemed to star in a marketing video from real-estate investment startup reAlpha Tech. And last month a promotional video for machine-learning firm Paperspace 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.