AI making the void look shiny, bright, and appealing

Last week, everyone was talking about this scammy entertainment fiasco in Glasgow — someone had thrown together an event built around the Willy Wonka IP called Willy’s Chocolate Experience, charged $45 admission, and then thought they’d sit back and rake in the money. Instead, they were laughed at and despised. It was such an obvious failure — they rented a warehouse, put up a few plastic props, and hired a couple of actors with no script and no plan to stand around and improvise. Where they figured they could really cut costs even further was to use AI to generate the advertising and some of the displays in the warehouse.

They didn’t even copy-edit their ads. It was a zero-effort effort that they thought they could mask with some garishly colored AI art. The appalling thing was how little substance there was behind the glitzy facade — kids showed up and instead of smorgasbord of chocolate they got one jelly bean and a cup of lemonade. That’s how I’ve felt about all the AI stuff being churned out right now. It’s mostly empty hyper-stimulus where the fantasy gets dressed up in an excess of colorful noise. The Glasgow thing was just an example of a few profiteers thinking that was sufficient. It’s not.

Then I encountered another illuminating example. Product photography is a whole genre unto itself, where you have to take photographs of things that are being sold in a way that makes them revealing and enticing. Food photography is a difficult art, because you have to take something that is kind of gross and drab if you think about — a lump of meat with sauces gooped over it, for instance — and make it look crisp and shiny and delicious and colorful (but not too colorful). The food photographed for menus and ads is already mostly fake, with condensation made of glycerin, foamy heads made with soap, cardboard padding to make a stack stand up, and ice cream made out of mashed potatoes.

Commercial food photography is actually pretty hard to do well, as you can discover on Instagram where amateurs are constantly taking photos of their luxury meals, and making them look generally ick. It’s expensive because that photograph of a plump hamburger covered in slightly melting cheese and bright red tomatoes and crisp green lettuce actually takes a team of designers and lighting experts and good photographers to shoot. So why not cut out that expense by using AI to assemble an image from all the hard work of real artists? It’s mostly fake anyway.

These mass market ghost kitchens are doing exactly that.

Dozens of Ghost kitchens, restaurants that serve food exclusively by delivery on apps like DoorDash and Grubhub, are selling food that they promote to customers with AI-generated images. It’s common for advertisements to stage or edit pictures of food to make it look more enticing, but in these cases the ghost kitchens are showing people pictures of food that literally doesn’t exist, and looks nothing like the actual items they’re selling, sometimes because the faulty AI is producing physically impossible food items.

In a way, it’s kind of cool. I look at their products with the eye of a biologist, and their crustaceans and molluscs definitely seem to be alien.

The more I look at those things, the weirder they are. What’s going on with that shrimp’s terminal segment? Those telsons don’t make any sense. Would you eat meat that looked like it had been recently imported from Arcturus, or came from animals cultured downstream from a nuclear power plant?

I guess it may not matter, because we don’t generally scrutinize the photographs in a menu that carefully. They’ve got the color and shininess and appearance of an expected plate of food, so that’s good enough. I might be the only person who’d send the meal back, complaining that these are mundane terrestrial bits of cooked animal flesh.

They better not disappoint me with the beverage, though. I really want my glass of radioactive diet Sprite.


  1. imback says

    Beware the Arcturian, my son!
    The shrimps that swim, with telsons unnatch!
    (Also beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
    The frumious Bandersnatch!)

  2. says

    The food photographed for menus and ads is already mostly fake, with condensation made of glycerin, foamy heads made with soap, cardboard padding to make a stack stand up, and ice cream made out of mashed potatoes.

    You’re imagining that the AI art is replacing food photographers, but it’s probably a further step removed. Why hire food photographers to create photos of your food, when you can just purchase pre-made stock photos? I mean, if they’ve already decided that the photo will bear no relation to the actual food.

  3. birgerjohansson says

    You want food that looks like it will bust out of your chest if you do not chew it properly?

  4. AstroLad says

    One of my aunts worked for General Foods in White Plains, NY for many years. One time she came to California in probably mid to late 50’s to be on a local TV food program in Los Angeles. She was showing off some product to go with holiday turkey. I thought it was Stove Top Stuffing, but that came out much later. Any way, we lived near enough to LA that she stayed with us. She went to the local market to get a turkey. The market of course had a full service meat counter. She told the butcher that she needed a turkey, and why. He assumed it should be cooked. When she picked it up, he, wanting to be helpful, had roasted it. Oops! That was not how you made a turkey look perfectly cooked back then. You took a raw turkey and coated it with maple syrup. I don’t remember if she used it anyway, or had to scramble to get a new one.

  5. cates says

    Hey! Don’t knock the “Willy’s Chocolate Experience” people. It was three jelly beans and 1/4 cup of lemonade. (there’s a 4 in there so it must be more. Like the 1/3 pounder lost out to the 1/4 pounder in sales)

  6. stuffin says

    I saw a special on TV some time back that showed the secrets of how they make the food in advertisements look so tasty good. Think of how great a Bic Mac looks in the ad compared to a real one. I don’t recall the tricks they showed (like maple syrup to make a turkey look perfectly cooked) but their results were 100X better than these AI ones. Humans rule.

  7. John Harshman says

    I really want to know more about the catgacating, which I assume is some kind of DNA splicing event.

  8. raven says

    I didn’t pay much attention to this fiasco.

    But did the scammers even have any of the rights to Willy Wonka?
    He is a character in the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factor.

    Is Charlie and Chocolate Factory public domain?

    Roald Dahl’s original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory will enter the public domain on January 1, 2060.

    Not in the public domain.
    Warner owns the rights.

    Warner snapped up the rights to the Wonka intellectual property from the Roald Dahl Estate way back in 2016 and has been developing the project since then.Dec 7, 2023

  9. raven says

    From the article in the OP.

    The fine print.
    “Any resemblance to any character, fictitious or living, is purely coincidental.” A work of pure imagination, if you will.”

    No, they didn’t have any right to the Willy Wonka Intellectual Property.

    This was a lot like the recent Fyre Festival in the Bahamas.
    At least the ticket holders weren’t stuck in the middle of the Atlantic.

  10. John Morales says

    raven, see the video I adduced.

    It was called “Willy’s Chocolate Experience” and featured Willy McDuff and the Wonkidoodles.

  11. magistramarla says

    Has anyone seen any of the recent interviews of Billy Joel? He came out of retirement from song-writing and collaborated with a young song writer. The young man created the video for the song using AI to make it appear that Billy, at different stages of his career, was singing the new song. It looked to be very well done and a bit mind-blowing.
    I’ve seen the interviews on The Late Show and Fareed Zakaria GPS. I recommend Fareed’s interview, since he also interviews the young man and goes into greater depth.
    AI can be used for good or evil. Sadly, humans will most likely choose to use it for evil. This young songwriter is an exception.

  12. John Morales says

    In the news: Trump supporters target black voters with faked AI images

    Donald Trump supporters have been creating and sharing AI-generated fake images of black voters to encourage African Americans to vote Republican.

    BBC Panorama discovered dozens of deepfakes portraying black people as supporting the former president.


    The co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a group which encourages black people to vote, said the manipulated images were pushing a “strategic narrative” designed to show Mr Trump as popular in the black community.

    A creator of one of the images told the BBC: “I’m not claiming it’s accurate.”

    The fake images of black Trump supporters, generated by artificial intelligence (AI), are one of the emerging disinformation trends ahead of the US presidential election in November.

  13. Akira MacKenzie says

    The only food that should be “radioactive green” is the pickle relish that goes on Chicago Hot Dogs.

  14. microraptor says

    IIRC, modern advertising law now require that the product being sold is used in the advertisement- no more mashed potatoes standing in for ice cream or maple syrup-glazed raw turkeys. However, what is allowed is sorting through hundreds or thousands of samples to find the one perfect tomato slice, one perfect patty, one perfect lettuce leaf, and one perfect bun to display a perfect-looking burger that doesn’t resemble what you’ll get when you unwrap the one you ordered.

  15. John Morales says

    microraptor, from Harvard Law Today Sep 13, 2023:

    HLT: One of Burger King’s arguments is that everyone knows that “[f]ood in advertising is and always has been styled to make it look as appetizing as possible.” Where is the line between making a product as attractive as possible and false advertising?

    Tompros: There is a concept in false advertising law known as puffery. Puffery is intended to attract more consumers rather than to intentionally deceive them about a fact. And, generally speaking, puffery is fine. Whereas intentional deception about a fact is false advertising and is improper. Let me give you a couple of examples. For decades, cereal companies have made advertisements where they show milk being poured into their cereal. If you actually pour milk into a bowl of cereal and try to film it, it doesn’t look very good because milk is kind of thin and it usually does gross things to the cereal. Those commercials for years have used glue instead of milk because it’s thicker and you get a gorgeous picture. Even in the context of fast food, there are photoshoots of burgers in which each sesame seed is very carefully glued on to the bun in a particular configuration to look very appetizing. And there are chemicals that look like water that are placed on the tomatoes to make them look like they’ve just been washed and are fresh and beautiful. And the cheese is sometimes replaced by icing or putty or something else.

    So that kind of puffery has happened all the time. It is well established that it is not generally speaking false advertising, because false advertising has to convey a specific statement of fact. That’s why in the Burger King case, the plaintiffs are not alleging that the burger didn’t look generally like the photo, and they’re not alleging that the burger didn’t look as appetizing as the one in the photo. Both of those claims would have been rejected if Burger King had argued that the photos are just puffery. What the plaintiffs instead allege is a much more specific allegation that the ratio of meat and the size of meat to the rest of the burger was misrepresented. What the plaintiffs claim is that the photo was representing a fact about the size of the patty, and that that fact was false. And that’s the distinction here that matters.

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