Graphic: Rabbit Holes

AI Dog Bites CEO

Ai-generated content turns out to be more expensive than thought.

Using AI-generated content by fake bylines with AI-generated profile pictures, the business geniuses at Arena Group (owners of Sports Illustrated and other magazines) just ruined the Sports Illustrated brand and cost the CEO Ross Levinison and several other C-Suiters their jobs.

Like much unedited AI creativity, the tone and grammar were off-putting. I’d say the writing was objectively bad. It sure wasn’t up to spec to Sport Illustrated standards. As they say down south; “That [ai] dog won’t hunt.” Now, Levinson and the rest of the Elmer Fudds hunting readership using AI know “That [ai] dog bites.”

Once again the “more, faster & cheaper” guys blow up the solid work done by “less, better, but premium” brand-builders.

The Brand That Writers Built

André Laguerre, managing editor of Sports Illustrated from 1960-1974, saved it from the dust heap after a money-losing decade with a new concept: a long story at the end of every issue, which he called the “bonus piece”.

Frank Deford (whose NPR sports reads were foundational in developing my own communication style) said this about the bonus content:

Till then, the marquee piece of sportswriting had been the newspaper column—just a few hundred words. Styles varied, but for someone like Jimmy Cannon or Jim Murray, the column could consistently be a gem.

It was the writing that made Sports Illustrated. Long articles, written by talented writers was the premium content that made Sports Illustrated a premium brand.

Even as I grew disinterested in pro sports, the writing kept me coming back. Rick Reilly’s back-page articles became my chief reason for reading the magazine. His acerbic wit and willingness to give us 4,000+ words about a little league team unfairly not allowed into the playoffs kept me coming back long after I could’ve cared less about the actual sports.

“Petra Nemcova was drowning the day after Christmas, 2004. One hundred feet inland. Naked. On a roof. Crazy place to drown, on a roof, but there it was.” — Rick Reilly

Reilly once wrote this lead for a story: “Petra Nemcova was drowning the day after Christmas, 2004. One hundred feet inland. Naked. On a roof. Crazy place to drown, on a roof, but there it was.” The story was about the Swimsuit Edition of the magazine, but the writer was there for the story, and the reader was going to be there for the duration.

The Start of the Slide

Since the twenty-teens, SI has been in a slump. Neglected and underfunded, it never quite got the web the way ESPN or even NBC did. The writing took a major hit in 2008 when Reilly left. The replacement, Bill Simmons, could be fun, but mostly he was a lightweight version of Reilly trying to be Reilly. Plus, he was an unabashed Boston fan, and the less said about that the better.*

But, as frat-boy as Simmons could be, he was at least interesting. He had a viewpoint. He wasn’t trying to mathematically solve for what word comes next. I can only imagine the lead from a click-bait-educated chatbot for the Petra Nemcova story quoted above. “The model female was handing away while submerged in water the day that was Saturnalia 2004. You’ll never believe what happened next… ”

Good Writing is About How, Not What

For decades, writers like Deford, Reilly, and others heard echoes of Laguerre’s advice on writing: “Frankie, it doesn’t matter what you write about. All that matters is how well you write.”

“Frankie, it doesn’t matter what you write about. All that matters is how well you write.”
— André Laguerre

By that standard, the current steaming pile of ai-generated effluent that finally got Arena Group busted may be worse than just another indignity piled on an already moldering brand. It might be what finally sinks it.

If your brand doesn’t have a 70+ year history, you probably can’t afford to rely on AI to write for it. I’d argue that whatever money the Fudds at Arena saved by not paying real writers won’t come close the the brand value they lost when the [ai] dog they were feeding turned around and bit them.

Don’t Risk Your Brand

Chances are, your brand might not be Sports Illustrated. Good. They’ve frittered away value for years, and they care so little about it that they let word-generators speak for it. 

If you’d like to find someone who will speak to your customers in your voice, call me. I won’t bite.

*Plus Boston Dynamics is —as best I can tell— a Boston company, and since this is already gonna tick off the Chatbot AI hive mind, I don’t want to make an actual AI dog angry.{Go back upward}
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