‘Digital Blackface’? Levi’s gets pushback for using AI models to add diversity.

Is Levi Strauss & Co.’s use of artificial intelligence to expand the diversity of its denim-model roster by using hyper-realistic fakes smart marketing?

Not if you gauge the pushback the new effort is receiving on social media and in traditional fashion and advertising publications. Responses target the “artificial” nature of the partnership between the clothing company and a digital fashion studio, rather than the “intelligence” the company was aiming for in creating models with a variety of faces and body types.

AI use, according to Levi’s
also makes for less energy burn in sales campaigns, part of its pledge to be more sustainable in the fight against man-made climate change. The company said it plans to integrate the AI-generated models into advertising products on its website and mobile app later this year, after testing their use. 

But the announcement did not entirely generate the feel-good response the company may have been banking on, based on some people’s reactions.

It’s “digital blackface,” charged blogger Jennifer D. Laws on Twitter.

“Bring on AD — Artificial Diversity,” tweeted Phil Fersht, who heads a data and consultancy firm for brands and has written about futurism.

Digital Blackface refers to “the online practice of pretending to be Black (a person of African descent) by using the profile photos of Black people, historical Black figures, cartoon images depicting Black characters, and emojis using Brown/Black skin tones,” as well as the co-opting of African American Vernacular English, according to the National Black Cultural Information Trust, an initiative launched in 2020 to fight online disinformation targeting Black communities. It’s an extension of historical instances of mostly white people using makeup while in costume, in minstrel shows and other entertainment, to portray a racist caricature of a Black person.

Levi’s said its aim was for the technology to help create a more inclusive shopping experience for its customers, and that its corporate diversity efforts extend beyond changing up its approach to models. It did not elaborate on these efforts in the blog post announcing the AI models.

Responding to a follow-up question from MarketWatch about the social-media reaction, a Levi’s spokesperson added, in part: “The models LS&Co. hires are already diverse, and this will continue to be a priority for us. Over the past year, we’ve been focused on ensuring that not only are our models diverse but also that those working on the content both in front of and behind the camera are reflective of our broad consumer base.”

The spokesperson said the upside of AI would allow potential customers to see the clothes represented by wearers who look more like them, and in real time, including as soon as a product is released and without waiting for a formal campaign.

For the AI shift, the denim maker partnered with Lalaland.ai, a Netherlands-based digital fashion studio that produces computer-generated, hyper-realistic models of every body type, age, size and skin tone, Levi’s said. The studio provides “models” for a host of retailers, including Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and the Otto Group.

Read: ‘Woke’ is being used to describe everything and nothing. What does it actually mean?

Levi’s certainly isn’t the first company to bring on AI for operations or to create data-driven educated guesses about what consumers want.

for example, has tapped the AI image generator DALL-E to come up with ideas for new Hot Wheels toy cars. Used-vehicle chain CarMax
 is summarizing thousands of customer reviews with the same “generative” AI technology that powers the increasingly popular writing chatbot ChatGPT.

Related: What is ChatGPT? Well, you can ask it yourself.

But even with such technological advances, social-media users are questioning whether going “fake” is really the way to show diversity and find a place as an empowering member of the fashion community.

Angella Ndaka, a Ph.D researcher in AI and sustainability at New Zealand’s University of Otago, said on Twitter and LinkedIn that the Levi’s effort was “helping expand the already existing gap” in representation for people of color in fashion and lifestyle imagery and media campaigns.

Some posters on social media wanted to know why hiring a diverse array of live models — “real humans” — wasn’t the way to go.

The company said the AI use is a test, and it won’t abandon traditional models altogether.

“While AI will likely never fully replace human models for us, we are excited for the potential capabilities this may afford us for the consumer experience,” Amy Gershkoff Bolles, the global head of digital and emerging technology strategy at Levi Strauss & Co., said in a company blog post.

“We see fashion and technology as both an art and a science, and we’re thrilled to be partnering with Lalaland.ai, a company with such high-quality technology that can help us continue on our journey for a more diverse and inclusive customer experience,” she added.

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