The Season of Retail’s Visual Ren(AI)ssance

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Photo Credit: Melpomenem/Getty Images

The holiday season marks a highly anticipated time for consumers, where the experiences they encounter in physical or online stores significantly influence their perceptions as the holiday cheer wanes. Simultaneously, brand marketers face immense pressures during the holidays due to new product launches and fluctuating sales demands. Adding to this mix is the impact of AI, not just on businesses, but on consumers’ holiday experiences. The exponential progress and availability of generative AI technology this year has shifted the conversation, as generative text and image tools allow us to see this emerging technology at work before our very eyes.

As a result, Getty Images’ VisualGPS consumer survey reveals that this year, apprehension about AI has increased: from 53% of Americans who said AI makes them very nervous in 2022, to 63% in 2023. At the same time, 79% of Americans are excited about the possibilities of using AI to increase their productivity. According to Salesforce, the future of retail is poised to deliver on this front, with 45% of consumers expressing an interest in using AI for shopping, meaning that brands can lean into these technologies when it comes to user experiences. AI’s involvement in analyzing customer data and providing personalized shopping experiences has the potential to enhance customer satisfaction and contribute to achieving store sales goals.

However, there is far more uncertainty about what the advent of generative AI means for retail brands’ visual choices for their holiday e-commerce campaigns and beyond. VisualGPS research revealed that 40% of Americans are interested in using AI to generate creative content–meaning that even as AI-generated content finds its place within brand marketing, there is still a definitive need for images and videos produced by humans with cameras in the real world. Here are three tips to consider when choosing visual content for your retail marketing strategies now and in the upcoming year, whether produced using cameras or generated by a commercially safe AI tool—and when to use each.

In visuals showing people or products, consumers trust humans behind the lens

Generally, the controversies around bias in AI tools and the spread of disinformation online indicate that visuals produced by humans with cameras remain necessary when representing people and products. VisualGPS research confirms that Americans are most likely to perceive a brand negatively if it uses AI-generated images of people (49%) or its products (43%). On the other hand, Americans are more comfortable with AI-generated images of neutral, static objects or nature, such as structures or buildings (75%), vehicles (71%), and animals or natural landscapes (69%). Consumers care which topics brands choose to represent using AI-generated images, so it’s important to think before you prompt.

Visuals captured with a camera in the real world have the profound potential to upend biases and push the boundaries of how previously underrepresented or marginalized groups of people are seen. When it comes to retail during the holiday time, Getty Images’ VisualGPS visual analysis found that within the top-selling images and video clips from 2013-2022, brands consistently focus on the consumer experience in holiday-themed visuals. However, its consumer survey found that 9 in 10 Americans feel that supporting small businesses is critical for a diverse society and a healthy economy. So, in 2023, there is an opportunity to move the conversation forward by choosing visuals that show diverse brick-and-mortar store owners or employees preparing orders and helping customers get into the holiday spirit, or even digital micro-business owners working from the comfort of their own holiday-decorated homes.

Video content, prized for its authenticity, is a must-have

The rise of video on social platforms and in ad campaigns is often explained by the medium’s immersive qualities, and its ability to communicate ideas with more authenticity and transparency—so the expectations are even higher for brands to use video produced by people with cameras. VisualGPS research revealed that on average, 78% of consumers of all ages find that the short-form video content they consume on social media to be not only entertaining, but also inspiring and educational, rising to 87% of Gen Z. So, if you’re not already leveraging video in projects and campaigns year-round, now is the time to start. Video content helps customers better retain information, enhances sales, and aligns with consumers’ preferences for increased video content from businesses and brands. And consumers want to see it more often from the businesses and brands they follow.

When working on holiday video campaigns, it’s important to be aware that the quality of movement has the power to set the tone and mood of your message. Getty Images’ VisualGPS visual analysis of the most popular video clips used by its customers found that, from 2019 to 2022, the pacing of holiday-themed video has slowed down considerably—the details of holiday meals have become more indulgently visible, glasses are raised and clinked with consideration and care, families and children soak up holiday lights with awe and wonder. This shift in tone reflects a shift in sentiment post-pandemic, captured by VisualGPS’ consumer survey. In 2023, 85% of Americans feel that healthy personal relationships and life experiences are the most important benchmarks for success, rather than material rewards. So, while some symbols of holiday cheer remain evergreen, there is an opportunity for retail brands to create slow-paced video campaigns that make humble holiday celebrations feel treasured.

Experiment with the surreal aesthetics of generative AI—especially for Gen Z and Millennial audiences

For brands stepping into the world of commercially-safe generative AI, creating visuals with surreal, uncanny, or fantastical aesthetics is a good place to start, especially for campaigns targeting younger generations. While a near-unanimous share of Americans (87%) agree that AI-manipulated images should be identified as such, digital-native generations are more comfortable with the idea of AI-generated visuals existing alongside visuals produced with cameras. Just 51% of Gen Z and Millennials say AI makes them very nervous, while that number rises to 62% of Gen X and 77% of Baby Boomers. Additionally, Gen Z (54%) are twice as confident in their ability to tell the difference between “real” and “fake” images compared to Baby Boomers (28%). Because younger generations are familiar with the internet as a fantasy space, they are most likely to be receptive to AI-generated visuals that openly declare their own falsehood through strange or surreal aesthetics, as many brands are already doing.

There are cultural reasons to delve into the fantasy space this holiday season, too. In the wake of #Barbiecore, holiday films coming out this year are The Hunger Games and a Willy Wonka prequel, two beloved franchises sure to generate buzz on social media. So, consider creating holiday campaigns that reflect the themes and aesthetics that these movies will inspire: fantasy, magic, wonder, playfulness, and nostalgia.

Rebecca Rom-Frank
Rebecca Rom-Frank is Senior Creative Researcher for the Americas at Getty Images. On the Creative Insights team, she develops thought leadership and visual communication strategies based on cultural and consumer research. Though her background is mainly in writing and publishing, she began her career teaching darkroom photography and has served as a photo editor for a nonprofit organization. She earned her BA from Bard College and studied film production at The New School.

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