What in the World—Week of March 27

Pop Pontiff shows us our AI-image filled future

This weekend, social feeds were filled with images of Pope Francis wearing a super clean white puffy coat that made the Pontiff look like a pop star. The image was AI-generated, but that didn’t become apparent to many until after it had gone around the world.

“I thought the pope’s puffer jacket was real and didn’t give it a second thought,” Chrissy Teigen tweeted to her 12.9 million followers on Sunday. “No way am I surviving the future of technology.”

The Verge noted that the picture—which also shows the Pope wearing a crucifix and carrying a coffee cup—originated on a subreddit for the AI image generator Midjourney. It quickly went viral, spreading to Twitter and other social networks.

While noting that the image contains some “telltale signs” of fakery—including areas where details are conspicuously smeared, and a hand grasping a “not quite” coffee cup—it was sufficient to fool many people, leading The Verge to call it “an early glimpse of our new reality,”

The Pontiff’s super-cool drip is part of a wave of convincing-looking AI-generated images that have made the rounds recently, including images of Donald Trump being forcibly arrested, and French president Emmanuel Macron running through clouds of tear gas.

It’s inevitable, The Verge concludes, that these images are going to become hyperreal, “masking the distinction entirely between the imaginary and the real.”

Hennessy: Now in sneaker form

Cognac brand Hennessy is getting into the sneaker game, partnering with fashion designer Kim Jones on a new cognac-coloured (naturally) sneaker.

The $705 HNY Low sneaker is made at one of LVMH’s factories in Italy, and includes branded touches such as the KJ initials and Hennessy’s bras armé emblem on the heel, and a leather midsole that incorporates the distinctive curves of the bottle’s labeling.

The sneakers also come packaged in cotton dust bags with “luxe detailing,” housed in an oak box inspired by the barrels used to age Hennessy’s XO cognac. “I wanted it to feel like you’re almost looking into the bottle,” said Jones on the website introducing the collaboration. “It’s a glass of cognac in sneaker form.”

Jones also designed a limited-edition version of the brand’s signature XO bottle, which is limited to 200 bottles. Its design cues were inspired by the way Hennessy’s bottles were wrapped in tissue paper at the beginning of the 20th century.

YouTube introducing Gen Z-focused ad units

YouTube is set to roll out a new ad offering this summer that will enable advertisers to target Gen Z consumers based on the songs most popular among the generational cohort.

According to Marketing Brew, YouTube will using so-called “audio signals” from its platform to create content packages—or what it’s calling “lineups”—built around songs currently trending on the popular streaming video service. The packages will be available across YouTube, YouTube Music, and YouTube Shorts.

The latter is seeing what Nicky Rettke, VP of product management for YouTube ads, called “incredible growth,” with over 50 billion views daily.

“We have a lot of Gen Z viewers coming to the platform, and music is playing a really big part in that,” said Rettke. “We have seen lots of recent examples of songs taking on a life of their own through Shorts, songs from artists like BlackPink, Taylor Swift, or Miley Cyrus, so we want to give advertisers a way to really lean into this and help connect with these Gen Z audiences.”

Indian brands are falling for influencers

Indian brands have doubled the amount of ad budget allocated to social media influencers over the past year, says Quartz. The country’s creator industry is expected to grow by 25% to $290.3 million by 2025 said Quartz, citing a report from the valuation advisory firm Kroll.

Today, India has nearly 80 million content creators, a group that includes video streamers, influencers, and bloggers. Quartz also cited a survey from the digital marketing agency iCubesWire which found that about 35% of respondents’ buying decisions were driven by influencer posts, reels, and videos on popular social media platforms such as Instagram, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

Influencers are so powerful that many brands choose them over A-list celebrities, attracted by a higher return on investment. While their audience was smaller, nano-influencers with less than 10,000 followers attracted “maximum engagement” on Instagram last year.

Clogging up the future of footwear

Like Peloton, Etsy and Zoom, Crocs saw a marked increase in sales during the pandemic as the work-from-home phenomenon took hold and sensible footwear became a thing of the past.

But while other brands whose fortunes were boosted by the pandemic have all come back to Earth, Crocs remains unkillable, says The New York Times. The brand’s sales are up 200% since 2019, and CEO Andrew Rees recently told a conference there’s “little chance” that sales will dip.

In November, Crocs said it expected sales for its namesake brand to reach $5 billion in three years, representing a 90% increase. Those projections are based on what the Times describes as a “steady stream of new products and shrewd marketing,” particularly on social media—where it has amassed nearly 10 million follows across the major channels.

The brand has developed a distinctive online voice through its use of emojis and memes, and has also proven adept at seizing on cultural moments—such as when Questlove wore the brand to the Oscars earlier this month. It has also actively courted the Gen Z cohort, with teenagers ranking Crocks fifth on a list of footwear brands, up from 38th in 2017.

Chris Powell