The first question many asked when generative AI and chatbots burst onto the scene was “who would lose their job?”. Surely, such a powerful technology would leave lots of humans redundant?

It’s a natural reaction. It’s not unfounded either. But it’s also a slightly myopic perspective, and it will only tell the very start of the story.

To fully understand the impact of AI, we must look beyond the immediate consequences and consider the second order effects – the ripple effects that emerge over time.

I’m sure people were losing their minds over the impact steam engines would have on the horse buggy industry, but the effects back then led far beyond simply taking horses off the road. Now that the marketing industry faces a similar situation, a look at history can help us prepare for the coming shift. 

The power of feedback loops

One way to understand second order effects is through the concept of feedback loops. Often the biggest impact of new tech is not the initial change, but a related consequence that leads to further changes down the line. Take, for example, the phenomenon of induced demand specifically when it comes to highway lanes. While creating more should in theory lead to smoother traffic flow it actually just encourages more people to drive, which in turn creates even more traffic – we see that the second order effects can actually swing in the opposite direction and a secondary, perhaps unanticipated, issue arises.

This same mechanic plays out in taste and culture too. Take the rise and fall of Instagram Face – a surgically enhanced, homogenous look sported by many celebrities and influencers. In the past, this costly look was achievable only by the wealthy elite. As the cost of procedures dropped, you’d assume the look would become more popular. But on the contrary, the value of this aesthetic fell as it got within reach of the middle class. And in response, many celebrities are now rejecting it, reversing procedures in favor of a look that might not be more natural, but at least preserves more distinctive features.

As the price of fabrication falls, the value of veracity rises. And marketeers will have to factor that into their calculations when they weigh the pros and cons of automation.

In culture, scarcity creates value

Just think of how the year-long wait list boosts the desirability of Birkin bags. How reselling rare sneakers fetch a hefty premium in secondary markets — or even just how “the first album is always the coolest”. 

We’re already seeing AI-generated artwork converging on a very definitive aesthetic. This kind of homogenization always ends up devaluing itself, as we can see played out in trend cycles: Skinny jeans are the new Mom jeans and vice versa. Similarly, the polished renders of AI will fall out of fashion quicker than most brands can even adapt them.

As generative engines make it easier and cheaper to create visual art and design, the market value of skills that were once in high demand (such as 3D modeling or photo manipulation) will inevitably decline. But beyond this first order effect, we will  see a broader aesthetic shift. When every freelancer on Fiverr (or even the kid next door) can create the kind of high-polish visual metaphor that used to take real mastery, the signalling cost of such works will vanish. So brands need to focus elsewhere to cut through the clutter. One way to do this is shifting focus from technical mastery to scarcity of attention. In other words, when the cost of producing a work drops to zero, its value will become more about how attention-grabbing it is — rather than the technicalities of its aesthetic expression.

A brief marketing dystopia

Imagine for a second a future state of automated marketing communication. Here, as generative engines make text production cheaper, the cost of producing marketing messages will decline as well. With no media cost associated with email, we can expect a tsunami of spam to flood our inboxes — more than anyone could possibly read. 

If we take this train of thought to the logical endpoint, the outcomes are either atrocious or amusing, depending on your appetite for paradoxes.

It’s all but inevitable that we will turn to AI to help us filter these messages much more aggressively, only surfacing the condensed details of deals or news that the algorithm knows fit our likes. 

So in the real world, human beings will input specific, almost codelike instructions. From these, AI’s will generate tons of text that sounds “human-like”, but is only actually read by bots! All the readers on the other end see are parsed details — probably not fully unlike the prompts that generated the text. We’ll end up in situations where bots communicate like humans — and humans communicate like bots!

In the short term, first-mover brands could reap considerable rewards by supercharging their email marketing efforts with generative text. But when the market follows suit, everyone will encounter diminishing returns as the email channel is devalued in a perverse tragedy of the commons. Brands with a long term strategy should start to scout new pastures now. 

This could even carry over to human-to-human interactions. In the past, a well-written message was a way to signal that the sender was not just spamming. However, now that AI-generated messages are becoming the norm, the value of this type of writing declines, which would naturally affect an aesthetic shift even when no bots were involved in the conversation.

For brands to thrive, consider culture

Of course, the chaotic nature of second order effects makes it hard to predict. But one thing is clear: while the first-order effects of AI automation – such as job displacement and productivity gains – are certainly important to consider, they are only part of the story. We need to look beyond the immediate effects and explore the deeper cultural and societal changes that will inevitably follow in its wake.

Marketeers banking on automation need to consider not just the cost savings in input — but how to avoid devaluing their output.

Because in the end, the real losers won’t be workers whose skills are left redundant; but brands unable to adapt to the cultural changes, read the writing on the wall and evolve to what will likely be the biggest shift in cultural norms and aesthetic preferences seen in millenia — at least if the economic theory holds true.

Cover image source: Ioan Panaite