Back in January of 2023, I was out on a walk and listening to a podcast episode about the future of journalism. One of the guests was billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban, and he was excited about a new tool called ChatGPT. He was openly wondering how long before his thirteen-year-old son to write a paper for one of his middle school classes using the tool.
I’ll admit that at that moment, as a copywriter and content agency owner, I felt that my livelihood was threatened.
It wasn’t the first I heard of ChatGPT, but chatter about the tool was crossing into the public domain.
Within a month, every client had asked a member of my team what we thought of the tool. One client even wrote a blog using the tool and asked us if we could judge the quality of the blog.
On dozens of occasions, we’ve explained the limitations of ChatGPT—the derivative and duplicative content, how content written to everyone is written to no one, and how the massive amount of editing needed to make ChatGPT-written content publishable to our standards simply doesn’t save any time or money.
After all of that, however, I wondered if I was wrong. The more I dove into what the underlying technology actually does—it generates predictive text—the more I realized that the tool alone is no replacement for a writer, but it could be a writing enhancement if implemented properly.
On that day, a partner and I decided to start a software company called MuseTech to develop an AI-supported content tool that could turn a copywriter into a superhero.
The emotional highs and lows of this journey often remind me of the “For Those Who Think Young” episode of Mad Men and a quote by Don Draper: “Young people don’t know anything.”
Be the Needle, Not a Haystack
This episode of Mad Men pushes the Sterling Cooper copywriters toward an existential crisis. Will they be replaced by younger, better versions of themselves?
Herman “Duck” Phillips, the newly minted Head of Accounts at the agency, wants younger copywriters to meet the requests of new clients.
But Donald Draper wants none of it.
He has a short back-and-forth dialogue with Roger Sterling, who, playing mediator between Don and Duck, wants Don to concede and hire new, young copywriters to placate clients.
Don starts, “Clients don’t understand that their success is related to standing out, not fitting in. It’s a fad. Paint them a picture. Something like, ‘One wants to be the needle in the haystack. Not a haystack.’”
Roger Sterling attempts to sway Don by saying, “Isn’t it possible that the recently weaned have some unique perspective, joy, enthusiasm?”
“You’re talking as if there’s some fresh version of us–they’re not. Young people don’t know anything.”
At first, it’s easy to write off Don’s response as an impractical reaction from someone that feels threatened. 🙋🏻♂️
But if we resist the urge to rush to judgment, we may notice the inherent truths in his statement and how directly they correlate to the AI vs. human-generated content debate.
Find and Replace
If we replace “young copywriters” with “ChatGPT” in the exchange between Don and Roger, we start to see some foundational truths come to light.
If clients want to stand out—not just fit in—then they should be running away from a derivative tool like ChatGPT. If your composition is simply the next most likely word in a sequence, then how will you ever surprise someone with a unique idea?
If a brand replies solely on ChatGPT to write copy, then their copy will seem like an endless pile of hay, indistinguishable from all of the competing piles of hay.
Or worse yet, if a company’s competitors are producing unique and thought-provoking content while they’re using a generic, derivative tool, then they will likely stand out in a negative way.
Let’s continue the experiment with Don’s next comment, “You’re talking as if there’s some fresh version of us–they’re not. ChatGPT doesn’t know anything.”
ChatGPT isn’t sentient. Yes, it’s a program with a nearly endless amount of source material. And, yes, it is impressive how it can predict what to write next. But it doesn’t think independently.
As of yet, ChatGPT can’t apply information to a new concept and construct a wholly new idea. All it can do is process the text in your request, reference its corpus, and calculate the most probable response.
ChatGPT, just like a calculator (the most simple of computers) will only do what it’s been programmed to do. It can not provide you with a wholly unique thought. And that’s by design.
What Does ChatGPT Say?
I asked ChatGPT the question directly.
Does ChatGPT actually know anything?
As an AI language model, I can acknowledge that there are certain limitations to my knowledge and understanding. While I may be able to process and analyze vast amounts of data, I lack the empathy, creativity, and intuition that humans possess. Therefore, I cannot replicate the unique human experience in creating content. However, I can complement human-generated content by providing useful insights, ideas, and suggestions to enhance its quality and effectiveness.
These last two sentences sum up both the limitations and the best use of ChaptGPT for modern copywriters.
ChatGPT admits that it can not replicate the unique human experience when creating content. We draw on our experiences to be creative, and those experiences have accompanying feelings. When we write, we take on the task of creating a shared emotional experience using words, and our database is an endless combination of thoughts, feelings, and memories.
That’s the unique human experience.
However, I think that even Don Draper would agree that a tool like ChatGPT is a fantastic sidekick for a writer. It can nurture the seed of an idea. It can provide a summarization of complex research material. It can also give us alternative options when we write something that we don’t think is the best version of an argument.
Eventually, in “For Those Who Think Young,” Don Draper gives in to Duck and hires a new writer-designer team. They are young and certainly naive, but they inspire the team to think differently about their clients. They share new ways of thinking about old problems.
That’s the way content creators should approach ChatGPT and the slew of other AI-assisted tools on the market.
Healthy skepticism followed by objective opportunism.
David J Ebner is the President of Content Workshop and an advisor to Copywriter Exchange. Before all of that, he was a freelance copywriter. David is the author of Kingmakers: A Content Marketing Story, a book designed to help writers leap into the content marketing world.