Feeding America uses AI to find the face of hunger
The face of hunger in a new Feeding America campaign doesn’t have a name. She isn’t even a person.
Her face was created by morphing together, through the use of artificial intelligence, the countenances of 1,000 people who visit food banks across the country.
She telegraphs a contradictory but realistic blend of qualities: Stress and calm, weariness and resolve and, perhaps, regret that in a land of plenty and despite her best efforts, she is hungry.
It makes the viewer pause to sort it all out. And that’s exactly the point.
“We wanted to make it almost impossible to ignore,” says Catherine Davis, chief marketing and communications officer at Feeding America. “We wanted to do it in a way that would jar people.”
When it comes to the hungry, the first image many people conjure up might be malnourished children in faraway countries. When they think of hungry Americans, they might picture the homeless or the unemployed. In fact, according to the largest U.S. hunger nonprofit, more than 50 percent of people served by food banks have jobs.
“You walk by hungry people every day,” says Jeanie Caggiano, executive creative director at Leo Burnett, who worked on the project.
The campaign begins running this month with media support from the Ad Council. In videos for TV and online, the woman’s face and voice morph to tell the stories of other people, such as a teenager who works to help feed younger siblings. In radio spots, the voice changes to narrate stories from a young girl worried about not getting lunch during the summer since she relies on school meals, to a veteran having trouble getting a job. Copy in print ads, including “Hunger can be hard to recognize,” is superimposed on the face of the woman.
The public service announcements are rolling out weeks after U.S. Department of Agriculture data revealed the number of people facing hunger in America declined in 2018. The latest statistic is that one in nine people are hungry; previously, the figure from the government—and often mentioned by Feeding America and other organizations—was one in eight. Still, based on the latest data, some 37.2 million Americans have trouble putting food on the table.
Creating the face of hunger
Feeding America and Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett began the project by cross-referencing Census Bureau data with the USDA’s 2018 Household Food Security in the United States report to gather the demographics of those facing hunger.
Next, Feeding America and the food banks it works with collected more than 28,000 photos of people they serve. That trove of images was narrowed down to 1,000 photos aligned with the demographic data including gender, age and ethnicity sourced from the Census Bureau and USDA.
Those 1,000 photos were then fed into a form of artificial intelligence known as “GAN,” which stands for Generative Adversary Network, to generate 300 AI faces the agency says were entirely unique. At the same time, to reduce any human bias, face-averaging software aligned each face of the original 1,000 photos and blended them together to come up with the “average face.” Facial recognition software was then used to analyze the 300 AI faces to find the closest match to that “average face,” resulting in the AI-generated face that best represents hunger in America.
“We had a steep learning curve, since this technology was so new,” recalls Caggiano. Leo Burnett spent over a month training and optimizing the AI, until the images were of high enough quality to be used.
Finally, visual effects and facial compositing were used to blend the AI-generated still image with a person, creating a life-like image that could move and speak.
If the number of hungry Americans is on the decline, why launch a hunger awareness program?
Because, the nonprofit says, even though the government’s data show food insecurity is back at pre-recession levels, there are still far too many people who go hungry across the country.
Food banks provide sustenance to more than 46 million people, according to Feeding America’s “Hunger in America” report from 2014, the most recent. More recent tracking shows that the amount of food distributed, measured in pounds, has actually increased year over year. Feeding America now says its network of 200 food banks distributes food to more than 40 million people.
This all means that a hungry person might be closer than you think and someone you might not recognize, as the agency learned in the process of creating the ad. “The first thing [Davis] said was, ‘We never would have cast that person,’” Caggiano says.