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JFK’s impossible speech

Mark Tungate 2019-09-16

On November 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he was on his way to the Dallas Trade Mart to give a speech. One hundred years after Kennedy’s birth, it was finally possible to hear the speech in its entirety – spoken by President Kennedy himself.

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How so? The seemingly impossible speech came to life thanks to archive recordings, some very “out there” technology, an Irish advertising agency, and the passion of one man. That would be Alan Kelly, executive creative director of Rothco/Accenture Interactive. “I’m a bit of a Kennedy nut,” admits Alan. “My mum’s maiden name was Kennedy, and my cousin once did some ancestry research to find out if we might be related to JFK.”

There were two different results. One suggested there was no link whatsoever, while another held out a faint hope that the families might be distantly related. “I took the second one,” says Alan. “A tiny hint of a possibility that we were related to US royalty.”

But how did his Kennedy obsession surface as a campaign for The Times newspaper? “Initially it was for The Irish Times,” he explains. “As you may know, Dublin is a hub for tech companies. For many of them, it’s a European centre.”

The Irish Times wanted to explore this link with technology, while also suggesting that it represented a diversity of voices and opinions. Hence the campaign slogan, “Find Your Voice”. With the blend of these two ideas, says Alan, one thing led to another.

“I’m constantly watching JFK documentaries, but there was one where the narrator pointed out that at the time of his death Kennedy had been on his way to the Dallas Trade Mart to give a speech. Despite all those other documentaries – and there were a lot of them – it was the first time I’d heard ever this. In fact it had never occurred to me. So after a quick search I found the speech. And like any Kennedy speech, it was fantastic.”

He sent an excited text to agency producer Al Burns. “I have to admit wine was involved by this stage,” he chuckles. “I asked him if he thought the technology existed today that would allow Kennedy to finally give his speech.”

Burns had no idea. Neither did CereProc, the Scottish-based speech technology company they eventually tracked down. It specialises in synthesised voices “with personality and character”. In other words, human-sounding voices, not robotic ones. “One of the things it does is record the voices of people with motor-neurone disease, so it can recreate their voices artificially when they can no longer speak.”

But it had never worked with 55-year-old archive recordings. Over the next few weeks, CereProc sent the agency snippets of the Trade Mart speech. Alan says: “One of the problems was that the recordings ranged from speeches delivered to crowds, where Kennedy had to project to the back of the room, to cosy radio chats. So everything was very uneven.

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JFK would have certain pauses for effect, certain intonations, so all of that had to be factored in.

One of the snippets, however, contained at least two convincing words. “I thought if we can get two, we can get three – and so on.”

The next couple of months were spent wrestling with this huge audio-digital challenge: resurrecting Kennedy’s voice by splicing together tiny fragments of genuine audio.

“JFK would have certain pauses for effect, certain intonations, so all of that had to be factored in. Obviously the old recordings already had a sort of crackle on them, so we had to even that out. The sound design aspect of it was almost as painstaking as the CereProc jigsaw puzzle.”

The next step was to play the speech to one of the people most likely to be moved by it – somebody who had been waiting at the Trade Mart on the fateful day. Here The Times stepped in to track down a woman who’d been present. The agency captured her on film listening to the speech for the first time. Her reaction was understandably emotional.

Wider listeners were equally affected. “It was a fantastic reaction, because even for me this had been a ‘what if?’ idea. At the start I had no idea whether you could do this, I’d never heard of CereProc – and even CereProc had only a notion they could do it. The most common reaction was, ‘Wow, the tech is available to do that now?’ That was almost universal.”

Since then, similar technology has been cropping up more often. Alan praises “Dali Lives”, an installation for the Dali Museum in Florida by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. This time it’s an audio-visual resurrection: in the words of Advertising Age, it involves “pulling content from millions of frames of interviews with the artist and overlaying it onto an actor’s face”, enabling Dali to welcome visitors to the museum. Another actor provides the vocals.

The technology is known as “deepfake”. It sounds somewhat American – as does the idea of paying homage to JFK, for that matter. But Alan points out: “As an Irish-American, Kennedy was a huge icon for Irish people. He’d just visited Ireland before the trip to Dallas. There was a huge connection and affection for him in Ireland – and I think there still is.”


Watch the case study film of the work on the 2018 results page.

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This article appears in Epica Book 32, published in September 2019, featuring all the winners and selected high-scoring entries from the previous year's awards.

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