That Viral Photo of a Man Smoking in McDonald’s Was Made With AI

Have you seen a photo on social media recently that appears to show a man in 1980s-style clothes smoking a cigarette in McDonald’s? The image has gone viral, racking up over 21 million views at the time of this writing. But it’s completely fake. The image was made using generative AI.

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The image, which features a man with long curly brown hair and a mustache, instantly grabbed attention when it was first posted to X on Tuesday. The man looks like he’s smoking a cigarette while emitting a puff of smoke, something that was allowed in some McDonald’s locations of the 20th century before clean indoor air laws became the norm.

But if you take a closer look at the image, there are some telltale signs that his “photo” was created using AI. For starters, just take a look at the fingers and hands. Do you notice how unusually long the man’s left hand is, without any discernible wrist? It appears like his arm just morphs into fingers that are incredibly long.

Image for article titled That Viral Photo of a Man Smoking in McDonald's Was Made With AI

Image: X

Next, just take a look at the writing in the image. The red cup on the table, which appears to be an attempt by the AI to mimic Coke’s branding, is a swirl of nonsense. And while McDonald’s signature golden arches look accurate on the french fry box, the packaging for McDonald’s fries has typically been predominantly red, not yellow. It also looks like a straw is sticking out from the container. I’ve never tried to consume fries through a straw, but one imagines that’s a difficult task.

The man behind the main subject of the “photo” looks even more warped, with both odd-looking hands and a face to match. The background man’s hat also looks like an attempt at both a shirt style and a bucket hat from the 2000s, which puts the main subject in an even more perplexing situation.

Image for article titled That Viral Photo of a Man Smoking in McDonald's Was Made With AI

Image: X

And what is the writing in the upper-right corner supposed to say? We only have partial letters, but it appears to say Modlidani in the shape of what’s approximating a McDonald’s sign.

Image for article titled That Viral Photo of a Man Smoking in McDonald's Was Made With AI

Image: X

Last but not least, check out the main subject’s shirt situation. The man appears to be bare-chested while wearing a denim vest but the sleeves look like a white t-shirt. It doesn’t make much sense.

Obviously the reason this image went viral is that it speaks to some version of the past that doesn’t exist anymore, whether it’s a guy with that haircut or just smoking in general. Smoking tobacco in public places used to be the norm before it was phased out in a decades-long process across the U.S. in an effort to protect public health. Many states first created “smoking” and non-smoking” sections of restaurants in the late 20th century before smoking was banished altogether in most indoor spaces by the early 21st century. There are still a handful of states that allow indoor smoking of cigarettes in some venues but they’re becoming more rare with each passing year.

If you saw this image in your feeds and didn’t immediately register it as AI, you’re not alone. I regularly debunk images and didn’t even give it a second thought when I first saw it on X yesterday. But that perhaps speaks to how a low-stakes image doesn’t get quite as much scrutiny when it’s going viral on social media platforms.

Frank J. Fleming, a former writer for conservative news satire site the Babylon Bee, pointed out on X how many people didn’t have their guard up when sharing the fake smoking image.

“This is such an interesting case of people being fooled by an AI image because the stakes are so low. There are so many obvious signs this is AI, but most would miss them because they’re not part of the focus of the image and since this is not a case where you think someone would be tricking you, you have no reason to analyze it that closely,” Fleming wrote on X.

I’m reminded of the viral image of Pope Francis wearing a big white puffer coat in 2023, another instance where people were quick to believe it might be real simply because it didn’t register as something that mattered all that much, yet was still amusing to see. Who cares if the Pope wears a cool jacket? Well, plenty of people if it’s just an example of material excess or fashion-consciousness from a figure who’s supposed to be above earthly concerns.

All we know for sure is that this won’t be the last fake image created using generative AI that will go viral. And with the U.S. presidential election just around the corner, there are bound to be many more consequential images to circulate.

Correction: An earlier version of this post said the fake McDonald’s wording in the sign in the upper-right appeared to say Moldidani. In fact, it looks like Modlidani. Gizmodo regrets the error and will try to do better in the future.