The Uncanny Valley

Has your brand fallen into it (and can it get out)?

Oh, the holidays! This time of year often begs the question, “Do we live in a simulation?”. Just kidding. I’m not going there with this one. Well, not all the way there. Just keep reading, will ya’?

According to Wikipedia, “the uncanny valley hypothesis predicts that an entity appearing almost human will risk eliciting cold, eerie feelings in viewers.”

Basically that just means that there’s a space between cartoon, and lifelike that just makes us feel creepy.

Christmas ate my house

I am thinking about this today because of the annual acts of my family that have once again surfaced on this cold, December night.

In the spirit of the holiday season, my house has been eaten by Christmas. There are elves on shelves, advent closets, reindeer meals, and endless loops of Bing Crosby.

I’m not totally humbug. I like most of it, actually. But… some of these forced traditions are a b̶r̶i̶d̶g̶e̶ sleigh too far, and tonight was one of these traditions.

Nothing stops this train

Look, The Polar Express is just not a good movie. I’m convinced it is not just the poor acting, bad script, and slow pace of the film that makes it so bad. There is in fact, another reason.

Here’s what Roger Ebert had to say on the subject.

The characters in "The Polar Express" don't look real, but they don't look unreal, either; they have a kind of simplified and underlined reality that makes them visually magnetic.

I’d say that Ebert was faceblind – because these 3D renders give me the creeps. Have you seen the Polar Express? It’s really not ok.

Look. These people just don’t look like people and it shows. But they kind of do look like people a little though, too. That’s a pretty insurmountable problem. Here’s a take on why (also from Wikipedia):

Violation of human norms. The uncanny valley may "be symptomatic of entities that elicit a model of a human other but do not measure up to it".

If an entity looks sufficiently nonhuman, its human characteristics are noticeable, generating empathy. However, if the entity looks almost human, it elicits our model of a human other and its detailed normative expectations. The nonhuman characteristics are noticeable, giving the human viewer a sense of strangeness.

In other words, a robot stuck inside the uncanny valley is no longer judged by the standards of a robot doing a passable job at pretending to be human, but is instead judged by the standards of a human doing a terrible job at acting like a normal person.

I can’t get that last paragraph out of my head.

Not because of the movie characters at this point. There’s always therapy for that. It’s because most corporate brands don’t really look and sound kind of like they represent real people, rather they look and sound like a businessish type entity that’s trapped by consensus.

People are always circling back and bubbling things up. They are hoping we are well, and staying safe. They thank us for the question, and they are there with an answer that doesn’t quite match our question.

So little attention is consciously paid to the human aspect of a brand that it really never crosses most people’s minds. They just expect most companies to not respond, or put them through an endless circle of hoops to get anything done. They don’t expect interaction because it isn’t the norm.

These brands don’t really reach the uncanny valley because they haven’t allowed their communications to be human. That’s ok. You do you, right?

But every now and then…

Every now and then there is the brand that looks like they are acting like a human. It could be that they have adopted a playful tone, use contractions and colloquialisms that are not washed out like a corporation would use. It could be a number of things that give the vibe that there’s actually someone human behind the publish button.

These brands write the “I’m a real person just like you” check…

…but most of these checks bounce when it’s time to cash in.

They don’t reply to your comments or dm’s on social, or worse: they redirect to a different channel like email or a website form (when they are already having a conversation where they are). They just really aren’t there. They are in broadcast mode and you didn’t make the cut to reply to. Heck, you were just looking for some fun engagement, and their vapid narcissism is on display with their lack of response. Did they see the comment, not see it? Who knows?

Too close for comfort, but still not right. They had to redesign Sonic the Hedgehog completely after the focus groups were creeped all the way out.

This can be an absolutely abhorrent quality that will burn the brand affinity your customer’s may have had to begin with. It doesn’t take much to lose people who have been your big fan when something is just off.

In other words, a robot stuck inside the uncanny valley is no longer judged by the standards of a robot doing a passable job at pretending to be human, but is instead judged by the standards of a human doing a terrible job at acting like a normal person.

If you are going for “human brand”, you really need to own it, go all the way with it, and not let it slip over time due to apathy or a transfer of brand voice/social duties to a new team member. This needs to be chiseled in stone, or at least explicitly stated on the company wiki.

This week, we are going to be reflecting on the elements of a brand voice in public comms, and the promises the voice makes that you must avoid breaking (if you can help it).

I’ll see you Tuesday with the Brand Promise Framework that every brand should be able to at least use as a good rubric for how you’re doing. It’s the one that I’ve used before, and I am using for a new project that I’ll be telling you more about in the future.

Why brand voice? Demand and brand go hand in hand.


🎶 Musical Note: Some of the tracks on the Westworld soundtrack are better than Season 3 itself. Three for one this time. Aren’t I a good host?

If you found value in this weeks issue, please let me know! Just reply to this email or leave a comment.