Avoiding the Uncanny Valley

Avoiding the Uncanny Valley

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist

When it comes to “humanness,” it turns out there is a fine line between appealing and appalling. Although rather than a line, research suggests the border separating the two feelings may be more of a valley. Typically, assigning human characteristics (e.g., body structure, expressions, emotions) to animals or non-living objects significantly increases their likability and helps guide consumer preference towards the associated products, services, and brands (e.g., GEICO Gecko and the M&M’s characters). But research shows there is a point where this humanization process can be taken too far and instead produces a negative emotional reaction among consumers rather than a positive one.

While the humanization of products or services is a powerful motivator in attracting consumers to your brand, it can also bring marketers dangerously close to the edge of what some researchers have termed the “Uncanny Valley.” This “valley” is the U-shaped curve of emotional reaction to the humanization of non-living or animated objects. Up to a point, humanization increases the relatability (and therefore likability) of brand mascots and animated characters used in movies, tv shows, and advertising. However, that positive regard can decline rapidly, and even reverse itself, when the realism of the animation leaves the observer in doubt about whether they are seeing a living human being or something else entirely.

The Uncanny Valley effect was first reported on by Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori in 1970. At this early stage, Mori noted that automated machines became increasingly more appealing when their appearance was augmented with humanlike features (e.g., head, body, limbs, and basic facial features). However, this appeal was found to be abruptly reversed when the robots’ humanlike appearances started becoming more realistic (e.g., adding skin, hair, and realistic facial features), thereby producing feelings of unease and disgust among the people who interacted with them, similar as if they were dealing with a person who was diseased, deformed, or even dead.

In the decades since Mori’s initial observations in the field of robotics, these feelings of unease and discomfort have also been observed as a response to CGI movie characters depicted with a high degree of realism. For example, the box office failures of “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” and the more recent 2019 movie adaption of the Broadway play “Cats” suggest that both are victims of the Uncanny Valley. Critics and audience members alike expressed feelings of discomfort and of being “creeped out” by the photorealistic humanlike appearance of the movies’ CGI characters. While on the other hand, the recently released “M3GAN” (a horror film portraying the homicidal antics of an artificially intelligent android) has been a box office success, perhaps in part by capitalizing on the naturally occurring distrust and uneasiness associated with the protagonist’s eerie humanness and the viewers’ submersion into the Uncanny Valley.

With CGI becoming increasingly common and easier to incorporate into advertisements and social media, there are currently more opportunities and ways than ever to humanize your products and services. And that can be a very good thing. Unfortunately, it also comes with the risk of walking along the edge of the Uncanny Valley.

How can marketers avoid falling into the Uncanny Valley? Here are three things to keep in mind when using animated characters in your messaging:

  1. Know the psychology of your intended audience. Studies show that the Uncanny Valley effect is more pronounced in populations who are high in avoidance, and it has less impact on populations who actively seek out novelty in their environment. This means that specific audiences may enjoy pushing the boundaries between reality and animation, while others would much rather prefer a clear and wide division between the two.
  2. Be familiar with the current CGI culture in media consumption. With highly realistic CGI becoming more common and mainstream, the collective tolerance for the Uncanny Valley is evolving as well. Carefully track the levels of CGI realism in popular media to identify a baseline of where the edge of the Uncanny Valley currently sits and adjust your own level of desired realism from there.
  3. Make your characters bigger than life. Accentuate the humanistic appeal of desirable bodily and facial features with exaggerated symmetry, beauty, and vitality. Remember, the Uncanny Valley is a function of the negative implications associated with disease, deformity, and death. If using hyper-realistic animations, avoid any of the flaws that typically accompany the human condition (asymmetry, blemishes, undesirable facial characteristics). Those things are easily forgiven or overlooked in an actual living person, but those same realistic flaws in animation quickly lead the viewer down the path of eeriness into the Uncanny Valley.

Thanks for reading this week’s blog! To learn more about consumer psychology and how to avoid marketing pitfalls like the Uncanny Valley, be sure to give us a call at 833-579-1905 or email us at [email protected].