The Uncanny Valley of Brand Tweets

There’s a concept familiar to tech nerds and fans of sci-fi called the Uncanny Valley. It posits that, as robots become increasingly human, individuals will feel increasingly empathetic towards them. People’s reactions will be more and more positive. There comes, however, a point at which the likeness becomes too close for comfort; the just-more-than-barely human entity becomes repulsive and terrifying and remains so until it is engineered to become indistinguishable from humans again. The dip in positive reception of robots (or other designed entities) that fall between almost human and totally human is the uncanny valley. Here, a graph from an academic paper by Karl F. MacDorman on the topic:

From MacDorman, K. F. (2005). Androids as an experimental apparatus: Why is there an uncanny valley and can we exploit it? CogSci-2005 Workshop: Toward Social Mechanisms of Android Science, 106-118.
From MacDorman, K. F. (2005). Androids as an experimental apparatus: Why is there an uncanny valley and can we exploit it? CogSci-2005 Workshop: Toward Social Mechanisms of Android Science, 106-118.

 

This concept is what springs to mind when reading Kate Losse’s excellent piece in the New Inquiry about #weirdtwitter being co-opted by brand twitter feeds. She starts off by pulling up Denny’s feed, which I’ll admit caught my eye recently. To be blunt, it’s on point. Here are a few examples:

Losse’s thesis, essentially, is that this type of casual, on-meme tone traverses traditionally acceptable brand voice and transgresses a niche realm of digital communication. In doing so, a brand stands to yield significant positive feedback (as we’re unaccustomed to hearing brands in this way) while becoming, in Losse’s words, “cuter than any person” in its ageless hip-ness. Her concerns center primarily around power, resistance, and intimacy. Through conversing this way online, brands hedge in on the social capital of individuals and assert the fundamentally uneven power dynamic between corporations and consumers. In concluding, Losse writes:

“It isn’t enough for Denny’s to own the diners, it wants in on our alienation from power, capital, and adulthood too. While we giggle at corporate #weirdtwitter tweets, the corporate invulnerability that makes them easy to follow is also what makes their assumption of a human, familiar voice feel, despite our laughter and faves, cold and a bit pathological. Denny’s too wants to belong.”

While I primarily agree with Losse’s analysis, I think that this can more profitably be analyzed from a far simpler angle, namely the quest for brands to become more human.

Outside of marketing circles, this sounds insanely sinister. Inside of marketing circles, it’s a concept that was recently en vogue. Hill Holliday and Lippincott, big fish in the branding pond, relatively recently released a report expounding upon the contemporary need for brands to relate to their customers as humans. Brands are advised to foster transparent, personal connections with consumers, displaying empathy and embracing their own flaws. Rhetoric aside, the strategic imperative is clear: in the face of increased public skepticism of corporations, brand managers cannot continue to let their companies seem monolithic. Foster real relationships with people as people, and you’ll gain enduring loyalty and brand ambassadorship.

This sounds nice, but is it true? It doesn’t take long to call to mind successful instances of brands adopting a friendly, intimate tone and interacting with consumers in as non-corporate a way as possible. And certainly many recent brand fuck-ups, excluding those inspired by errant tweets from distracted social media managers, can be chalked up to an overly-corporate, tone-deaf response to human concerns. But as Losse points out, this seamless insinuation of brands into social situations doesn’t feel quite right. No matter how well-written the copy or absurd the illustrations–or how delighted we are in appreciating them–there is a limit to how we’re willing to regard and interact with companies. Brands may be trying to foster relationships with consumers, but will consumers ever really regard corporations as their friends?

This is where I’ll circle back to the uncanny valley concept. Though she doesn’t put it in exactly these terms, Losse’s discomfort stems from a brand’s ability to ape at casual, hip communication so effectively. She does concede that this is not the most challenging feat; after all, most social media staffers are, in fact, young and casual and hip. But though the communications originate from a person, they’re broadcast by an entity. It’s human-like but definitely not human. We’re probably in the “zombie” zone of the uncanny valley graph (or maybe the puppet). Some of us may find these things funny, but others will recoil as the brand encroaches on human territory. They may be repelled by the attempts, successful or not, to situate the brand in a particular social context. They may reject the brand’s attempt to be more human on principle, preferring more straightforwardly corporate communications to those that fall within this grey area.

Notes and caveats to the above: I’m going to go ahead and guess that Denny’s is aiming at a millennial, tech-savvy crowd who view these tweets less as corporation-wearing-a-person-suit and more as exercises in branded entertainment. For these consumers, the issue of the uncanny valley is effectively sidestepped; the brand isn’t trying to be human, it’s just trying to be funny and selecting a particular channel to float jokes. They could do videos or out-of-home executions but, for a variety of reasons, Twitter is the most appropriate venue.

Losse’s analysis, more than pointing out flaws in this particular execution, perhaps underscores a shortcoming in the brand-as-human framework; communications that fall somewhere in the middle of coming from a brand-acting-as-brand and human-on-behalf-of-brand risk alienating a subset of consumers who are attuned to the uncanny valley of brand communications. By blindly attempting to establish emotional connections with customers, brands risk sending off insufficiently-self-conscious human-like exchanges that generate suspicion instead of trust or delight. So, as always, creatives and brand managers have to be smart about crafting and positioning communications. The need to understand one’s audience is the one truism that, regardless of ad fads and marketing trends, consistently applies.

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