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Uncanny brands

Make your campaign either obviously fake or actually authentic to earn customer trust.

James Buckhouse
May 16, 2013 · 3 min read

In computer animation, the zone of verisimilitude that exists between “illustrative” and “convincingly real” bears the name The Uncanny Valley.

It postulates that we can relate to cartoon characters and fantasy, but that near-perfection (that remains just shy of actual perfection) annoys, distracts, and sometimes even disgusts us—often just at the moment the character attempts an emotional, human connection.

Brands can fall into the same trap. To stay clear, make your campaign either obviously fake or actually authentic to earn customer trust.

The trouble comes when a campaign comes across as neither. This is the zone of distrust. If a brand tries to fake it, customers can tell.

Here is the classic Uncanny Valley chart redesigned with brand campaigns mapped from obviously fake (but loved) through the “zone of mistrust” all the way to authentic and loved.

If you decide to construct a brand fiction (like Tony the Tiger or the Twitter account @docpemberton), then borrow freely from Pixar and simplify then exaggerate.

Pixar attacks the “uncanny” problem with stylization. They abstract their characters just enough to exist in the realm of the imagination and safely away from the abyss of the uncanny.

“In my opinion it’s always been a fallacy, the notion that human characters have to look photo-realistic in CG. You can do so much more with stylized human characters. Audiences innately know how humans move and gravity works, so if a human character doesn’t feel right, they’ll feel something’s wrong. But if the weight works for stylized characters, the audience doesn’t question it - like the Dwarfs in SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, which were so cartoony and stylized. In THE INCREDIBLES, the characters are cartoony heroes but they can be hurt and they have this family dynamic that makes them believable.” Ralph Eggleston, Artistic Director for THE INCREDIBLES

Pixar’s stylization works because it exaggerates a character’s important elements to explain its fundamental nature. Mr. Incredible has a huge chest and tiny legs and feet; the forced perspective makes him more heroic. The other details are smoothed away.

Other films, like The Polar Express, struggled with this gap, and the audience can always feel when it misses the mark: unheilmlich characters are harder to love.

The same problem happens for brands when a celebrity endorses a product, but somehow doesn’t come across as truly believing in it. Cosumers can sense the performance of enthusiasm (instead of genuine enthusiasm) and will instantly mistrust the message.

Special case: distrust on purpose

Use the zone of distrust on purpose when your point is to get people wondering if something is real and so they will start talking about it, such as the “reality” of the Blair Witch Project or the Beastie Boys’ send-up infomercials. Sometimes this takes the form of parody (like Twitter’s recruiting video) other times it takes the form of something a little odd or mysterious.

The most famous example of something odd that exploits the zone of mistrust for the purpose of “story potential” is the man with an eye-patch in a Hathaway shirt from one of the grandfathers of advertising, David Oglivy.

An ordinary ad is given extraordinary potential by means of a weird prop, an eye-patch on the model. The results? Sales skyrocketed.

  1. Draw the human need your product solves. You’ll build better products and form stronger partnerships across teams when you learn to draw together… Read more to learn how.
  2. Is it #shareworthy? Niche bloggers, big brands, start-ups, and thought leaders, listen up: Every time you put anything into the world, ask yourself if your audience will want to pass it along… Learn how to get repeated.

Read more #designstory posts.

Design Story

Complements to the human condition.

Design Story

Complements to the human condition.

James Buckhouse

Written by

Design Partner at Sequoia, Founder of Sequoia Design Lab. Past: Twitter, Dreamworks. Guest lecturer at Stanford’s GSB & d.school jamesbuckhouse.com

Design Story

Complements to the human condition.