Image for post
Image for post
Wikicommons

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.

Obviously fake or actually authentic

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.

Image for post
Image for post

If you are a constructing a campaign, consider which of these three zones is the best match for your message.

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

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.

More #DesignStory posts

  1. 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.

Thanks to stacy-marie ishmael, Noah Brier, Kate Lee, and patrick tomasiewicz

James Buckhouse

Written by

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

Design Story

Complements to the human condition.

James Buckhouse

Written by

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

Design Story

Complements to the human condition.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store