The Uncanny Valley and Corporate Social Media

“I’m a friend of Sarah Connor. I was told she was here. Could I see her please?” – Cyberdyne Systems Series 600 Terminator

The uncanny valley is a concept coined by robotics professor, Masahiro Mori, in 1970 to describe the reaction humans have to robots with human appearance.  The graph can be interpreted by saying the more human a robot looks, the more familiar and comfortable we are with it. (Translation of Mori’s article.)

As a species, we’re comfortable being around other humans.  So, the more human something looks, the more comfortable we are around it.  Motion affects this response by amplifying our familiarity with the object. Humans move.  Therefore, it’s easier to recognize a moving human than a stationary one.

This overall positive feeling we have toward human-like robots holds true until the robot reaches a point at which it looks nearly identical to a human…but not entirely human.

Then we get freaked out.

“‘More human than human’ is our motto.” – Dr. Eldon Tyrell

So, what does a psychological response to robots have to do with corporate communications?

Regardless of what politicians say, most people view large corporations as companies full of people working toward a common corporate goal.  Although, corporations have been afforded some rights of individuals over the last 100 years or so, that’s not how most people view them (and those rights are legal and political in nature, not humanizing).

You probably wouldn’t invite United Airlines over for dinner or turn to Ford Motor Company to chat about relationship problems with your girlfriend.  Because those personal relationships are reserved for actual people, not companies.

Yet I see a recent trend where corporations engage their customers (or potential customers) in exactly that way.

I find this creepy and inappropriate when companies attempt to manufacture an emotional bond with their customers.  I suspect their corporate communications department or outside social media consultant is purposefully trying to “humanize” the company.  In many cases, this is laughable.

Pepsi Corporation likes bicycling into the sunset. (Really?  A multi-billion dollar beverage corporation enjoys romantic sunset bike rides along the beach?)

McDonalds Corporation wants to know if I have any EXCITING plans for the weekend! (C’mon, seriously? What McDonalds Corporation really wants to know is…will I swing by McDonalds this weekend to eat a Big Mac?)

Pizza Hut Inc cares about my mom! (I can tell they really do care.)

Tweets like this run the gamut between weird and creepy for me.   Mostly because they come from corporate communication departments trying desperately to sound human.  Although, if any one of those tweets would have come from a friend of mine, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought.

Friends telling me out a fun bike ride and beautiful sunset feels completely normal.  Multi-billion dollar beverage companies waxing poetic about sunsets feels creepy.

I’m sure social media consultants will tell me that those tweets are indeed coming from real people.  For instance, Pepsi’s corporate Twitter account bio says:

“Your direct line to party time! It’s summer! You have Joanna, George, Grace and Shiv here in the Pepsiverse! Follow us for a good time.”

I’m sure Joanna, George, Grace and Shiv are really nice people and charming in person.  However, they being paid by Pepsi Corporation to promote Pepsi as a brand.  If you actually believe those 4 people care about your child’s pool party last weekend (because you mentioned “Pepsi” in a tweet about it), I have some beachfront real estate to sell you in Nebraska.

Call me old fashioned, but I think the relationship between large corporations and customers should be a professional one. Not a cute chummy one.

So much like the uncanny valley in robotics, I experience the same weird uneasy feeling when corporations are attempting to become a little too human for the sake of sales and marketing.

What do you think?

(By the way, I think the rules are different for small businesses…because they have a face. I’ll expand on that in a later post.)

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9 Responses to The Uncanny Valley and Corporate Social Media

  1. J.R. says:

    Nice! Looking forward to the Small Business blog post.

  2. Dave says:

    JR, I’m working on the small business post as we speak. I’m not sure where to draw the line between small and large businesses (perhaps the existence of an HR department), but small businesses certainly feel different to me. Much more personal.

  3. J.R. says:

    I’m happy to give you my two cents on both Small and Large businesses.

  4. Dave says:

    Would love your thoughts on the small vs. large business communications (you have a boatload of experience in that arena). By the way, I think what you did for Coffee Groundz several years ago was totally groundbreaking. It was genuine and engaging because you are genuine and engaging. I think that’s the difference between a small business having a genuine voice and personality and large corporation desperately trying to sound human.

  5. Amy Gahran says:

    It’s not just social media. I’m a journalist, and I recently had a hilariously icky experience with a faux-personal pitch from a corporate PR rep. Wrote it up here:

    How NOT to do media relations: Fake-friendly pitches:
    http://www.contentious.com/2011/08/23/how-not-to-do-media-relations-fake-friendly-pitches

    Some clown showed up in the comments defending this practice. Hmmm… possible rep for Tyrell Corp?

    Great post, Dave.

    - Amy Gahran

  6. James says:

    I think some mention of the cluetrain manifesto belongs here – if only because as I see social media and corporations in that context, then I see the effectiveness of corporate social media being how much a consumer using social media can get the company out of the way between connecting as people to a person within the company.

    When I worked for a larger company, I got a twitter account under their name and used it for a while, and it was an eye-opening experience. When I could help real people with concrete problems, it was accepted. When I tried to be friendly to potential customers it wasn’t. i finally retired the account and refused to let the company use it because i realized that as James, I was far more effective than as Corporation. More real, I spoke from my own context, and people connected back.

  7. Dave says:

    Thanks for the comment, James. In the context of customer support, I think corporate social media accounts are a great idea and really effective in some cases (see @comcastcares for great examples of this). For waxing poetic about sunsets, I don’t think it’s appropriate.

  8. Jim Thompson says:

    Oh sure, give all the love to robots and corporate shills. But what about the monkeys, Dave? WHAT. ABOUT. THE. MONKEYS???

  9. Randy says:

    society as a whole has become disengenous at lightning speed. Remember the last time you had a more then fleeting glance at a complete stranger? Do You? I shop at the farmers market, and hit my local hardware store for actual contact with a living breathing intelligent HUMAN whenever i get the chance. I cant wait for a massive sunspot eruption to make people humanize themselves again. video skype me or use oovoo, cause thats the only way we realy hash out this human valley that is reflected in the camo haze of that uncanny valley nonsense, take the monkey by the hand and look into his eyes, you will get more compassion in the blink of an eye than anyone can get from a tweet, a facebook update, a text message or a message on my answering machine(because i never even listen to it, or pick up the phone.) So stop on by, well have a Porter and catch up on old times….

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