“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.
“‘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.)