Branded Content and The Uncanny Valley

June 12, 2009


Yesterday I posted about the Radisson project we just got done wrapping up here at Fast Horse (if you haven’t watched it, do so now), and I thought it would be a useful follow up to talk a little more in depth about this world of branded content we are entering into.

For the most part, the hardest part of branded content creation comes merely in classification. Pinning down exactly what you are trying to create is tricky, and our project was no different. Did we make a short film? Not in the traditional sense. Is it a commercial? God, no; it’s seven minutes long and would give seizures to most television stations. Is it a Web viral? We hope it goes viral, but the Radisson brand is too firmly inserted for it to be concepted as a “viral video.”

So what is it?

Well, simply put, it is a very well executed piece of branded content meant to live in the digital world. If that sounds nebulous and vague it’s because, well, it is. Branded content covers a huge swath of visual communications, and there is a very precarious tightrope to be walked in its creation. The trick to being successful lies in the perfect balance between completely branded and completely unbranded.

Think of it like this: Many viral videos that are Internet sensations are at the far right of the spectrum, very close to unbranded content side. The “Amazing Ball Girl Catch” video is a good example. The video, after much speculation, turns out to be created by Gatorade. If you notice at the very end, when the ball girl sits back down, there is a bottle of Gatorade next to her chair. That’s it. Very simple brand insertion. The reason the video went viral was because there was a huge debate over whether it was real or not.

So if this is a piece of branded content — and it is — it is almost all the way to the right on the spectrum next to unbranded content, we’ll call it 95 percent on the scale. An infomercial is 0 percent in that it doesn’t try to hide the fact it’s visual content created specifically to push a product.

Well, with something like what we created for Radisson, finding the balance on that line is everything. The piece is seven minutes long, so it can’t be a commercial. No one would sit through a seven-minute commercial unless it was completely, jaw-droppingly amazing and original. In fact, as a Web video, our piece would be more successful if people viewed it as a short film and then subtly absorbed the Radisson brand through enjoyment. We wrestled with how often to show the Radisson logo, where to use the words Radisson, how to insert promotion details and the like, because if we were too blunt about it, our video would slide closer and closer to the “commercial” side of the spectrum. Which, in turn, is tougher and tougher to get people to sit through, digest and respond to.

I think of it as the Uncanny Valley, which is a graphical model that explains human’s emotional responses to manufactured facsimiles of themselves (see chart above). It says that people react in an increasingly favorable and emotionally involved way, from a neutral baseline, to objects that are made to look increasingly human. Take, for instance, a robot on an assembly line. We are just barely above neutral to it emotionally because, though it is made to resemble a human arm, it doesn’t. It could be anthropomorphized for increased emotional involvement, but not by much.

This trends upward and upward, where we encounter things like stuffed animals and robots that are made to be human-like we have an increasingly favorable emotion response to them. Up to a point, that is. At a certain point, as non-human things tend to look more and more human, they approach the titular Uncanny Valley. As things look closer to being human without indeed being so, our emotional response quickly turns negative — and very negative, at that.

Things like corpses, zombies, mannequins, prosthetic limbs, wax figures and computer-animated humans quickly fall into that very negative emotional territory. This is why most animated movies have humans looking more like caricatures than actual humans (“The Incredibles,” for instance). If you’ve ever seen a motion capture movie like “The Polar Express,” you’ll notice that the humans tend to look stiff, un-natural and generally zombie-like because they try so hard to recreate human likeness but can’t. We in turn have trouble emotionally involving ourselves with them.

So how does this relate to branded content? Well, this is the same problem we face in the creation of branded content. People are in general fine with TV commercials. They know what they are and they have been exposed to them enough that, for the most, part they are completely neutral to them. When commercials move more and more to the non-branded entertainment model, people get more and more involved emotionally. People become more involved in, and thusly more recptive to, TV commercials that more closely approximate entertainment than infomercials — think Super Bowl ads.

Yet as we try harder to push our branded content more and more towards the far right, there becomes a point where people start reacting very negatively. If we made a seven-minute commercial, for instance, people would call bullshit out of the gate and completely shut down. A very negative reaction that was elicited by the content trying to approach something pure but falling short. “Amazing Ball Girl Catch” was successful because it so closely approximated non-branded content. In other words, something that really happened.

It’s that real quality that makes it so tough. Robots aren’t real. They try to look human, they try to move human, they try to talk human, but ultimately they aren’t — and that’s why they are they are always our enemies in movies. We just don’t like them. Branded content is the same way. People don’t like being sold a false bill of goods. They want to see amazing things they can emotionally identify with, not contrived, soulless junk meant to sell steak knives. They don’t like that.

I think we found a very successful balance. One that makes it so people can engage in the story, the characters and the emotion while still forwarding the Radisson brand. Hopefully.