The uncanny valley – from robots to behavioural targeting

By December 7, 2007Advertising, Widgets

I attended Ivan Pope’s Widgety Goodness conference in Brighton yesterday – and I had a great day.  There were lots of interesting speakers and I returned to London more educated than ever before on the widget-sphere.

As I checked my notes this morning though I found myself wanting to write not about widgets, but about Russell Davies’s idea that the uncanny valley concept from robotics might have application in the ad world.

From Wikipedia:

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis about robotics concerning the emotional response of humans to robots and other non-human entities. It was introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970.

Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely-human” and “fully human” entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that a robot which is “almost human” will seem overly “strange” to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the empathetic response required for productive humanrobot interaction.

The diagram below is an attempt to capture the idea diagramatically.


Russell’s idea is that we have a similar emotional response to targeted/personalised advertising.  According to this school of thought when an advertiser knows a little bit about us we get slightly more relevant ads and that seems fine, but when they start to know a lot about us it freaks us out.  Interestingly enough that takes us to the point marked ‘zombie’ on the graph above.  What is unknown at this stage is whether if the advertiser gets still more information about us we will get over our aversions and come out the other side of the uncanny valley.

I think there is a lot of merit in this idea.  Personalised ads run the risk of being like people who pretend to know you, but don’t really, and constantly betray that fact by making little mistakes.  If they didn’t make the mistakes (and I would include sending me too many ads in this) then I can see how the experience could come out of the depths of the valley and into positive territory.

There are two forces at play here though – the first and most obvious one is whether the advertisers will ever get it right enough that the personalisation will stop being annoying and start feeling useful.  The second is whether the populace at large will give them enough time to do so.  My view is an emphatic yes on the first point and that it is a close call on the second.