Marketing in the Uncanny Valley

A few years ago the Canadian Association of Optometrists ran a campaign called, “Open Your Eyes”. The campaign included a commercial that garnered a fair bit of commentary. It featured a woman who rises out of bed and begins to make her way through her morning routine with her family. The thing that makes the commercial a point of discussion is that she has her eyes closed throughout, but her lids are painted with eyes in a striking light brown. The result is an uneasy appearance. As the commercial unrolls the camera pans to show the viewer things from her perspective. As she encounters her family and neighbours we, the viewer, are surprised to see that no one reacts. She and they wave and interact as though everything is normal. The commercial is arresting, but it also makes the viewer a touch uneasy, in a word, the commercial is uncanny.

Little Baby’s Ice Cream took uncanny into the realm of creepy. They ran an ad that featured a somewhat androgynous ice-cream being, who stares piercingly out at the viewer as she slowly and methodically eats herself. Starting at the top of her head she scoops away more and more of herself while her stare becomes increasingly vacant.

Although we know that these images are contrived, intended to get our attention, they are still disturbing. Uncanny is like scary but operates almost on a subconscious level. It can sit close to normal without being at all normal. That proximity between normal and creepy can be so disturbing that it can create cognitive dissonance. So why would someone marketing a product ever want to cause the consumer mental stress?

Simple really, if the advertising works just right, they are disturbing, but utterly memorable and believe it or not, appealing. Little Baby’s managed to garner national attention and their sales followed in a steady upward projection long after the initial commercial was aired. The commercial has received well over seven million hits on YouTube and the “YouTubers React to Little Baby” has received over eight million views. The success of Little Baby’s was so profound that they created more commercials, all uncanny, and even a documentary on the making of the commercials.

What these short and disturbing offerings are is a brief titillation. They get our attention, make us giggle, get grossed out or better still, they make us talk. They are startling and disturbing, but ultimately safe. This type of advertising does not require the endurance needed for a horror movie and they do not induce the physical reaction or risk of extreme sports, but they do give the viewer a jolt. They are the flip side of humorous advertising that lulls and amuses while it embeds itself into our minds. Both can be effective or foolhardy.  It is not an easy line to walk, but if you can hit it home, the results can be spectacular. This last video comes as a suggestion from a friend and it hits all the right uncanny buttons.

Whether promoting a book, movie, service or product, when have you seen uncanny work it’s magic?  Have you ever thought of doing something a little off-putting to bring attention to a product or service? What do you think of uncanny advertising?

Image by Masahiro Mori and Karl MacDorman


56 responses to “Marketing in the Uncanny Valley

  • Interesting in a disturbing kind of way. I don’t care for uncanny or creepy advertising and I stay away from any such movies. I do think creating a memorable spot is what good marketing strives to achieve but for me personally being made uneasy will lead me to avoid a product rather than draw me to it.

    • Debra Yearwood says:
      June 12, 2018 @ 02:55 pm

      I totally understand Valerie, the ice-cream one, in particular, I find disturbing, but I certainly remember it. 🙂

  • I chose not to watch the videos since I don’t do creepy (Ok, I admit to loving the TV show Supernatural) and I hate advertising. Using a DVR has, thankfully, limited the amount of exposure I have to TVs. I prefer to see the humorous ones–Farmer’s Insurance, the dog commercials–see, I can’t tell you if it’s VW or Subaru.

    • Debra Yearwood says:
      June 18, 2018 @ 03:41 pm

      I like Supernatural too! Somehow it just doesn’t scare me. Despite my interest in marketing, I rarely see commercials unless I purposely go looking for them. However, because seeing them is so rare, I actually get a kick out of them, well the good ones. 🙂

  • Catarina says:
    June 6, 2018 @ 06:57 am

    Uncanny marketing can determine if you succeed or not. Mind you we are all different and as good as the ice cream commercial is it would not make me a customer. But because, like you, I’m skilled in marketing I’m not representative for customers in general.

    • Debra Yearwood says:
      June 6, 2018 @ 02:42 pm

      I agree with you on the ice-cream commercial Catarina, it would not have prompted me to buy the ice-cream, but it does stay in my mind.

  • Well, I must say that the ending of the Mr. W. video really caught me by surprise. How ingenious for the film maker to have personified the wind, and its often irritations into a human. And to show how when energy is harnessed in a positive way, the results can be most welcome.

    • Debra Yearwood says:
      June 6, 2018 @ 02:39 pm

      I think the wind commercial is one of those times when being uncanny actually worked well for most viewers. I was quite disturbed by the commercial until the punch line. 🙂

  • I did not watch the videos as I generally avoid anything remotely creepy or the supernatural. Images tend to stay with me so I am careful what I feed my mind. Shock tactics work to grab your attention even if they are somewhat over the top.

    • Debra Yearwood says:
      June 5, 2018 @ 09:51 am

      When I was younger I loved horror movies, but now, these commercials are about as creepy as I get. It’s an interesting approach and your reaction is why it can be a challenging one for marketers.

  • Debra, I couldn’t stand watching the first one. It was beyond irritating. The ice cream one was intriguing. As someone who tries to avoid sugar, I wouldn’t even think of buying the product. But I can see how young people would.

    • Debra Yearwood says:
      June 1, 2018 @ 11:44 am

      Your reaction to the “Open Your Eyes” commercial is precisely what makes choosing this type of approach so challenging. You are always trying to find the sweet spot between being arresting enough to get attention and being so arresting you bug the viewer. 🙂

  • jbutler1914 says:
    October 23, 2014 @ 06:34 pm

    Both of those ads were extremely weird. They looked like something from the Twilight Zone.

  • Loved this post Debra and the great use of words, very good read. As for uncanny ads, they do stick, but I am not sure if they make me buy. I would not say that ice cream ad would make me want to eat ice cream (wonder how they pulled it off as a great sales driver), but the eye ad seems quite clever.

    • Welli I did not run out and buy an ice-cream either, but I wonder if the quirkiness was so strong that people started talking and then all the talk made people buy the ice-cream out of curiosity.

  • Some of the worst commercials I saw as a child I still remember and they adopted this approach. At the time we all talked about how terrible they were. Now, thirty years later I still remember them as if it was yesterday. That’s got to be good advertising 🙂

  • Uncanny commercials can work for companies but not all the time. I was wondering what attraction little kids will find in that Ice cream commercial for me it was disturbing.
    Going out of box and trying something new is always good but you can never estimate about the results or feed back as we live in free world and can express our likes and dislikes freely.
    I like the commercial with closed eyes , it is good to aware people.

  • Debra- I didn’t care for the ice cream ad, but I think the ad is more for the millenniums today than someone like me who is a baby boomer, where we are trying to do something to live longer and avoid foods like ice cream. I can see where this appeal to the younger generation as they are into zombies and things that are that border on the abnormal.

    • The ice-cream ad is definitely on the creepy side for me too. I have to admit, I couldn’t even figure out what the ad was for initially, because I don’t know the brand. I wondered if it was a spoof about eating ice-cream made from little babies. Yes, that’s how weird the ad seemed to me. 🙂

  • I can see how something like this would work. It would be something I would have difficulty doing myself because it would appear so out of character. Then again that would be the very reason it would work… yep that would be magic… LOL. 🙂

  • There is a series of commercial now in the U.S. for Direct TV with Rob Lowe that portrays creepy versions of Rob Lowe. I remembers another set of ads that was also aimed at cable TV about what would happen to you if you had cable. Guess that one wasn’t so effective because I can’t remember what it was an ad for.

  • I think that younger generations might find these things appealing. I hated the ice cream one and thought the other one was strange. I think that I’d rather play it safe and not go any farther than humor.

  • Debra, I really did not like that ice-cream commercial and I definitely would not buy the stuff – yuck. But the there are so many commercials today that I neither like nor understand. I guess I’m from the old school – please keep it simple.

  • Ok, I would never buy that ice cream. Extremely creepy and I didn’t see the point at all. Yuck!! The eye one was OK. Not creepy but different. I love looking for subliminal messages in advertising. That was my minor in college, if you can believe it, they actually offered an entire program on the psychology of marketing. Fascinating, but the ice cream one – not so much. Thanks for sharing. I’ll be creeped out all day, I think.

    • The first time I saw the ice-cream commercial I didn’t even understand what was being advertised. 🙂 The incongruity of little baby’s and the disturbing scene was confusing.

  • Yikes. For me they are both creepy. While I have no desire to see another babys ice cream video, or even eat it, eyes are another issue. Maybe people relate to such commercials if there is something current in their life about the topic raised? I’m saying that only because, I’m headed to my eye doctor today. This is my third appointment to hopefully nip in the bud an eye infection.

    I can’t say I laughed at either of these commercials and for me, if I laugh, I usually will remember what the heck for! Thanks Debra.

    • There is definitely something about eyes that triggers a reaction. I don’t think either of those commercials was intended to be funny. Disturbing,maybe even arresting, but they don’t tickle the funny bone. If we had an uncanny bone, that might be effected. 🙂 As to the ice-cream commercial, I’ve no idea what inspired that but,it definitely elicits the eeeeew factor and more sales.

  • Debra — I thought the ice cream commercial was gross. You just never know what’s going to turn people on and buy. But apparently it worked so who am I to say? I’ve never done anything off-putting. I’m too conventional!

    • I thought the ice-cream commercial was gross too Jeannette, I can say with confidence I never would have gone with that concept but I would have missed an opportunity. Something about it has big appeal.

  • hi debra; seems like with most kinds of ads the trick is not to stop at getting a reaction but to get a reaction that results in sales. being effected doesn’t automatically mean that people wil then want to buy your product. growing up in a family of carnival owners back in the day of showmen and side shows I’ve probably seen a few of these. I can remember ride shpeals touting that people with heart conditions shouldn’t buy a ticket. I can remember some of the posters for things like the woman that transformed into a gorilla or a museum of torture devices. of course this wasn’t on the scale of today where there is youtube and other online promotion. wonder what barnum would do in the internet age? 🙂 thanks for sharing, max

    • I think P.T. Barnum would have had a field day with the internet age. He was a man who thought big and and he would have seen the panacea that the internet offers as an opportunity. If anyone could manage marketing in the uncanny valley, I think he could. 🙂

  • I think uncanny can work in certain circumstances – if it matches the message and/or is done with a touch of humour. Most of the time, not so much. Some of the creepiest ads I’ve seen are those warning against texting and driving.

  • Who would ever do anything creepy. That seems a bit odd to me.

  • petermckinnon1 says:
    October 15, 2014 @ 06:17 pm

    As a video producer and writer, I believe the challenge is striking the appropriate balance between using mystery to pique the audience’s interest and satisfying their expectations in some way. If it’s too mysterious or offbeat, people will turn away. I think the optometrist ad works because it strikes a light, playful tone and every aspect of it supports the “open your eyes” tagline (which has many connotations). The ice cream ad, in my opinion, attempts to connect with a narrow (rather than general) audience. Some viewers will find it creepy; others, just plain weird. But some will respond to its offbeat sensibility by going out and trying the product.

    The best “uncanny” video ad I’ve ever seen is this one…
    I’ll say no more about it for fear of spoiling the punchline.

    Whether you call it uncanny, offbeat, unexpected or mysterious, it can be an effective device in every genre…websites, speeches, feature articles and more.

    • I remember this commercial! It was so bizarre the first time I watched it, I was so irritated with this weird fellow. Once you’re in on the joke, you can’t help but laugh, it’s brilliant.

  • That ice cream one is sick. Is it still on the air?

    “Open Your Eyes” isn’t that bad. It gets the point across about paying attention to your eyes.

  • Uncanny marketing definitely works. Like both commercials. Great job, Debra!! But as good as the Little Baby’s Ice Cream video is, it would not make me buy their ice cream

    When I was a teenager I subscribed to American Vogue. Still remember an advertisement with the face of an ugly man that said “Hit me with a Club”. It was some kind of drink mix that they didn’t sell in Sweden. But out of all the ads in Vogue it’s the only one I remember.

  • Creepy can be so good when it’s working well as in the two examples you’ve posted here. I’m more likely to respond to quirky than I am to something that strikes me as a contrived effort at being positive.

  • Holy Moly…that Little Baby was memorable! I wasn’t creeped out at all! I think the tag line said it all…ice cream is a feeling. I’d buy that ice cream in a heart-beat:) I chose a bit of an off-putting title for my book. Truth? I’m not sure I’d do it again, even though I had more thumbs up than thumbs down from professionals.

  • Eleanor Bell says:
    October 14, 2014 @ 03:12 pm

    Best most memorable commercial I ever saw was the one for truth in advertising. A teenage girl is about to leave out window when parent opens door. you see sign roll down “going to library” music and couple of people dancing. Then comment dressing it up does not make it true. truth in advertising matters. Will never forget it. Made me laugh and it is true.

  • Oh, my, the ice cream video really creeped me out! The one with the closed eyes didn’t creep me – I actually like it and find it a clever way to raise awareness but the baby’s ice cream… no way! If I were to become a customer, ever time i set foot in their joint, I will picture this lady – no, no, no way. Cant believe this worked so well for them 🙂 But then again, I am not a big fan of ice-cream, maybe that’s why LOL

    And to your question, Debra – no, I don’t think I have ever considered doing something a little off-putting to bring attention to a product or service. Maybe it’s a missed opportunity, I don’t know – but I like to believe that it’s better to catch attention with positive vibes. This way the product, service or the brand altogether will have a positive connotation, too.

    Interesting post – thanks for sharing 🙂

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