Down in the Valley, Where the Weird Things Are

Article by Mike Upchurch|3 min read|Mar 7, 2024

The 2004 film “The Polar Express” was an ambitious experiment in motion capture and animation technologies. Despite doing well at the box office, many critics contended the experiment failed due largely to a phenomenon called the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley is the place where the appearance of humanness falls just short, leaving a small but psychologically revolting gap between realism and normal emotional response, to which people respond viscerally with disgust. (In the case of “The Polar Express,” it’s those dead eyes and stiff faces expressing such happy, relatable emotions. Yuck.)

Video technology has certainly come light years since the early aughts, but the valley remains, including in our industry. AI-generated video avatars in marketing channels continue to improve at the same lightning pace as other AI-based technologies. Still, that small gap between verisimilitude and artifice remains. You can’t help but focus on their semi-paralyzed mouths and slightly off-kilter eyes instead of their pitch because some primeval part of your brain is yelling, “Look out! Danger! This person isn’t a person!”

But the uncanny valley isn’t just a persistent problem for visual media; it resides in copy as well. Why does AI-created marketing copy so often create discomfort? Because the basic flaw that creates the valley isn’t merely about visual depictions of humanity. It’s in the most uniquely and fundamentally human thing of all—how we tell, and consume, stories.

Stories are emotional journeys we take one another on to create a human connection, no matter how dry the content may appear on the surface. A problem is established, a solution is introduced, the solution is tested and validated, the problem is solved, and a victor emerges. (If you’ve done your job right, the victor is either your customer or those they care about most, not your product.)

Within this elemental framework, AI has yet to reproduce the subtlety and empathetic connection that makes compelling copy so effective. If the audience can tell the writer is merely compiling and mimicking, two things at which AI is already very good, instead of attempting to understand their needs and find common ground, they may understand the “what” but still feel slightly repulsed by the “how.” Getting both right is vital to effective copywriting.

AI is here to stay. There is no getting around its eventual widespread use in generating content for our clients. But that doesn’t mean that we must risk getting stuck in the valley to be both efficient and persuasive. Climbing out of the valley, like all successful creative, will take collaboration. AI is just a new, incredibly knowledgeable, but kind of weird teammate.

Think of copy generated from tools such as ChatGPT or Claude as sketches. The kernel of an idea can now be produced in seconds instead of laborious hours of wadding up notepad paper and banging your head against your desk. AI is your smart sketchpad, synthesizing your prompts and its deep well of information into highly refined doodles. Inside those doodles is a powerful story waiting to be revealed. You sketch, re-prompt, sketch, refine, and re-prompt again.

But never mistake AI output for effective writing (even when a deadline looms and your project manager is politely but firmly asking for the manuscript for the third time). That takes the skillful weaving of connections built on shared emotion called storytelling. As advertising creatives, we are always, even in the most rote and boilerplate project, telling a story. Even when the audience is not fully conscious of it, they can and will detect robotic recitation versus emotional storytelling. Our minds are wired to do so, which is why the uncanny valley provokes such a reflexive and instinctive response.

In a future post, I’ll explore some ways I approach refining AI copy “sketches” into useful, emotive copy. In the meantime, if you find yourself in the uncanny valley and under the gun, just remember that emotion is what lifts us high enough to see the horizon.

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