Advertising from the Uncanny Valley (revisited)

(Just to be clear this post is primarily about comedy ads. Or ads attempting to be comedic. If you notice something I've left out feel free to leave it in the comments.)

Lately I've been watching a little more TV than usual. You can chalk that up to either the quality of current shows or general aimlessness. Regardless, this means that I'm seeing a whole lot more TV ads and get to spend a great deal of time with this "dying" medium. I can certainly see why people might want TV advertising to shrivel up and die, even if it won't.

The majority of it is miserable to watch, though that sentiment probably qualifies for Most Obvious Thought of the Century. Although this dearth of quality is not very different from any year in TV advertising that still doesn't change the fact that gobs of money are being squandered on making bad advertisements. (The worst of them seem to come from telecoms and internet providers, but that's a whole other issue.)

So between fits of anger about how bad ads are, it dawned on me that too many TV ads are stuck in the Uncanny Valley. Here's short primer if you don't know or remember what that is: the Uncanny Valley is what causes that uncomfortable feeling when things are a little too close to being life-like but not far away enough to be discreetly inhuman. It elicits fear or discomfort because brains don't know what to make of this not-quite-a-person person.

You can see this in ads using the "dumb dad" or "women standing around a spotless kitchen talking about bowel movements" tropes. Things that appear to be truths on the surface, may have been funny with more finessing, but are situations too far fetched to get recognized to the viewing audience. Like ads where the dad makes the family camp in the neighbor's back yard because they have faster WiFi.

The central conceit of ads like this are flawed in that they are too divorced from the realities life without being totally divorced. It's as though companies are asking, "this is funny, right?" or, "people live like this, right?" to the audience. These types of commercials exist in a world too close to our own without rational thought or behavior. Without subtlety. And it's not not subtle in the way an old Ally ad is, it's blunt in the way that sucks the humor and intelligence out of it.

It doesn't work because it's attempting to be funny or touching without ever being those things.  It's a farce. Which is a shame because I can't imagine anyone who worked on it intended for it to be that way. 

Contrast this with the worlds created by agencies like BFG9000, Wieden, Cliff Freeman (tear), and Goodby on behalf of their clients. Those are some sort of parallel universe where crazy product specific situations can exist. It's like our world but it's different. It's distinct or bizarre enough that the audience can buy it's an ad without having their intelligence insulted. That's where the comedy comes from. And it's consistent in that it doesn't put people off by patronizing them. Sometimes it can be too strange for some people but at least it's not insulting. Or if sticking closer to reality is your cup of tea, ads like Budweiser used to produce. Those were funny in the way the best sitcoms are funny, not the way your Aunt Margret is funny at Thanksgiving while regaling you stories about the checkout boy.

So if those types of ads work for why do these Uncanny Valley ads come about? It's because comedy written by committee rarely works (discounting TV writer's rooms because that's a bunch of people trying to beat each other's jokes). This is even more true when trying to amend the comedy to fit in one more product point, or make a jab at a competitor, or shoehorn the product name in. That's not to say these things can't be done but ads are best, and often funniest, when they're trying to do one thing. When everyone involved lets them be less complicated in favor of effectiveness. 

This isn't always going to produce a hit but it'll hopefully help reduce the number of stinkers out there. I may have to quit TV if it doesn't.