Media X: Lost In Uncanny Valley

The week before Labor Day is usually my favorite time of the year because two of my least favorite things--traffic and people--are light and out of town, respectively. Except once every four years, when my buzz is killed by the Olympics and the U.S. election campaign. That's true in spades this summer.

Winston Churchill said: "A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on." Today, that notion isn't a criticism. It's an aspiration.

The Games took place in a Mandarin Neverland of gleaming, new, empty office buildings, lip-synching singers, unsettling smiles and Chinese citizens marched into semi-empty stadiums by the hundreds to scream for nations they never heard of so the cameras would record only packed, cheering crowds.

A prop masquerading as a city.

In the deranged funhouse that is the U.S. presidential race, the electorate is wallowing in yet more manipulation over meaning and spite over seriousness, an array of stupid politician tricks so venal they'd make Huey Long blush, an artificially sweetened Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, who makes Joan Rivers look lifelike.



A Punch and Judy show masquerading as a campaign.

Is it any surprise that marketing also is kicking honesty to the curb? That communications increasingly are built on sleight of hand rather than product or service benefits? And the outlook for truth in the future is even grimmer because digital technology is really, really close to delivering the ultimate in engineered lying.

Last week, I read a fascinating article on the Times Web site (the English variant) about the very apex of current animation technology. The piece, which features the work of the folks at Image Metrics, who animated "Grand Theft Auto" (thanks a lot, by the way), was accompanied by a short video of a young staffer named Emily, who talks about how skeptical she is that any animated character could pass muster for a real human.

Emily is being disingenuous. She isn't real, either. She is, the story trumpets, "one of the first animations to have overleapt a long-standing barrier known as 'uncanny valley'--which refers to the perception that animation looks less realistic as it approaches human likeness."

And how. The eyes are still a little hinky, but you could easily mistake the lovely Emily for a real person if you didn't read the story. It is seriously creepy.

With this technology, advertising will enter a golden age of artifice. We'll have computer-generated pitchpeople, candidates and Chinese gymnasts--each one indistinguishable from an actual human being, all of them leaping across the uncanny valley with abandon.

The 4As will hold a "Zombie Marketing Changes Everything" conference. An undead Burger King will promote a diet consisting of 9 ounces of undercooked meat, processed cheese, artificially colored pickles and runny mayonnaise. Media agencies will reinvent themselves as "simulacrum-centered" and communications channel planners will be renamed "nonhuman connections managers."

And the week before Labor Day, I will call in sick via videophone. But there will be something funny about my eyes.

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