Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Creep Out Shoppers, But Explain

What could be more appropriate for the holiday season than making your shoppers feel creepy? Wait! This is the wrong holiday for that. It’s Christmas now, not Halloween.
     Still, Minnesota retailer Mainstream Fashions for Men currently has a store window display that, according to the Duluth News Tribune, is creeping out some passersby. The display consists of a live person standing motionless, serving as a store mannequin.
     How could that be creepy?
     It has to do with what Japanese robotics researchers call the “uncanny valley.” When we can’t tell whether a robot, a mannequin, or some other representation of a human is real or not, we experience revulsion. If the android looks exactly like an attractive human being, we’re attracted to it. If it looks similar to a human, but we can easily tell it’s not real, we’re amused. However, when the resemblance is very close, but we’re not sure if it’s real, we feel creepy. That dip in the positive emotion is why the effect is called the uncanny valley.
     The term was applied this week in a New York Times article about international fashion retailer H&M superimposing the heads of human models onto computer-generated bodies in ads. Aside from the media kerfuffle about setting unrealistic standards for women’s body shapes, the technique seemed to work. We pay more attention to the fine details of facial appearance than to fine details of body appearance. No creepiness.
     H&M was not at all subtle about what they’d done. The positions of the arms are identical in a series of pictures, even as the head and the skin tone vary.
     A couple of years ago, H&M disgusted consumers by cutting the fingers off gloves, but that wasn’t for an advertising campaign. A graduate student at City University of New York found bags of unused H&M clothing on the streets of NYC. It turns out that staff at the store on 34th Street had taken box cutters and razors to excess merchandise and then trashed the remains. Why weren’t these clothes donated to charity?, people asked.
     In that instance, H&M loudly proclaimed that destroying unused clothing is against company policy. In the case of the head-body stitching, H&M eased the creepiness by explaining what they did was simply an extension of their online shopping aid which allows someone to click on an outfit and see how it would look on a person.

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