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Ascending the Uncanny Valley in Healthcare


Pharmaceutical Executive

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive-01-01-2019
Volume 39
Issue 1

Being more human in brand engagement doesn’t mean being less transparent

Today, reports of organizations mishandling data are as common as political scandals or celebrity feuds. Yet every revelation about Facebook’s treatment of consumer data always seems jarring. The company, positioned as a champion of friendship, connection, and community, has been repeatedly exposed as the mammoth tech machine that it is. It is this unsettling juxtaposition that has sparked consumer, political, and media outrage. And it all starts in the uncanny valley.

The uncanny valley is the eerie point at which machines take on many human characteristics, but still can’t quite pass for being human. Think Transformers versus Disney’s animatronic Hall of Presidents: the former are clearly identifiable robots, the latter awkward approximations of humanity, inner-workings masked. Like Facebook, many of today’s companies are feverishly trying to become more like people, despite being anything but.

In attempts to be more relatable, brands are focusing on developing personalities and purposes, while sweeping activities like data collection under the rug. The problem becomes magnified when it involves healthcare companies – organizations that trade in some of the most sensitive and intimate information. Trendy healthcare startups like Hims and Roman may have cheeky advertisements, but according to a recent article in The Outline, the consumer data they collect “can still be sold to data brokers or used for third-party marketing services if anonymized, which could allow tech giants like Facebook, Google, and Amazon to make their ad targeting algorithms even more scarily accurate by incorporating huge swaths of medical data.” The article further explains that the websites for these brands have either Facebook social plugins or Facebook tracking pixels, allowing the platform to track how frequently users visit. The contrast of these companies’ playful marketing tactics with their hidden data capabilities produces the same uneasy feeling that robot Abraham Lincoln does.

One positive aspect of these newer brands is that they lean into consumers’ growing involvement in their own healthcare. From ordering home-delivered medications and supplements to tracking activity via wearables-not to mention having access to countless resources, articles, and forums online-people are now able to question established practices and take control of their care. While the healthcare industry clumsily attempts to be more human, consumers are becoming more industrious about caring for themselves.

Perhaps it’s this independent care and tracking of personal data that has shifted the public’s perception of larger companies. Ernst & Young’s 2013 “Big Data Backlash” report, which deftly predicted the end of the “Golden Age” of free data at 2018, found that 78% of consumers believe companies collect personal data to make money, rather than to make improvements for their customers. Despite this cynicism, the fact that they

stand to benefit from sharing their information is not lost on the public. Roughly a third of those surveyed were happy for companies to target them with special offers and recommendations, or develop new products and services based on their personal data. Consumers have not written data collection off, but rather want to observe and understand that it’s being put to good use.

So where do healthcare brands go from here? For starters, they should recognize that, while companies should demonstrate human-like qualities, such as reliability and consistency, they are not people. Rather, they should exercise transparency, letting today’s savvy consumers in on their business methods and information. They should make consumers feel like active business partners when it comes to their healthcare data, rather than friends with blind trust. By prioritizing transparency and engaging in knowledge-sharing with the public, healthcare companies and consumers may be able to climb, hand in hand, out of the uncanny valley.


Julia Stern

is Senior Strategy Analyst at Merkle

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