By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist

Parables, childhood antidotes, juicy gossip, humans love a good story. With trends coming and going, marketing has evolved over the years, but storytelling will remain a timeless and incredibly powerful way to focus, captivate, and motivate consumer interest. Especially today when content overload and instant gratification are the norm. Consumers are not merely looking for products or services; they are seeking an emotional connection and a compelling narrative. Enter modern technology, where AI, virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and “digital humans” are not only changing the way these stories are conveyed to consumers, but also redefining the relationship between technology and human emotion.

For example, new VR/AR technologies such as Meta’s Quest and Apple’s upcoming Vision Pro are blurring the boundaries between virtual and physical, while also serving as compelling storytelling mechanisms that users will likely perceive as quite real.

Research on storytelling is robust and very clear. Using storytelling to connect with consumers (or pretty much anyone for that matter) is one of the best ways to humanize information and embed it into the listener’s long-term memory. Additionally, stories amplify perceived emotions, increase positive feelings, are more convincing than data alone, simplify complex topics, and elevate the level of trust in the person(s) relaying the story. However, these effects are traditionally found when actual human beings are narrating (imagine sitting around a campfire). But what happens when computers are given the task?

A recent series of studies examined whether these same positive effects of storytelling were present when “digital humans” were the ones telling the story. The first study explored the concept of “narrative transportation” in the context of storytelling marketing. Narrative transportation is the phenomenon where individuals become deeply engrossed in a story, suspending their disbelief and connecting with the narrative on a personal level.

The researchers found that narrative transportation was indeed possible when consumers were exposed to an augmented reality advertisement for 19 Crimes Wine featuring a digital human storyteller that appeared on the participant’s phone while scanning a label on the wine bottle. When the narrative seamlessly integrated itself with the brand’s product (in this case with a “prisoner” telling the story of his crime and banishment to Australia), consumers experienced a heightened state of narrative transportation.

The second study ventured further by comparing the responses of consumers to a range of digital human narrators (who were either more machine-like or more human-like in their manner and appearance) versus videos featuring real human storytellers. This comparison was facilitated through an exploratory neurophysiological electroencephalography (EEG) study. EEG technology allowed researchers to gain insights into the neurological and emotional responses evoked by the various storytelling agents.

The findings revealed that when the story seamlessly aligned with the product (again a “prisoner” telling his story and relating it the 19 Crimes Wine brand) all the storytelling entities could induce narrative transportation. However, the key takeaway was the finding that the digital humans who were perceived to be more human-like generated a higher rate of positive responses from consumers than the digital humans who were more machine-like. With the positive storytelling effects of the more human-like digital storytellers being roughly comparable to the videos of actual humans delivering the story in the context of the study.

This suggests that consumers are receptive to, and may at times expect, digital human storytellers in situations conducive to such interactions. The novelty of this type of engagement (e.g., physical product to digital human interface) enables a greater range of creativity within the marketing space, and as this study shows, this creative approach has the potential to be quite effective.

Essentially, AI, VR/AR, and modern technology are making it increasingly possible to avoid the negative effects of the Uncanny Valley and pave the way for digital humans to trigger some of the same emotional responses and behaviors among consumers as real human storytellers. At least when their role is situated within the proper context.

A New Era in Storytelling Marketing?

These findings have profound implications for the future of marketing and consumer engagement. As we continue to navigate the modern landscape of AI and VR/AR, digital humans offer brands a novel way to connect with your target audience on a reasonably deep and emotional level. The ability of these digital entities to elicit positive consumer responses is a testament to their potential as effective storytelling agents, particularly when applied in a way that complements the product or service being offered.

In conclusion, a new era of digital humans is upon us, and the possibilities are endless. As technology advances, we can expect to witness the rise of more human-like digital storytellers bridging the gap between the physical and digital realms. It is a thrilling time for marketing, as brands now have a powerful new tool for storytelling across an ever-widening array of mediums and finding innovative ways of forging those all-important connections with consumers.

Happy Marketing!

-Dr. James

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