I was very excited to stumble on this TV commercial from 1985 for the Nikon One Touch instant camera. Their slogan? “It puts great photography at everybody’s fingertips.” Their mascot? A dismembered hand, of course!
Thing (sometimes spelled “Thingg”) — the ambulatory hand that lives in a box and serves as a literal “handyman” to The Addams Family — is perhaps the most uncanny character from a television show that literally domesticated the alien and unfamiliar into the world’s first “gothic” sitcom family and in many ways signaled a watershed moment in the popularization of the Freudian uncanny through post-WWII television broadcast. Indeed, as a dismembered hand, he might as well be torn directly from Freud’s catalog of Das Unheimlich — as one of those “dismembered limbs that move of their own accord” and as such harbor doom and dread…to which I would add laughter, which often is a hallmark of uncanny unease.
In this wonderfully campy commercial from Nikon, we are given all the obvious trappings of the uncanny, beyond just the presence of Thing: the gothic mansion of the Addams’ house, the presence of Vincent Price’s voice, and the opening title (“The Hand with Five Fingers” — riffing off Robert Florey’s classic dismembered hand film from 1946, The Beast with Five Fingers (which no doubt highly influenced Addam’s creation of Thing to begin with). But there are many other strange things going on in this commercial worth brief comment:
- Although 1985 was almost thirty years ago, it was an appeal to nostalgia even when it was released. The Addams Family had been in syndication for at least fifteen years by this point (the show aired in 1964), though it would still be another six years or so before the first film adaptation of it (and of Charles Addams‘ original comics, which appeared in the late 1940s). In other words, The Addams Family as it was known in the 80s (and as it is known today) has and is always dislocated in time, and always already a copy of another version of itself. So the commercial is something of a mediated doppelganger.
- Part of the humor of this ad is in something that we might neglect to consider: that a hand has no eyes. It doesn’t need them. The camera is privileged as a magical object because it “automatically” sees for him, doing all the work. You don’t need human or artistic agency at all to use the One Touch, is the implied message. Even a corpse could use it. Thus, the supernatural “power” of the camera’s automatic lighting and auto-focus is what is really being treated as uncanny here, through an association with Thing. The magic is available “at the push of a button”…or “at everybody’s fingertips.”
- Because film is film, the commercial is highly self-referential, and not only in the Addams Family references. This is a commercial for a camera, shot by a camera, and the latter seeks to hide its own presence. But note how the ad uses black-and-white stock for the commercial, but when Thing takes snapshots of his “frightened” subjects they flash in “freeze frame” on the screen in color. Thus, the photographic images are made more “present” (in current time/color) than what they actually inherently are — moments from the past, captured in time.
- It is interesting that viewers — potential consumers — are aligned with the subject position of a free-floating ambulatory limb. It is an agency without identity. In the context of the narrative of the commercial, it is even more interesting that all the photographs are taken of domestic servants (a maid, a butler…) rather than characters who actually appeared in The Addams Family. Now, in the TV show’s narrative, Thing himself (itself?) often performs as one of the family’s servants and is more like Lurch than like Uncle Fester in that regard. So by taking photos of his co-workers, and instilling fear in them, the uncanny commodity that is being pitched implies a sort of power move — a superiority over his fellow laborers — which slyly suggests that if you purchase this camera, you will attain a “magical” status symbol. The clever humor of the commercial and its nostalgic approach to the media masks this rhetoric.
The merchandising of The Addams Family is a wonderful example of the Popular Uncanny, and the strange way that strangeness is domesticated. It is a little sad to see Thing — who actually has some subversive agency on the original show, since he is a metaphor for the alienated worker literally represented as a “thing” instead of a human being — here redefined as an agency of pure consumption. This topic deserves much more attention, and perhaps I’ll come back to it later, but for now I leave you with another commercial that is “uncannily” similar in some ways to the Nikon One Touch.