Just joined a flickr photo sharing group called “Weird Advertising Characters” (w/thanks to AdWeek and Laughing Squid). Some fascinating history of popular uncanny icons in here — living embodiments of products that should not be. Filed for future reference, added to my flickr account, posted on my delicious page…and shared with you here.
Since I’ve been reviewing or including online videos so often in this weblog, I decided to create a YouTube Playlist on The Popular Uncanny that features many of the vids mentioned either here, or that are analyzed in the book (still pending publication — the delays are all mine). Right now there are about 21 videos of the weird you can peruse. I’ve also been posting book trailers and adaptations of my fiction/poetry. Please click the button to subscribe to my YouTube channel while you’re there.
The series of “House” party ads that Mike’s Hard Lemonade have started running are pretty effective and funny in the way that they domesticate tropes of the uncanny.
In my favorite, the host of the party answers the door bell, and a headless deer simply stands on the doorstep, breathing. The mounted head in the room behind him asks “Who is it?” because he can’t move his (dead) head to see who is at the door. The camera cuts back to a point-of-view shot from the party host, angle tilted down to show the standing, breathing, corpse. It’s like the body has come in search for its owner. The mounted head over his shoulder blinks , then asks in a normal-enough voice, just like any one of the guests: “Seriously, who is it?” The host stands just stands between them, puzzled. The commercial cuts to its end cap, a hand spilling a chilly malt beverage from a wet bottle into an icy glass: “Mike’s Lemonade: Always different, always refreshing.”
Like good flash fiction, the scenarios in these ads drive home the “always different” tagline in a way that suggests that the unexpected is omnipresent, always standing on the threshold right outside your doorway (and the entire series of ads are identical up until the doorbell rings). The use of the uncanny trope of the dismembered body part that acts on its own accord is the central motif of this particular ad) there are others in the series that use familiar icons of the horror and dark fantasy genre, like the scarecrow doing house calls, or the 30 foot woman who returns to pick up her lost giant shoe), but the talking mounted head and the ambulatory deer carcass are perhaps my favorite because they most clearly show that the uncanny is both in and out of the household — which is another way of saying that the unfamiliar is always already built into the familiar, and that the domestic space is inherently haunted by what it excludes by the artificial boundary line of property.
I also really like that the deer on the doorway is shown simply breathing. I have written earlier on this blog about “living, breathing death” (“the autonomous movement of fur”) and I can’t help but notice it here, too. The ad seems to suggest that the house party host is encountering the spirit of the game he’s bagged…and ends right on the edge of a horror movie revenge scenario. There is almost a rhetorical appeal here, manifested as a return of repressed guilt for hunting game — a theme that might suggest that the violence required for hunting for animal trophies is inhumane and not so easily forgotten.
But there is another, deeper element of this ad (and all of the “House” ads) that some viewers might not spot right away, if at all, which is really worth noting.
There are women in these ads, but we never see their heads. They are all legs (even, if not especially, in the 30 ft. woman spot). The blocking of the shots literally cuts off their heads, aligning them with the deer whose head is separated from its legs. By association, women are but trophies. This may very well be why the absurdist comedy undercuts the serious horror here, and why the uncertain “oh well” shrug off ending of the advertisement doesn’t follow through on the “revenge of the deer” scenario that it implies.
Of course, beer ads are notorious for the objectification of women, so this analysis really doesn’t say anything really new. The uncanny in advertising often masks the common and familiar by distracting viewers away from the ideologies it indulges. The lesson here is simply that Mike’s Lemonade ad is perhaps not so very “different,” after all.
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.
Lawncare season is in full bloom, if the television is any indication. More and more, I’ve been noticing advertisements for riding mowers, hedge trimmers, and all sorts of products targeting the green thumb. But one popular subgenre of these gardening ads have been employing the medium in a way that is undeniably uncanny: commercials for weed killer.
This funny TV commercial for Resolva 24H really illustrates something that they all do: the seemingly “unstoppable” problem of weeds — represented as “relentless little blighters” — or cute little monsters that keep popping back up with malevolence no matter how hard you try to “repress” them using organic methods:
What’s interesting to me is, of course, the uncanny “animation” of plant matter, through the aesthetic conceit of anthropomorphism. They are not just plants — they are tormenters, represented almost like juvenile little children who taunt with their raspberries and child-like antics (as their cartoon “voices” make clear).
But on another level, this cute animation technique in some ways serves to mask or distract us from the identical animation techniques that imbue the pesticide with an equally implicit supernatural agency. Notice how we get “time lapse” photography that can break the laws of time and space to show us a sprayed weed in extremis, dispatched and sent to its grave in a 24 hour period that lasts no longer than a few seconds on screen. We take this for granted as a sort of scientific evidence, but the media is used in a “stop motion” method that is identical to that which grants the “little blighters” life in the first place: animation. Yet the humorous interaction with the human who “battles” the weeds rhetorically distracts us from this appeal; while the “death” sequence featuring the weed is strangely absent of human agency altogether.
Weeds are like monsters: they just won’t die unless you bring a magical force to the rescue.
The poison is doing the work here, not the human. In fact, it’s labor-free.
Lest you think this is just some quirky little ad from down under, I offer another example to illustrate just how widespread these techniques really are, even in commercials that don’t have a single element of “cuteness” to them whatsoever. Here we have a potent ad for Roundup Extended Control weed killer that is sober perhaps to the extreme:
Here weeds are weeds, not cute little creatures (like they are in Roundup’s “weeds won’t play dead, they’ll stay dead” ad campaign), but they do move of their own accord and therefore have a sort of magical “life” and intent all their own. And I dare say it is a relatively pretty one, blooming in a beautiful yellow flange before they are swiftly shot dead. The ad serves to show the power and long-lasting function of the product, but we are given the same pitch as before. We also see the product itself magically split in two (splitting into a sort of doppelganger, or double) before the spray nozzle autonomously does its job on the weeds and the driveway — all set the subtle “Western movie” music — and ending with a stylistic “holstering” of its gun. So again there is no human agency, just an implied magical power, one that literally is delivered by a “gun” that shoots weeds dead.
Now, normally I’d say “good riddance” and anyone who has been frustrated by overgrown patches of weeds on their property will likely be won over by these ads. But what I want to call attention to is the way that “magic” circulates in these ads, often by masking the human agency behind the product, which gives these consumer goods more power than perhaps they ought to be given. And perhaps they also, in the process, mask a vague irresponsibility (or at best suspended critical faculty) regarding the “shotgun” use of chemicals to combat the environment. What we’re really given here are fantasies of wild west gun-slinging to combat the “frontier,” and this reinforces a myth that power should be wielded against the environment through violence. It may very well be a war, and these products may very well be safe weapons, but the fantasy here is that these weeds are inorganic monsters that must be murdered by inorganic means and that’s just, well, weird when we’re talking about organic life to begin with. The organic weed must be reconstructed as an uncanny Other to make this weirdness seem psychologically rational if not normal.
I won’t go on and on about the role of the uncanny in all this, except to say the obvious: death is also everywhere here, and it’s about our death (our own inevitable “battle with the weeds”) as much as it is about burning up the root system of a dandelion with a god-like force.