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.
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.
Thank you, Tim Nudd at AdWeek, for posting the 30 Freakiest Ads of 2011. Some of them were quite disturbing (I think the anti-child abuse PSA from Ireland hit me hardest (literally). And some are freaky in the way they just push the boundaries of what is taboo. But many are prime examples of the popularization of tropes of the uncanny in a way that is so orthodox, it’s a little mind boggling. In my review of this annual top thirty list, it seems to me that the ads that take the symbolism from their slogans or product names the most literally are the ones who generate the strangest of all ads.
Note how Freudian these ads are in their symbolism. The number one pick is literally a series of dream scenarios offered up for viewer interpretation. The truth is, ALL ads are dream scenarios to begin with, so Nudd’s selectio of this one — while being the most “freakiest” — is also at the same time the most honest.
I am always interested in advertisements for chewing gum (the first chapter of The Popular Uncanny focuses on the history of gum advertising in fact), because they must go out of their way to grab our attention and “sell us” on buying something akin to food — that is, something we chew but never swallow, in a simulacra of consumption.
Another uncanny ad that struck me from the “freakiest” list is the giant ear that moves of its own accord, in ESPN’s Sports for Your Ears advertisement. An obvious example of animism, with an ambulatory body part taking on all the characteristics of a sports fan, but it’s more like a wacky dream than an advertisement. I find it telling that in the opening of the ad, the ear is shopping, and when it is at work it is a psychologist (subtly recalling (if not directly referencing) the faux radio host Frasier from TV: “I’m listening”).
Some in the list are hilarious. Some are disturbing. Some are not safe for work. Most employ the uncanny to sell a product. See them all at AdWeek.
Leave a post if you want to tell us which ones you’d put in your top two.
“These adorable pets offer a real pet ownership experience without the hassles and expense. Say goodbye to feedings and vet bills. Say hello to lots of love and cuddles. Perfect Petzzz – the ultimate pet.” — Perfect Petzzz website
“It is not a toy,” [VP of Marketing] Clarkson says, “but this is the closest you can get to real pet ownership without the hassles or responsibilities of owning a real pet.” — journalgazette.net
“In 2005, Perfect Petzzz® generated more than $20 million in retail sales in its first full year of operation. In fact, the Perfect Petzzz cart program was named the most successful new product concept in 2005. With the overwhelming demand for these lifelike puppies and kittens, we’ve seen other companies try to produce imitations.” — CD3 Press Release to PP Mall Dealers
Perfect Petzzz are stuffed animals that breathe. The autonomous movement of their fur — controlled by a battery-powered engine you don’t expect to be there — is enough to trick the eye into presuming that the puppy or kitten curled up on the floor is actually a living, breathing, pet. Cute, and perhaps attractive to your hand’s caress, until you touch it and realize it’s not real. Then you are startled and the toy enters the already doll-crowded realm of the popular uncanny.
Of course, the Perfect Petzzz (the ”zzz’s” are for snoring) are plastic. And therefore the animal it represents is literally as dead as it looks, with its eyes closed and body stiffened into a disturbing fetal curl. It should not move, but it does, and it is this representation of death-stirred-to-life — of the presumed inanimate object surprising us with its animation — that gets our reaction. The tricky switcheroo of statuses between familiar and unfamiliar spin the roulette wheel of certainty: the domesticated animal is rendered un-familiar (stuffed, inanimate) then restored to a heimish (cozy) status of sleeping and napping..
It is surely cute, and there is little difference between a breathing stuffed animal and a toy doll that burps or blinks. Of course, even the cutest of dolls are inherently uncanny in the way they are semblances, pale imitations of life…but the creepy thing in this case is not so much its status as automaton, as the fact that this “sleeper” never wakes up. These are comatose pets…and that, perhaps, is what makes them so “perfect.” Like the commodities these organic creatures have become, our domesticated pets are “perfect” when they are behaved, controlled, and easily replaceable after they expire. Even more, these plastic pals are simulacratic forms of taxidermy (and surely a savvy taxidermist has already borrowed the motor or at least the concept for an experiment or two). Another form of death, fantastically alive through the magic show of animism, nostalgia and fantasy. Living, breathing, death.
From the New Scientist: “These primates don’t participate in human culture, which suggests the uncanny valley has a biological basis,” says Karl MacDorman of Indiana University in Indianapolis. Wired magazine suggests that this means “the uncanny valley has evolutionary origins deep in the primate psyche.”
So monkeys are like humans, almost. Hmm…it all seems so…uncannily similar.
The Sultan’s Elephant is a giant marionette parade that is so artfully done, it strikes one as uncanny. As I wrote in November, most parade floats have an uncanny appeal, but in this case the doll’s appearance seems much less mechanical (ergo, more organic) than all the visible equipment and support needed to operate it. The eyes are what do it for me: on the elephant, especially, who’s segmented metallic trunk is a monstrosity. There is a backstory here, about an elephant who travels in a time machine, and it is inspired by the work of Jules Verne.
The video below reveals just how scary-yet-magical this all is. It’s a great instance of the uncanny in popular culture — and also a beautiful example of social/collective art.
[Thanks to writer Steve Vernon for calling my attention to this.]
If you don’t already know, LOLcats are artfully captioned photographs of animals, as in the image above. They’re pretty funny, entirely created by the visitors to icanhascheezburger.com (whose domain name refers to one of the first LOLcat images that got widely distributed online and started this whole thing). Like many online “sharing” sites, I consider LOLcats a fantastic form of new media folk art that attests to the popular draw of the uncanny.
How can a cute little kitten be “uncanny”? The given framework for these captioned photos imbues the subject of the image (the cat) with a language it does not speak (a regressive, childlike “kitten” language of its own invention that gives the cat a distinctive “voice”), blurring the boundary between human and animal. Freud calls this “the omnipotence of thoughts” in his article on “The Uncanny” — a psychological projection inherent to animistic beliefs and anthropomorphic fantasies. Thus, it is quite normal that this unnatural and imaginary language of the LOLCAT is the equivalent of “baby speak”: the animals are really like children more than they are like cats. The language in the caption, moreover, matches the human-like expressions and gestures in the image so well that a spectator may be struck by the synchronicity at play, and perhaps feels the uncanny affect because reality (these are actual photos) and fantasy (the imagined/joke situation identified by the caption) become blurred, if only for a moment, springing us into laughter. Not all the LOLcat images are about danger and death (as the one above — “nositz!”), and rarely are they “dark” or “scary” in their affect, but the humor can be intellectually unsettling because there is often a “secret” desire that the cat seems to be expressing in its caption which also reminds us of Freud’s discussion of the Uncanny as an expression of that which was to remain a secret (for him, the Repressed), suddenly returned and revealed. Our childhood wishes (for a pet, like a doll, that can talk) seem actualized.
Perhaps it is not so surprising, then, that the group responsible for “LOLCats” would build on their popularity by hosting a similar “photoshopping” site in the form of a “doppelganger” maker: totallylookslike.com.
The pictures that users upload speak for themselves, by displaying side by side graphic associations. Most users upload pictures of celebrities and film characters that look alike, as if they were unintentional “doubles” for one another by virture of their physical features and poses.
What makes this “uncanny” is not simply that they look like long-lost-twins, but they also provide the sort of “a-ha!” moment of recognition that Freud talks about in his essay on “Das Unheimliche” — the click of comprehending a “secret” correspondence, as if — with the image above, for instance — the unspoken inspiration behind Tim Burton’s artistic treatment of The Penguin was suddenly unveiled.
Of course, there are also “natural” lookalikes, or body doubles in the popular imagination. More common on totallylookslike.com are jokester post that bend the rules a bit to generate humor in ways that touch on uncanny similarities to make a point.
Here we have “New York” — a realiTV personality — matched up with Janice, a character from The Muppet Show. Yes, they both wear too much mascara and lip gloss. Is that a sufficient condition for them to be lookalikes? Or is this simply a photographic slur?
What makes this “uncanny” is not simply the unexpected correspondence between the appearances of these TV “celebrities,” but the momentary confusion that opens up between puppet and human being when first glancing at the images side-by-side. Consciously or not, there is a degree to which the person who is making this visual pun is calling “New York” no more than a media puppet. The aggression “revealed” by the uncanny logic of this joke could betray a racist or sexist hostility, as well. But beyond this hostility, perhaps there lurks a suggestion that this form of folk art has the ability to disempower the dominance of mass marketed artforms, such as the ”manufactured” celebrities and characters of popular TV, through uncanny expressions of mockery and parody.
The site, at its most brilliant, can be revelatory of how forms of new media folk art perform populist expressions of resistance to (if not an outright subversion of) dominant discourses, by taking familiar images of power and status (often embodied by celebrities) and employing them in unintended ways to make a counterpoint. Above, the Vogue magazine cover is taken to task for not only suggesting something racist in its treatment of an African American basketball star as an animal (its “King Kong” reference — which is similar to the Muppet joke above), but also by lowering the ‘high fashion/high art’ status of Vogue down to the level of mere propaganda (the Army poster that originally intertextually borrowed from Kong).
Of course, the comparison attempted in the ‘totallylookslike’ image above is a bit of a stretch on behalf of the person who posted it, because they could have easily just paired the Vogue cover with an image from the King Kong film itself, which it clearly alludes to. Thus, we feel the critic, rather than the creator, at play, being highly selective, and the joke therefore doesn’t quite succeed on the level of the uncanny. Anything smacking of a critical human agency at play — a mediator — reduces the uncanny affect to a mere joke. The person who is making the comparison cannot be present for the uncanny response to “work” — it is like spotting the zipper on the monster’s back in a horror film: it betrays artifice and it’s “magic” is therefore disempowered.
In the above, a rock band’s album cover is equated to a familiar popular photograph that tabloid journalists famously proclaimed to be proof of an alien landscape or the “face of god” on Mars. The supernatural “face” is apparent in the accidental cast of shadow, itself an uncanny appearance. But anyone looking at the image of Queen next to it recognizes the latter as a carefully posed and purposely abstract work of photographic art, if not also a nostalgic memory of something they may have forgotten in their record collection. It is a clever comparison. And it’s quite funny. But it’s not quite uncanny. What we have, actually, is art referring to art — photos referring to other photos — and ultimately this is true of the entire site.
What the site really shows us is consumers of popular culture trying to make sense out of the infinite stream of messages and images that circulate in the media. That sense can only be an allusion or a visual pun – the associative logic of the dreamwork. What is the dream of icanhascheezburger.com? Perhaps it is about what its namesake reveals: an inner child crying for junk food. Only here we have the commodification of art into something resembling a cheesburger. The dream-wish expressed by the site depends on a withdrawal from reason and a repression of our awareness that popular art is a commodity, a manufactured experience that substitues for the authentic. By pointing out the “doppelgangers” of mass culture through visual puns and pop culture allusions, the site is like a church of the popular uncanny, its posters bearing witness to “miracles” of fantastic correspondence.
Here in the USA, it’s Thanksgiving morning. The annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in NYC is just getting started, and while I’ve never been a fan of parades, one can’t deny their significance in both small town culture and in big city holiday fests, alike. The news media treat them like spectator sports. For the event in NYC, millions attend – and millions more watch on television.
The spectacle of the parade “float” has always amused me. There are many variations and technologies put into practice for these objects, from novelty floats to “balloonicles” — and many of them are fictional characters from animation history, appealing to children; chief among them are animal figures, simulacra of the actual animals which used to be carted down the street (ala circus parade). The aesthetic of “balloon animals” sends us back to our childhood, here returned larger than life and, often, animistically empowered.
Which is another way of saying that these moving platforms and inflated creatures don’t merely “parade” down the street: they spectrally float, seemingly on their own accord, and their creators do all they can to hide the mechanics that move them. Parade floats and balloons glide down main street, like stages built upon magic carpets or gigantic ghosts. The spectrality of the parade float is what lurks behind the laughable logic of the possessed Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (pictured above) who attacks Dan Ackroyd and crew in the horror-comedy, Ghostbusters (1984). Parades command attention because of the communal fascination with public spectacles, and the human feats of greatness (from celebrities to heroes to marching bands) compete against spectacles of technological wonder and art. Parade floats are in every way an exhibition of the popular uncanny.
I first began thinking seriously about this notion during an ad I witnessed at the movie theater last week: a rerun of the following Coca Cola Ad aired during the 2008 Super Bowl:
In this advertisement, cartoon characters (Stewie Griffin and Underdog) virtually fistfight over a Coke bottle, careening against buildings and bouncing off one another in ways that look “realistic” — yet also impossibly conscious of what they are doing. It is a neat trick of camera work and choreography (even if one assumes CGI is involved, the trickery is pretty savvy), lending the floats a sense of autonomy in their motivated quest to beat each other to the prize: a bottle of coke. A more peaceful and happy Charlie Brown comes almost out of nowhere to steal the bottle away from the distracted pair, his permanent grin expressing his glee. In the final frame, the Charlie “has a Coke and a smile.”
There’s a lot more going on here than first meets the eye. For instance, the ad uses a lot of “reaction shots” of human beings looking up to the sky or out of their skyscraper windows, which makes the constructed scene appear to be “really happening” in the city. One might even miss, in all of these reaction shots, the inside joke to fans of the Peanuts comic: right before Charlie Brown wins the day, a little brown-haired girl walks in the city park, looking up to the sky while holding a football, as if she was Lucy (known for pulling the ball away from Charlie just as he kicked at it — sending him flying in the air and landing flat on his back. This joke doesn’t just give give Charlie his wings — it elides the difference between human and non-human, real and imaginary, in the few seconds it appears on air. Film, of course, does this anyway: actors are not “really” there before us, but trace images, recorded in light and rendered larger than life.
Even more puzzling: the Coke bottle itself, a float, a commodity as big as the characters who seek it. Clearly it is far too much to consume in reality — yet they are driven to drink it. Unlike the other balloon creatures, it does not act in human ways, but instead seems to function more like a symbol that is preordained to magically find its way to Charlie’s hands. That is, it is a transcendent signifier for the commodity itself that they all represent.
This is all fantasy, framed to pitch a product by processing cultural icons that include not only the floats, but also the “larger than life” setting of the city itself. There may be an uncanny echo of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks operating in the political unconscious beneath this Coke advertisement. The “soft” bounce of these objects from childhood against skyscrapers may reflect a repressed fear of air attack on the city, here returned to the television screen as something akin to a childhood memory, a flight of animated fancy. The only people “threatened” by the horror of the giant balloons are those who aren’t paying attention to the spectacle in the streets, caught off guard. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the simple ad, but the imagery is striking.
The above image — appearing only for a second on the screen — seems to align Coke with the majesty of the city’s greatest icons. But it also implies so much more than that, especially given the context of “fighting” that it is embedded within. And in the image above, what are we to make of the clouds — the two lines like tracers of exhaust from two airplanes — arcing behind (or toward?) the Chrysler Building, while the shot as a whole is uncannily framed by two other “twin tower”-like buildings? I think it is patently obvious that this image is about fear as much as it is about fantasy.
One must wonder what the narrative of this ad might be saying about consumerism in relation to such cultural anxieties as global terrorism. Does it suggest something about competition, world trade, and terrorism? Is America the Charlie Brown, fooled by so many Lucies, so many wars? I’m not sure what it means, exactly, but I think there is some bottled up anxiety in this advertisement, felt as uncanny when it is uncapped and released.
In his essay on “The Uncanny,” Sigmund Freud writes:
…an uncanny effect is often and easily produced when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolizes, and so on.
Freud’s notion about the uncanny power of the symbol overtaking its referent is everywhere evident in pop culture and vox populi is doing a great job documenting our culture’s fascination with the popular uncanny on the internet. Indeed, there are so many websites that function as virtual “curiosity shoppes” online that it would be impossible to gather them all here. From the most popular weblogs (like Boing Boing) or magazines (like Wired) that seem fixated on uncanny and fantastic gadgets — and whose very names and logos imbue a sort of living energy to symbolic language — to the everyday blogs on myspace and elsewhere where people routinely post the photoshopped or animated images they find in some public gallery, or on youtube where homemade animations and films are everywhere, our human fascination with the uncanny saturates the online environment. And this makes sense, because personal computers excel at animating the inanimate and connect with the “worldwide” culture in its metaphoric web.
Along these lines, I recently found a a provocative weblog called Next Nature, which I adore. Next Nature is documenting Freud’s “uncanny effect” of the autonomous symbol on a cultural scale by calling attention to phenomena where “culture becomes nature” (and vice versa). It is not “environmentalist” in the traditional sense — its definition of “nature” is more akin to AdBusters’ emphasis on the “mental environment” or what we might term our cultural ecology. The symbols that we create and bring to life in our culture not only have an impact on our environment, they become a living part of it. As Next Nature’s authors say in their FAQ, “Old nature, in the sense of trees, plants, animals, atoms, or climate, is getting increasingly controlled and governed by man. It has turned into a cultural category. At the same time, products of culture, which we used to be in control of man, tend to outgrow us and become autonomous.” (Read Koert Van Mensvoort’s essay, “Real Nature is Not Green” — or explore his professional website — for extensions of the logic behind this).
It’s a fun and fascinating site, posting everything from articles on postmodern theory to offbeat photoshopped (or is it?) images of the strange, like that World Cow image above (which is disturbing not only because it captures the essence of the quote by Freud cited above, but also because it seems to hyperrealize the idea that we are consuming our planet). I especially enjoyed discovering their pointer to Metalosis Maligna (also on YouTube): a mockumentary about an imaginary disease that occurs not to our bodies, but to the implants and other cyborg technologies we put into our bodies, resulting in transhuman horrors. I recommend browsing through their categorical tags, which reads like a catalog of the uncanny, with keywords like anthropomorphobia or toys are us. If you are interested in the academics of all this, check out their theory section, where you’ll find profundity like this idea from Eric Hoffer:
You dehumanize a man as much by returning him to nature – by making him one with rocks, vegetation, and animals – as by turning him into a machine.
Both the natural and the mechanical are the opposite of that which is uniquely human.
So often — perhaps because the idea emerged along with modernist Industrialism — we align the uncanny with the mechanical or “unnatural,” rather than the natural. The uncanny is often about the confusing loss of boundaries between the two, stunning us by calling our assumptions about what constitutes the natural and the human into question. I find Hoffer’s notion that the ‘natural’ is the antithesis of the ‘human’ a very counter-intuitive yet nonetheless extremely profound, notion.