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.
Here’s one from the list that is the most audaciously Freudian I’ve seen in quite awhile: a video from the “Unexpected Turn” campaign for Vivident Gum:
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.]