Fantastic Products: The Phantasmagorical Appeal of Animated Advertising
This post explores the way ideas of fantasy can provide new insight into animated advertising, and applies these to analyse the recent Ikea advertisement Ghosts (2018) and its use of digital animation. Exploring the long history of a particular form of fantasy, the phantasmagoria, allows a consideration of the ghostly iconography associated with it, as well as its use as a metaphor for the workings of capitalism.
Among the etymological roots and branches of our present-day fantasy is the term phantasmagoria. In its restricted meaning, phantasmagoria describes the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century entertainment in which magic lantern projections were used to create spectral images of a range of fantastical and supernatural beings: devils, ghosts, skeletons, or the anthropomorphised figure of death. Figures 1 and 2 (above) illustrate the appearance and effect of the phantasmagoria, the first from the memoires of Etienne Gaspard Robertson (a pioneer of this entertainment), the second from F. Marion’s 1869 The Wonders of Optics (Robertson 1831; Marion 1869: 194) In these engravings we not only see the way ghostly images were projected onto hidden screens or smoke, but also the unsettling effect this had upon audiences, as they were disturbed by the contradictory presence and absence of these apparitions, both intangible and perceptibly evident.
As Terry Castle (1988) notes, these qualities resulted in the term phantasmagoria and its variants taking on a more widespread metaphoric usage, to describe something simultaneously real and unreal. Among the most famous examples of this is Karl Marx’s description of commodity fetishism, the process whereby the exchange value of an object obscures its use value, and objects take on qualities they don’t inherently possess. For Marx, in capitalism the labour and social relations that produced an object assume ‘the phantasmagorical form of a relation between things’, as objects take on an independent life of their own while human labour becomes objectified. As a number of writers have observed, in his unfinished Arcades Project Walter Benjamin extended Marx’s metaphoric use of the phantasmagoria (Cohen 1989; Markus; 2001). Of particular interest here, Benjamin made specific connections between phantasmagoria, commodity fetishism and advertising, along with its precursors in arcades, world exhibitions and fairs. In 1935 Benjamin wrote:
World exhibitions glorify the exchange value of the commodity. They create a framework in which its use value recedes into the background. They open a phantasmagoria which a person enters in order to be distracted (1999: 7).
Benjamin recognised the way advertising and other associated forms of promotional display serve as powerful engines of commodity fetishism, imbuing products with spectral qualities. This applies to all forms of advertising, of course, but animated advertising would seem to have a special place here. Esther Leslie and Michael Cowan have both noted this in their writing on animation and advertising, each citing Marx’s original ‘phantasmagorical’ description, and highlighting animation’s capacity to enliven commodities in a literal as well as metaphoric sense, to seemingly give them life through independent movement and personality (Leslie 2002: 6; Cowan 2016: 99). This brief overview helps us see how animated advertising can be understood as a form of fantasy, giving products impossible or imaginary life and qualities that nevertheless have very real economic and political implications. Yet, we might also want to insert a more historically specific reading of this generalised statement. In the second half of this post an analysis of the 2018 advertisement Ghosts offers an opportunity to do this. It allows a consideration of the continuing place of phantasmagorical imagery in advertising, while also offering a reflection of changes in contemporary digital animation.
As you can see in Clip 1, the advertisement offers a vivid demonstration of the way animation allows products to be literally and phantasmagorically brought to life, as ghostly soft-furnishings have a house party in a typical British suburban home. This, in turn, allows Ikea products to be imbued with a set of qualities far beyond their use value of maintaining warmth or controlling light, as the colourful and patterned Ikea sheets, rugs and curtains transform the party from a funereal gloom to a lively celebration. The implication is clear: bringing Ikea products into your home promises to make it energised and glamorous.
We may further note that there is a racial aspect to the way this transformation is presented. There is a strong contrast between the original ‘white as a sheet’ ghostly inhabitants of the house and the exotically patterned and coloured party crashers. While the former listen to plodding 1980s pop music and dance in an introverted way, the latter put on hip-hop music (1993 hit ‘Come Baby Come’ by rapper K7) and perform breakdance moves derived from African-American culture. The Ikea products are thereby positively associated with stereotyped ideas about the innate style and expressivity of non-white people. As David Ciarlo has helpfully observed, Marx’s use of the term ‘fetish’ is revealing of the way commodities and their advertising have longstanding entanglements with colonial power relations of desire and subjugation. This 2018 advertisement is not the same as those from the 1930s Ciarlo examines, but neither is it free of some of their disturbing implications (2011: 26). While the phantasmagoric life of commodities and their association with fantasies of the primitive may be longstanding concerns in advertising, the role of animation here is historically distinctive. A VFX breakdown for the advertisement from the post-production house MPC is instructive on this point.
Most obviously, the VFX breakdown in Clip 2 reveals the hybridity of moving image production in the present day. Techniques used include the low-tech (people in sheets on children’s toy ‘hoverboards’, men lying on the floor prodding objects with sticks), digital equivalents of longstanding special effects (chroma key composition) and advanced computer animation and simulation. Distinctions between ‘live action’ and ‘animation’ are untenable here. Likewise, this clip points towards the blurred meanings and sites of ‘advertising’ in the present day. As with any paratextual ‘making-of’, the film serves a promotional purpose for Ikea, suited to being shared on social media and encountered and consumed on a variety of platforms. Here advertising becomes an entertainment or distraction rather than being clearly demarcated, recalling Benjamin’s discussion of such qualities in world exhibitions, but quite distinct from the typical place of advertising in cinemas or on television (1999: 7).
The VFX breakdown also serves as a promotional tool for MPC, selling their services. Here animation is not simply the medium for promoting the product, rather it becomes the commodity itself, and in being advertised becomes directly bound up with the same phantasmagoric absence/presence of the commodity fetish discussed above. Initially this ‘behind-the-scenes’ exposé might appear to reveal the labour of production, showing the work involved in making these Ikea commodities become independent and alive. However, while we see a number of the actors and on-set technicians, the clip obfuscates the labour of the actual digital animation and makes its appearance more magical than rational. This is most telling when, sixteen seconds in, a dancer is shown performing a windmill breakdance move while covered by a sheet. Where similar earlier shots were subsequently shown in their processed form with the limbs of the performers digitally removed, here there is a halting record scratch and the onscreen text ‘Well that doesn’t work…’. Evidently, the complexity of the windmill image made it difficult to process in the same manner, and instead we are shown an alternative solution, in which a fully computer-generated sheet was used, signalled by an intermediate render that lacks key elements (lighting, animation, motion blur etc) of the finished advertisement. The greyscale image of the incomplete visual effect is apt in signalling the ghostly absence/presence of the hand of the animators and the work that is required to create these photo-realistic images that is never directly represented onscreen. This ghost then effortlessly segues into the finished render, where we now know what we see is a fantasy, but we perceive it as tangibly real, situating us in a similar spectatorial position as the original phantasmagoria audiences in Figures 1 and 2. The remainder of the VFX breakdown proceeds so rapidly, and follows the logic of the original narrative rather than the production process, so that it is difficult to take in all the different elements and techniques in use. Instead, the animation process itself becomes enchanted and we as viewers identify with the onscreen humans who return to their transformed home and sink into their sofa, somewhat stunned and awed. The retained Ikea tagline ‘the wonderful everyday’ takes on a new meaning, signalling the phantasmagorical reality/unreality of what we have seen.
There is much more that could be said about the way fantasy and phantasmagoria can offer new insights into animated advertising and its role in enlivening commodities. This could be applied to many different animated advertisements, but we’d especially love to hear of other examples of animated advertisements features the iconography of the phantasmagoria: ghosts, ghouls, skeletons, imps, sprites, wraiths. Please post your examples below!
 In English translations the original German ‘phantasmagorische’ has typically been translated as ‘fantastic’. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1990); Karl Marx, "Das Kaptal I," in Marx-Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, 1969), 86.
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).
Castle, Terry. "Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie." Critical Inquiry 15, no. 1 (1988): 26-61.
Ciarlo, David. Advertising Empire : Race and Visual Culture in Imperial Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
Cohen, Margaret. "Walter Benjamin's Phantasmagoria." New German Critique, no. 48 (1989): 87.
Cowan, Michael. "Advertising and Animation: From the Invisible Hand to Attention Management." In Films That Sell: Moving Pictures and Advertising, edited by Bo Florin, Nico de Klerk and Patrick Vonderau, 93-113 (London: BFI/Palgrave, 2016).
Leslie, Esther. Hollywood Flatlands: Animation, Critical Theory, and the Avant-Garde (London: Verso, 2002).
Marion, F. The Wonders of Optics. Translated by Charles W. Quin (New York: Charles Scribner & Co, 1869).
Markus, Gyorgy. "Walter Benjamin Or: The Commodity as Phantasmagoria." New German Critique, no. 83 (2001): 3.
Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Vol. 1 (London: Penguin, 1990).
———. "Das Kaptal I." In Marx-Engels Werke (Berlin: Dietz, 1969).
Robertson, Etienne Gaspard. Mémoires Récréatifs, Scientifiques Et Anecdotiques. Paris: Chez l'auteur et à la Librairie de Wurtz, 1831.
Dr Malcolm Cook is Lecturer in Film at the University of Southampton. He has published a number of peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters on animation and early cinema, including forthcoming research on Aardman’s commercials and an introductory chapter on advertising films for The Animation Studies Reader (Bloomsbury). His recently published monograph Early British Animation: From Page and Stage to Cinema Screens (2018) examines the intermedial contexts in which animation developed. He is currently co-editing (with Kirsten Thompson) a collection exploring the pervasive connections between animation and advertising.