“It’s so amusing to keep well hidden and make someone come to life; to create that little doll that goes in at the eyes of every spectator to strut and posture in his mind! In all those rows of motionless people only this little goblin moves, like the wild elfish soul of all of them. They gaze at him like children and he sparkles like a little firecracker!” – Paul Claudel, playwright, on viewing a Japanese puppet show.

There’s a long history of puppets in television, going back to its very early days when ventriloquists and their dummies, most notably Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, made the leap to TV from radio (where they had already been surprisingly popular, given the limitations of the medium). It’s telling, too, that even in these early days the puppet gave expression to adult desires and anxieties; McCarthy flirted with Mae West and Dale Evans and exchanged insults with W. C. Fields, poking fun at his drinking.

A recent Lending Tree campaign features a human man, Len (he’s a borrower, actually, not a lender, but whatever), and his puppet alter ego, Lenny. In the initial ad of the series, Lenny sits with Len during a consultation at a big corporate bank. He calls BS (Bank Speak) on the banker in the ad, jumping on the bank computer to bring Len, his hapless human counterpart, a list of competitive loan offers.

Lenny is actually a product of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, so to call him a Muppet wouldn’t be too far off-base. Both he and the ad are somewhat in the spirit of Henson’s early puppet-based ads, in which a fall guy is schooled by a wisecracking know-it-all.

In the more recent “Boxers” ad, we have a similar theme. Len, the feckless human, is getting nicely dressed to go to the bank and apply for a loan while puppet Lenny sits in his boxer shorts. Lenny gets multiple offers on his laptop without having to get dressed, and makes lenders compete for his business (the same message that Lending Tree has been pressing for almost two decades now).

In the final shot, we see Len, the human, in his matching boxer shorts, sliding in beside Lenny. While an entire ad featuring a human protagonist in boxer shorts would have been riské for a financial company (or at the very least, as Lenny puts it, “awkward”), we get the same point without too much actual human skin.

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By virtue of its artifice, the puppet displaces a lot of our natural human reactions: Lenny can be naked longer than Len can, without putting anybody off; we’re to believe that he can also tell it like it is when it comes to banks and mortgages. As an “intermediary object,” any behavior occurring through Lenny the puppet is more innocuous than it would be if performed by an actual person. He can say “I smell BS!” He can get away with behavior that the human Len can’t. We see this as well in a Wheat Thins ad from a few years back:

The puppet’s behavior in attacking the Wheat Thins, which would have been strikingly grotesque if embodied by a human actor, becomes light and amusing, especially in light of the puppet’s very real dilemma: His mouth isn’t really connected to any functioning digestive system. Again, the ad gets to be edgy in concept while it comes across lighthearted in tone.

It doesn’t always work this way. DirectTV’s marionette ads from 2014 were evidently meant to lightheartedly spotlight their latest “wireless” device, but most viewers seemed to find them creepy and sexist.

The ad would arguably be sexist in any form, but its creepiness derives not simply from its conceit, but also from the execution of the puppet itself, which seems to fall into that “uncanny valley” hypothesized by roboticist Masahiro Mori. Mori’s theory is that as artificial humans approach actual humans in appearance and behavior, but don’t actually reach a threshold of fully human mimicry, there exists an uncanny valley in which a viewer’s empathy flips strongly toward revulsion.

Henson’s Muppets in large part exist well outside this valley in a zone of cute and cuddly ambiguity. The big exceptions to this are Jen and his Gelfling brethren in the feature film The Dark Crystal. Critical verdict: Creepazoid.

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