Are subliminal messages secretly embedded in advertisements?

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Dear Cecil: I recently came across a book by researcher Wilson Bryan Key in which he claims to find subliminal images of sex, death, and the occult stuck into photos in print advertisements. They range from screaming skulls airbrushed into ice cubes to an orgy depicted in a plate of fried clams. My major impression is that Key is a crackpot (he can find the letters S-E-X spelled out anywhere there are squiggly lines), but some of his findings seem a little too real to be coincidental. What’s the truth, Cecil? Do advertisers really hide these images (while denying all, of course), or does Key just have an active imagination? Jay S., Chicago


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

I won’t claim no eager beaver account executive ever slipped a subliminal message into an ad, Jayzie, but Wilson Bryan Key is the kind of guy who could find something suggestive in a dial tone. Revealing testimony on this score comes to us from the Skeptical Inquirer, one of the nation’s leading antifruitcake journals. Psychologist Tom Creed reports attending a college lecture in 1986 in which Key described in detail the subliminal images he’d found in a picture of a martini. In the middle there was a man with an erect penis, in the upper left a woman scolding the man for drinking, and in the lower right another man, who Key somehow determined was the woman’s henpecked husband.

Creed thoughtfully includes the suspect photo with his article, and by jiminy it looks like there is a man with an erect penis in the middle. (All I see in the upper left is something that looks vaguely like a face, and I can’t make out the alleged husband at all.) Aha, you think. Maybe there’s something to this after all.

Key went on to tell the students he first saw this photo on the cover of the paperback version of one of his own books with the headline, “Are You Being Sexually Aroused by This Picture?” At first he assumed the publisher had taken the photo from an ad. Naturally he was consumed with guilt, since the publisher was using (perhaps inadvertently) the same sleazy techniques to seduce people into buying the book that Key himself was condemning in others. So he called up to protest. The publisher informed him they hadn’t taken the photo from an advertisement, they’d merely had a photographer set a martini on a table and take a picture of it, without bothering to stick in any subliminal stuff. The apparent image of the man with the erect penis was just happenstance, the equivalent of seeing a face in the clouds.

At this point a rational person might have said to himself, boy, I’ve been on this job too long. Not Key. He immediately concluded that his own publisher was part of the subliminal seduction conspiracy. “I guess it’s my word against theirs,” he told the students cheerfully.

Also in the martini photograph, Key claimed, there was an image of a man’s face that could be discerned only with an “anamorphoscope,” a mirrored cylinder that works sort of like a fun-house mirror. Through some miracle of photography, the face had been superimposed on top of the image of the man with the erect penis. Why go to all the trouble of putting in something that no reader could recognize without special instruments? Because, Key says, your subconscious brain doesn’t need special instruments. And how is a man’s face (or, for that matter, a scolding woman or a henpecked husband) supposed to seduce you into buying something? I don’t know, and as far as I can tell neither does Key, but his view seems to be that if it’s in there, it’s in there for a reason.

This is a guy who also claims that every Ritz cracker has the word “sex” embedded on it 12 times on each side; that on April 21, 1986, Time magazine published a picture of Moammar Gadhafi with the word “kill” embedded on the face; and that once at a Howard Johnson’s he felt compelled to order fried clams, even though he hates fried clams, because (he later discovered) the place mat had a picture of fried clams containing subliminal images of an orgy including oral sex and bestiality with a donkey. This guy doesn’t have sex embedded in his pictures, he’s got sex embedded in the brain.

In defense of Wilson Bryan Key

In your recent column on Wilson Bryan Key and Subliminal Seduction, you stated that Key “doesn’t have sex embedded in his pictures, he’s got sex embedded in the brain.” Before dismissing Key as a crackpot, take a look at the attached article from Consumer Behavior: Concepts and Strategies (1978) by Berkman and Gilsen:

“[In] Subliminal Seduction … Key … offered numerous examples of sexual symbols, four-letter words, and pornographic pictures buried in the otherwise bland content of various ads. He concluded that such `hidden persuaders’ were carefully contrived by major advertisers and their agencies to seduce consumers at a subliminal level.

“But to people who have worked in ad agencies, there would seem to be a simpler explanation. Much photography for advertising art is sent to professional retouching studios, where artists set to work correcting photographic imperfections and adding visual effects not captured by the camera. Ice cubes in ads, for example, are completely the work of retouching artists, since real ice cubes would melt under the hot lights of the photographer’s studio. Retouchers, like most artistic people in commercial fields, want to add something of their own creativity to their work. Some even find it humorous to introduce carefully designed sexual elements to an ad that must be puritanically straitlaced for the mass market. … Concealed symbols and words in ads … are most likely the work of individual creativity, boredom or mischievousness rather than the cunning and insidious strategy of marketing decision makers that Professor Key suggests.”

— Jerome J., Chicago

Dear Cecil:

You have defamed a very astute and responsible person in your attack on Wilson Bryan Key. It appears from your column that you relied completely on secondhand data from a notoriously unreliable source — a psychologist. Of course a psychologist is going to try to smear Key. Psychs are among those who try to figure out the unconscious motivations of alcoholics and smokers so that ad agencies can sell them harmful products. They did most of the research from which subliminal ad techniques were developed.

I enclose an ad from the July 1987 Life containing a pretty good example of a subliminal “embed.” Once you’ve seen the man with the erection on the Camel cigarette pack he will be clear to you ever after.

— Faxon B., Los Angeles

Let me deal with you first, Jerome. Cecil’s aim was to discredit the notion that there is some organized conspiracy to seduce the public through subliminal techniques. He is perfectly willing to concede that practical jokers have occasionally snuck dirty words and the like into print. One notorious example appeared in a 1980 Montgomery Ward catalog entitled “999 Price Cuts.” On page 122 one could find — and many shocked homemakers did find — the F word etched faintly into the background of a shot of a bedspread. (All Ward’s catalogs at the time were identified by letter; perhaps coincidentally, this was the X catalog.) The incident caused quite a stir around Ward’s. It was traced to an employee of a retouching studio used by Ward’s who evidently got mad one day when a piece of artwork was sent back for what he considered to be trivial changes. His editorial emendation, which was done with bleach on the negative, was his way of expressing his feelings on the matter. He and the retouching studio parted company soon thereafter.

As for the alleged Camel embed … well, judge for yourself. People have been claiming to see mysterious figures in the illustration of the camel virtually since the day the brand was introduced nationally in 1913. (The drawing is based on a photo of Ol’ Joe, a camel in the Barnum & Bailey Circus.) The man with the erection is sometimes identified as a woman, and there’s supposedly a lion lurking near the camel’s hindquarters. An R.J. Reynolds spokesman claims it’s all just coincidence. Unfortunately, we can’t ask the original artist — his name has been lost, the company says, and he’s probably long dead anyway. Reynolds has never bothered to modify the drawing because it only gets about ten letters on the subject a year. Or so they tell me. Believe what you like.

While we’re on the subject …

Dear Cecil:

In your recent column on “subliminal sex,” Jerome J. states: “Ice cubes in ads, for example, are completely the work of retouching artists, since real ice cubes would melt under the hot lights of the photographer’s studio.” Let’s not give more credit to the retouchers than they deserve. As someone who has built many “ice cubes,” I would like

Cecil Adams

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