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In the Beginning : Versions I and II


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Willson Key book 1 thumbnail Wilson Key book 2 thumbnail Wilson Key book 3 thumbnail Three of Wilson Key's books

thumbnail of Holbein's The Ambassadors thumbnail of Bosch's St Anthony in the Wilderness thumbnail of Durer's Fenedier ortified rock at ArcoPaintings by Holbein, Bosch and Durer


Version I

The Trouble with Wilson Key

 Wilson Key's book Subliminal Ad-ventures in Erotic ArtButton.gif (1148 bytes)Wilson Key's book Subliminal SeductionButton.gif (1148 bytes)Wilson Key's book Media Sexploitation

These are the covers of the paperback versions of three of Wilson Key's most notable books. Each provides insight into the machinations of some of the world's largest companies and their advertising agencies. Each also contains a number of illustrations of 'subliminal' advertising and discusses the relevant techniques. Many of the techniques have a long history in the world of art and they are still in use today.

Key has often been the subject of ruthless attacks by many marketing and advertising professions and also notable individuals in other professions who seem never to have taken any serious interest in advertising.  As many individuals again seem compelled to defend the advertising profession against criticism, irrespective of the justification of the criticism. Some of these individuals have had their words 'framed' and immortalized on the Expert page.

Key is also often 'blamed' for initiating the widespread use of 'subliminal' techniques. Rather paradoxically and confusingly, others claim such techniques, or rather the perception of what is claimed to be subliminal adverts, are nothing more than figments of his imagination. There is certainly more assiduous and professional use of these techniques because Key helped publicize them. However, this has occurred largely because critics in general have not be able to 'pin down' the unethical users of the techniques and get them to acknowledge that they are behaving in an unethical manner.  To some extent this is because there have been problems in defining precisely what constitutes subliminal advertising.  And, in fact, different definitions are favoured in different disciplines.   Old newspaper clipping

The present set of Web Pages aims to clarify some issues in so far as it is possible in a few pages. Interested readers are referred to the book Sexy, Subliminal and Deadly: The Psychology of Manipulative Advertising (in preparation) for further information. Viewers are also Illustration of Harold Becker inventor of the original Black Boxrecommended to read critically the earliest works of Wilson Key and select carefully from the books and papers listed in the Bibliography as the subject has a lengthy and lively history dating back to the 1950's.

The Web pages also are intended to offer a convincing body of examples to demonstrate unequivocally  that unethical advertising practices are well and truly established in many areas of advertising.  Whether these are best labelled as semi-subliminal advertising as the author prefers or as subliminal advertising is undoubtedly a subject for debate. What is most important is that the existence of such advertising is not left in doubt and that professional obfuscation is 'booted out of court'. 

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Version II

The trouble with some famous works of art

Holbein's painting of The AmbassadorsButton.gif (1148 bytes)Durer's painting of  Fenedier Fortified Rock at ArcoButton.gif (1148 bytes)St. Anthony in the Wilderness by Hieronymus Bosch

Long before Wilson Key wrote his books there were many famous works of art in existence which used the same semi-subliminal techniques as are currently used in advertising. Three of these works of art are illustrated above. More recent works can be viewed on the ArtAttack page.

From left to right these show Holbein's famous anamorphic skull in The French Ambassadors.  Holbein's painting  has been reproduced in numerous books, including John Berger's Ways of Seeing and in magazines and newspapers.  The FrenchExcerpt from Holbein's painting showing figure in background    Ambassadors is a very complex painting and many elements might be considered as sharing the qualities of semi-subliminal elements in ads, although in many cases they carried symbolic meaning and were thus, unlike embedded elements in ads, intended to be noticed.  For example in the upper left hand corner of Holbein's painting there is a concealed crucifix,Excerpt from Holbein's painting. suggesting that Christ presided over the lives of the Ambassadors. Such symbolic elements also functioned as a reminder of the sinfulness and mortality associated with human life.

Also extremely well known are the faces in the hillside of Albrecht Durer's painting Fenedier Fortified Rock at Arco. Wilson Key also noted the relevance of some of the work of Picasso to advertising. He also drew attention to some of the embedded artwork in Hieronymus Bosch's painting of St. Anthony in the Wilderness that offers insight into the degree of sexual tension that has been perceived by critics.  Critics recognised the sexual tension but what they overlooked were the semi-subliminal elements inducing the sexual tension, as noted by Key.  The author's forthcoming book, Sexy, Subliminal and Deadly? The Psychology of Manipulative Advertising extends Key's analysis of this painting as there are other elements that Key did not notice. Key also discusses an additional three works of art in depth to point out the relevance of arts training to an understanding of what is, in some cases, an intuitive - rather than psychological - approach to the use of secondary imagery in advertising.

The use of semi-subliminal elements in art do not seem to be restricted to Western Cover of the book by C. Chan and rollover to book In C. Chan's Guidebook to China there is a brief discussion of the use of embedded material in Chinese posters decades before Key noted the technique was being used in advertising.

Although not generally acknowledged in the few books devoted to the psychological and perceptual analysis of imagery and advertising, many advertising professionals have an artistic background.   One should perhaps therefore pay closer attention to the use of semi-subliminal techniques in the field of art if one is to gain a fuller understanding of how they are used in the world of advertising. Additionally, as experimental and laboratory techniques can only partly explain how people respond to the complex stimuli found in advertising, an appreciation of the more 'holistic' approach to the appreciation of art may be beneficial in research into the visual aspects of advertising.

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To the best of the author's knowledge none of the illustrations, in the format used on this site, are subject to copyright. If copyright has been inadvertently breached please contact the author in order to rectify the matter. All brands and logos referred to or illustrated on this site are the property of the relevant companies and copyright holders. However, commentary and other information produced by the author can be freely copied and distributed. Similarly, illustrations of ads, so long as they are accompanied by commentary or are presented in the form of parody, can also be copied and distributed but please acknowledge as the source. Translation of tobacco company ads and relevant commentary into languages other than English will be particularly welcomed.

Last Revised: 20th September, 2001


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