Banner heading for the site whose pages make so called subliminal advertising something to be seen and turns the producers of the ads and those who deny their existance into a bit of a spectacle.

Classic Key

First time visitors should click here.


The Castrated Gilbey's Gin Ad   Gilbey's Gin thumbnail    Gilbey's gin ad in black and white.

Another Ad with a difference (Pirelli) Pirelli thumbnail

and a humorous Pirelli spoof featuring Tony Slattery Pirellie spoof advert.


No.1 The Castrated Gilbey's Gin Ad


Click for a larger, floating, image. The Camel Beach Party adThe ad as illustrated in Wilson Key's book Subliminal Seduction


Click for a larger, floating, image. Gilbey's Gin ad as displayed in Jack Haberstroh's book.The ad as illustrated in Jack Haberstroh's book Ice Cube Sex: The Truth about Subliminal Advertising




If one ignores the coloring of the two different versions of this Gilbey's Gin ad, the content of these two ad illustrations appear to be essentially the same. However, there is one crucial difference - and this difference markedly influences the impression each version may create in the mind of a viewer.

This Gilbey's Gin ad was the first illustration in Wilson Key's book Subliminal Seduction.  Key devoted 5 pages of his book to analyzing this ad but even then he could not cover all the different aspects of the ad in detail. His primary Cover of Subliminal Seduction againfocus was upon the relationship between the bottle, the cork and the reflection of the bottle on the table surface.   He also focused on the letters S E X in the ice cubes and other factors. 

Key also noted that the ad contained representations of five individuals - three women and two men. There are, in fact, many more. Just underneath the label on the Gin bottle for example is a stick figure with a masculine head. To the right of this figure is a somewhat androgynous* figure, most likely to be perceived as a pregnant woman.

The most salient aspect of the ad is a partial representation of a 'male figure', complete with an 'erection'.   This figure is constituted by the arrangement of the cork Book cover: Design Writing Research.and the reflection of the lower half of the bottle.    The Triangular label, when reflected on the table surface, neatly provides a pair of legs.  And it is this feature which differentiates the two illustrations above: Key presents the ad 'in full' whereas Haberstroh 'castrates' the image by cutting of the bottom portion, including the 'penis'. Each illustration may thus offer quite a different message for viewers.  Ellen Lupton and Abbot Miller illustrate and discuss this ad (and others of a semi subliminal nature) in their book Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design).

This change in emphasis may or may not have been intentional.  The rationale behind the 'castration' of the Haberstroh version may have been psychological, in that it reflected Jack Haberstroh's outlook on sexually oriented 'subliminal' ads, or it may have been driven by marketing interests intent on distracting attention from the original ad.. 

The Gilbey's ad is now part of advertising history. Certain aspects of this ad (and others of a similar nature) have been of continuing interest. Attention has tended to focus upon the 'letters' in the ice cubes, rather than the manikin and any of the other elements that Key reports.    These sexual aspects of this and other ads (and letters in ice cubes) have Cover of Ice Cube Sex againentered advertising mythology.    Haberstroh's revealing book, for example, is entitled Ice Cube Sex.  And a statement in an ad from the American Association of Advertising Agencies states 'People haveAd from the AAAA thumbnail been trying to find the breasts in these ice cubes since 1957'. Other spokesmen for the advertising industry have taken a similar line to such an extent that spoof ads and parodies often draw attention to 'nonexistent' messages in ice cubes.


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One may wonder why so much effort is devoted to disparaging Key's message. The author would contend it is because Key is correct with his major proposition i.e.   'Subliminal' (actually semi-subliminal) advertising does exist.    Key does, however, seem to 'go overboard' with lurid detail and masses of speculation - as does the present author in some respects in analyzing complex ads (see bookbits.htm for one interesting example). However Key's principle thesis is supportable.  But, regrettably, he did not provide sufficient evidence in defense of his case.  By evidence, I mean systematic analyses of ads for specific goods and services, and from specific companies and their advertising agencies. His examples were essentially a random set of ads. As such, the 'subliminal' content that he reported in his books may conceivably have been due to a variety of idiosyncratic factors or, in some cases, printing flaws.

His critics within the advertising profession, of course, have thus had an easy time.  As they deny the existence of 'subliminal' advertising there is no need for them to produce animated speakerevidence - if something doesn't exist then, of course, there is none to produce.  And, if one accepts that statement that there is no evidence to be looked for, then there is no point in looking for it.   Additionally, the psychodynamic theories and notions of defense mechanisms that Key based his initial books around have become somewhat dated. This is not to say that theories involving defense mechanisms are incorrect nor inappropriate, merely to indicate that on their own they do not make a powerful case. More recent psychological theories, and masses of evidence in various clinical and experimental studies, would indicate that semi-subliminal advertising may impact on the thoughts and beliefs of unsuspecting consumers. There is no doubt that such stimuli can influence thoughts, dreams, storytelling, test results and the like. What is uncertain is whether behavior i.e. purchasing behavior, can be influenced.

Operating on a different set of assumptions from the critics, this Web site presents some of Key's 'missing' evidence .  Instead of isolated examples for different products the illustrations on this web site are, in the main, series of ads for branded products from the same companies and ad agencies. These are examples selected from a larger and continually growing pool of ads. Despite the continued growth in the author's collection of examples, it must be acknowledged, however, that the extent of 'subliminal' advertising is not as widespread as contended by Key - at least not in the UK.   Nevertheless, a strong case can be made against specific companies.  But first, lets counter some of the more vociferous critics.

Haberstroh was, regrettably, simply the dupe of the Seagram Distilling Co.  His views on the matter Another thumbnail of Seagram's adthumbnail of Seagram' s ad can be discounted as 'black' propaganda.   Another major critic of Key's work was the American Association of Advertising Agencies.  Their ads, as discussed in Ads from the Archives, drew attention to breasts in a pseudo drinks advert when in fact the dominant messages in drinks ads are not breasts or other sexual Another ad from the AAAA.elements.  In fact where drinks ads incorporate secondary imagery, the embedded images are most likely to be depressed or anguished faces or other, even less appealing, entities - creepy crawlies, death masks, sharks, demons and the like.  This is true of both Seagram's nominally spoof ads and another of the AAAA's disparaging ads. See also a recent Jack Daniel's ad.

Haberstroh lauds both Seagram's and the AAAA in their attempts to convince the American public that subliminal advertising doesn't exist.  Yet, as any clinical psychologist reading Haberstroh's book would note, Haberstroh is the type of person unlikely to perceive a phallic shape if it smacked him in the mouth. His own book contains examples of the two Seagram ads and the AAAA ads noted above and discussed on other pages on this site, yet he was unable to detect anything untoward in any of them.

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The message of such antagonistic critiques, especially when they originate with those with a vested interest in a subject, is overly simplistic and clearly intended to prevent consumers gaining an appreciation of unethical advertising practices. Such criticisms need to be taken with more than a pinch of salt.  

As the presentation of both these sets of ads indicate, the defenders of the status quo and their supporters aim to draw attention to what doesn't exist and thus - where possible - distract viewers from what does exist.    The Seagram's and other spoof ads even encourage a 'self congratulatory' mood in those 'sensible' enough not to fall for the 'loony arguments' of Key and others (the present author will undoubtedly be included in this group in due course).

Distracting viewers from secondary imagery is, of course, is rather an easy task where one is already dealing with aspects of images on the borderline of perceptual ability.   It does not require much effort to ensure that viewers will easily overlook that which does exist. 

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O. Burtch Drake, the president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, continued the professional disparaging of Key's views in an article published in the Click for a larger, floating, image. Part of the article by O.Burtch Drake, currently President of the American Association of Advertising Agencies.March 1996 issue of Rutherford magazine (Vol. 5, No. 3).  He stated' ....countless advertising people, academics, and psychologists have denied, rebutted, and debunked Key's subliminal theories.' Drake contrasted these 'voices of reason' with Key's views. Key, he contended, was 'either 'singularly perceptive or merely obsessive in being able to spot ..... images where the rest of us see nothing but the intended photograph illustration. Nothing that is, without the aid of Key's helpful, albeit crude, outlining of the offending images in his books.'

Drake concludes his piece with the statement that 'As long as people want to believe in subliminal advertising, they will have found their prophet and champion in Wilson Bryan Key. And Key will continue preaching their peculiar brand of subliminal conspiracy. No matter how many rational professionals say it doesn't exist.'

Well to put the matter succinctly, most professionals, whether psychologists, sociologists, marketing professionals or advertising professionals, don't know what the h*** they are talking about.  Incidentally the h was  included there to stop people confusing what would have been four stars with the brand acronym of French Connection UK clothing company.  (For a Marlboro Ad that focuses on H***, click here)

There are a number of reasons why there is such an array of professionals aligned against Key and his supporters and why they are wrong.

  • Professionals often misuse the term subliminal
  • Many advertising professionals would seem to have a vested interest in keeping consumers 'in the dark'
  • Critics of Key such as Martin Gardner in the Skeptical Inquirer are not involved in advertising nor have they ever attempted to analyze advertising.   Gardner, incidentally has a serious visual impairment that would seemingly prevent him perceiving any but the most obvious images. Why he should wish to offer what claims to be a sober and valid judgment on such a subject on the basis of secondary sources of information is therefore almost beyond belief. 
  • To make their case, advertising professionals often rely upon extrapolations from laboratory studies bearing little if any relationship to advertising practice and everyday experience of exposure to advertising
  • Critics may have visual or psychological handicaps (as with Gardner and Haberstroh) that prevent them detecting or acknowledging semi-subliminal (subliminal) imagery.   

As is discussed   more fully in the authors forthcoming book, Sexy, Subliminal and Deadly (in preparation), there is a wealth of confusion, misinformation and calculated deceit surrounding the topic of 'subliminal' advertising.  However, placing distinctions between subliminal advertising and semi-subliminal advertising aside, is Key simply appealing to paranoid conspiracy theorists or does this type of advertising really exist?

If you agree with Drake, Haberstroh and the AAAA then anything reported in these pages is simply the product of the author's imagination .  And, given that you the reader will presumably also perceive many of the images presented on these pages, Drake and Haberstroh would have it that they were the product of your own imagination.  Admittedly, your judgments may have been biased by the suggestions offered by the author.  But, if you fall for Drake's argument, then you will also believe that flocks of pigs can fly.

Ignore critics such as Key and Haberstroh for a moment.   There is a sound case that can be made for the (unethical) existence of secondary imagery. Solid psychological research - and presumably the analysis of marketing information within the companies using this technique - provide convincing evidence.   People recognize semi-subliminal art because advertising provides the cues that lead to the recognition of ambiguous figures. To consider adverts from the perspective of a psychologist without visual or psychological impairment ( at least in this field) simply leads to an acknowledgment of what all psychologists interested in perception acknowledge.   Perception of the world relies upon the interpretation of cues.  And cues exist in the real world, including adverts. They are external realities. They are not simply the products of fantasy as Drake and others would have you believe. The man in the moon doesn't exist, but everyone - Drake and Haberstroh included - can recognize such a figure. Why? Because there are features on the surface of the moon that trigger psychological processes associated with the recognition of faces.

For an interesting set of illustrations of this topic see the following site produced by Miloslaw Smyk [The man in the moon and other weird things]. It contains numerous examples of 'images' perceived on the basis of partial cues. Once you have been primed by seeing drawings superimposed on the picture of the moon it is difficult not to 'see' the same images on the original illustration.

Imagination is thus based on experience and is an aid to appreciating the world (and the moon) - secondary imagery and all.   The recognition of meaningful imagery among ambiguous, embedded, camouflaged, distorted, anamorphic images and messages, the stuff of semi-subliminal advertising, is not simply the outcome of paranoid, delusional, individuals as Drake would have us believe.  It is a natural part of visual perception.

The argument has tended to be one-sided in the past, emphasizing the 'lunacy' of critics of the advertising profession.   However, the converse argument needs to be aired more effectively.   There is considerable evidence that certain individuals cannot perceive variations in ambiguous or semi-subliminal images. Many individuals who genuinely believe that there is no such phenomenon as secondary imagery undoubtedly possess such traits.

There is also considerable evidence to indicate that many individuals find it difficult to avoid stepping 'out of line' because of personal, social and economic reasons.   The fact that very few individuals either from within the advertising profession or associated with it have ever acknowledged the existence of the type of ads displayed on this Web Site may simply be an indication that it is extremely difficult to become a 'whistleblower'.

For a slightly fuller discussion of issues related to the role of imagination in the recognition of semi-subliminal ads see the page on Imagination, Projection and Superimposition.

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So what can be concluded from this discussion.  The arguments against Key have been consistent over time. And, given the disparity in resources between major commercial concerns and Key and his supporters, it is not surprising his views failed to generate action on the part of consumer and legislative bodies. Although Key has made a considerable impact on public consciousness, the impact of his idiosyncratic evidence has not been strong enough to force ad agencies and their clients to acknowledge the essential truth of Key's argument - quibbles about terminology notwithstanding. However the day of reckoning is approaching.   Ad agencies and their clients are about to be hoist by their own petard.

The reasons that the balance of the argument will swing in favor of Key and the consumer are relatively simple.

Key's case is an intriguing one. It is also based on fact and therefore it will no simply 'go away'.  Yet, his examples were undoubtedly crude. The reasons for this are simple. It is not possible to reduce an 8 inch by 11 inch advert or a magazine page to 3 inches by 2 inches and reproduce it in black or white, or even color,  whilst retaining the same amount of detail. The same arguments apply to images on the WWW. Yet, if all those who considered his argument had looked at the original ads or photographic quality reproductions they may have developed more appropriate views on the matter.

On reading Key's books one can note another reason why his argument has not carried the day with consumers and policy makers. Almost invariably, Key's argument is presented on the basis of single examples. Although it is highly unlikely, it is conceivable that all of his examples could have been produced by some idiosyncratic process i.e. without any commercial intent to manipulate or influence consumers. By not producing reams of ads originating from the one company Key, of course, whether intentionally or not, also avoided libel suits from aggrieved and wealthy companies. Legal Beagles please take note. Times have changed.

To produce a virtually irrefutable case against semi-subliminal and manipulative advertising would require an extensive body of evidence.  This would need to be based on series of ads produced over a number of years. In ideal circumstances a combination of factors would be necessary to demonstrate willful company policies: ads would have to have been produced by a variety of individuals under the direction of specific commercial concerns and involve a different ad agencies.

When Key first produced his books longitudinal series of ads were not available. This is no longer the case - there are forty years of 'subliminal' advertising for critics to draw upon.

The present web site therefore does not simply rely upon single ads. Each page often presents a number of ads for the same product e.g. Camel, Marlboro and Benson and Hedges. In some cases, as is discussed more extensively in the author's forthcoming book, Sexy, Subliminal and Deadly? (in preparation), these ads have been produced over many years. This effectively rules out chance and idiosyncratic behavior as the key factors in their production.

Lengthy series of ads would seem to indicate quite clearly that it has been considered policy on the part of certain commercial companies and their ad agencies to produce manipulative ads containing secondary imagery and messages. Either that or Drake is correct and all the contents of this site are due to the paranoid projections of the author, who to boot, can only trigger such delusions in very specific circumstances. These circumstances, it should be noted, only relate to ads produced by specific companies for specific products. But this, may of course, also be a personal bias. If Drake is correct, viewers of this site need to ponder what specifically it is about these ads that triggers such delusions, hallucinations, paranoia, etc.

At this point, dear reader, I will leave you to make up your own mind whether the images (albeit substantially reduced in size in some cases and limited by the nature of the WWW) really exist. Larger versions will be available on a CD in due course to accompany the authors forthcoming book. (Please do not inquire about the current state of the CD. Whilst this notice exist it is not available. When the CD becomes available this note will be withdrawn).

Are these ads intended to manipulate the minds of susceptible viewers?  You can decide. Bear in mind that it is always possible to trace and view many of the original ads, especially the more recent ones such as discussed and analyzed in Ads of the Month. In the case of classic ads such as that discussed above they will be difficult to find.  However the more recent ads should  be easy to trace in your local library or newsagents if you do not have the relevant magazine lying around at home or in the office.

For a reasonable introduction showing that semi-subliminal ads are not just a historical phenomenon and are alive and well at this moment, unfortunately, see the Ads of the Month Page. There you will find a series of ads, of different types, running from October, 1998 to June, 2000. Not quite history yet!

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Another ad with a difference

The contrast between Key's subliminal manikin and Haberstroh's castrated figure is not the only reproduction you can look at on this site. There is another page on which you can attempt to 'spot the difference' between two somewhat similar 'ads'.  But the differences exist for quite different reasons. 

The original ad contains secondary imagery with a very suggestive message.   The other is a spoof.   First see the Pirelli ad featuring the sprinter Carl Lewis, wearing bright red, high heel, shoes in place of his usual footwear.  Then compare the background in the top right hand side of the original Pirelli ad with the same area in the spoof ad featuring Tony Slattery.

Click for a larger, floating, image. The original Pirelli ad with Carl Lewis.The Original Click for a larger, floating, image. The spoof Pirelli ad with Tony Slattery. The Spoof

Both Lewis and Slattery would be startled by what was seemingly 'on offer'. 

The Pirelli ad should be viewed with caution by 'control freaks'. Unlike the world famous Pirelli pinup calendars, this ad presents a semi-subliminal' message' that may be distressing to some viewers. 

Unlike feminist criticism of their calendars featuring a variety of models, this semi-subliminal element of this specific advertising campaign is one that the company will find hard to live down.  A number of the other Pirelli ads featured on the same page indicate that the semi-subliminal element did not simply occur by chance.  All of them feature semi-subliminal 'messages', usually with sexually abusive or exploitative slant to them.

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Link to previous pageLink to top of pageLink to Alternative Site  Menu offering some additional information about each page and its contents.

Commentary and information about any of the ads or requests on this Web site can be sent by e-mail to the Webmaster

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: 3rd January, 2003


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