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 focus
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
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.
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
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
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..
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 entered
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 have
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.
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
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.
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
- 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.
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.
was, regrettably, simply the dupe of the Seagram Distilling
Co. His views on the matter
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
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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 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.'
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.'
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)
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
- Critics may have visual
or psychological handicaps (as with Gardner and Haberstroh)
that prevent them detecting or acknowledging semi-subliminal
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!