Here's lookin' at you kid. Part I
One feature of an ad that can usually be guaranteed to attract attention is a face. And, as the portion of the ad on the left indicates, the facial features need not be that derived from the human form. Any object or image that possesses some of the features of the human face will fulfil the same function as the thumbnails of the Capstan ad and the cover of the book by Vance Packard on the right also indicates. The misture of lettering and features on the t-shirt of Harry Enfield serve the same purpose. And everyone is familiar with the outline drawing of Alfred Hitchcock. The link to the Internet Solutions domain hosting service also contains all the essential elements of a 'face', at least sufficient to recognise it as such, especially when the features move.
Whether a small face embedded in the headlamp of a car, as in the Ford ad on the Ads of the Month page, or superimposed on a mountainside, an item of clothing, or whatever, facial features and faces attract and direct attention. Faces, in fact, probably aspire to become the most common single element within semi-subliminal artwork after the ubiquitous use of the letters s e and x. As the image of Abraham Lincoln indicates they do not even need to contain what one would tend to call 'normal visual features'. The ability to recognise people 'behind' such pixellated images on television has led to the reduction in usage of such images as a means of protecting the identify of anonymous contributors.
Faces in ads can, and are, used to direct attention to specific aspects of ads. Viewers 'expect' to follow the gaze of these figures to see what they are looking at just as people turn to follow the gaze of an individual looking at something. A very obvious example of the use of direction of gaze, when considered in retrospect, can be found in an ad for Bergasol suntan oil. However, ads containing 'faces' have a number of functions. This is because representations of faces can be constructed to present the full range of emotions experienced by humans and they can be embedded in different, mood inducing, contexts. They can function overtly or covertly, using secondary imagery.
The ads on this page all features 'faces'. The different forms of representation cover the range from the very obvious - once they contents have been pointed out - to those on the borderline of perceptual ability i.e. those which may be very difficult to perceive. In some cases the imagery is so close to the boundary of perceptual ability or so small that only a rough indication of its presence is currently presented on screen. Viewers interested in these ads will, unfortunately, have to obtain a copy of the original ad if they wish to verify the authors commentary. Alternatively, much larger images will be available on a CD in due course. (In the meantime do not enquire about availability. The CD acquisition process will be clearly notified at this point when it become available)
More information about the visual and perceptual processes that underpin recognition and responses to these images can be found on the Psychology page.
This ad for Cutty Sark whisky is one of the most complex ads the author has noted in terms of 'story telling' (for other examples see the NatWest and Bergasol Ad page). The Cutty Sark ad incorporates the usual demonic, anguished, faces common in spirits ads. The two most obvious faces are to be found under the armpit of the older man and to the left of the Cutty Sark bottle.
More interestingly the ad also includes faces that give some insight into the relationship between the two individuals within the ad - these are presumably either father/son or mentor and younger associate.
Both individuals seem to be enjoying each others company. The younger man, to a certain extent a Robert Redford look-alike, is, however, presented as being two faced. Either he is conning the older man, just like the ad is conning the viewer into thinking this is a pleasant, open, encounter, or else he is putting on a pretence of enjoying the occasion for the sake of the older man.
How does one reach this conclusion, as it is not apparent from the overall impression given by this ad?
Look carefully at the hair of the younger man in the image inset to the left. At the rear of his head, just to the left of his parting, there are two embedded 'faces'. One 'face' - in outline - is clearly facing towards the right. The other 'face' is joined to it, like a Siamese twin. It is less distinct and facing outwards and has the appearance of a shroud wrapped Egyptian mummy. The face to the right is light in colour, the face facing forwards is darker. There is also another face to the right of the young man's head. It is also smiling - but note that this smiling face is not particularly evident in the full ad and may simply be an artefact arising from segregating this aspect of the ad within a framework the excludes surrounding imagery.
Regardless of whether the latter image was intentional or not, one can interpret this ad in a number of ways, particularly if one takes into account the body language of the Robert Redford look-alike. Is he patronizing the older man or is he simply being friendly. He is certainly not looking the other man in the eye. Does this have any significance? The viewer has no idea of 'what came before' this snapshot picture and the only additional information comes from the embedded faces. There is one light (truthful/open?) face looking toward the other man and one dark (hidden) face looking out onto the world, at the viewer. There are gruesome faces looking at the older man and possibly a smiling face, favouring the younger man. Which faces are most important and what are the reasons for the younger man's behaviour? Only the viewer, on the basis of their own preferences in relationships, their own experiences, and their interpretation of the 'messages' associated with the embedded faces, will decide.
Whether viewers of the ad drink Cutty Sark or some other whisky brand may also be, to some extent, influenced by their decision. Was their choice freely made, or was the decision, in part, manipulated by the semi-subliminal embedded imagery? This, they will never know.
An example of a work of art making use of 'faces' to present a message is evident in the painting Canal Bridge, Sydney Gardens, Bath by John Nash. The work is reprinted in John Willatt's book Art and Representation and additional commentary can be found on the Beginnings page part II. To view the full size image, click here.
Note the top left hand corner of the painting. Both the green tree and the brown tree present features reminiscent of faces. The green tree 'face' is looking to the right and the brown tree 'face' is facing directly towards the viewer. Both faces have rather wild and bushy hair styles. There are a number of other faces in this painting. Two of these are almost as 'clearly presented' as the two in the top left quadrant and they are both gazing at another object within the painting. It is seemingly this object that is the semi-subliminal focal point of the painting.
One of the latter two faces can be found underneath the green tree on the left and to the left of the bridge pillar. Apparently he is leaning forward to look down towards the figure on the wall bordering the river. The other face is situated on the right hand side of the painting. It overlays the trunk of the tree, just before it splits into two branches. Both these faces are 'gazing' at what is ostensibly a faucet pouring water into a stream. However, this faucet also has human features. It is seemingly intended to be perceived as a figure 'pissing' into the stream.
John Nash seemingly had a wicked sense of humour and was intent either on 'taking the mickey' out those who viewed the painting or he was making a visual comment about those individuals whose faces he 'embedded' and immortalized in this painting.
This Dunhill ad mimics a famous work of art. Note that the hill can be perceived as a face, especially if the ad is turned at a 90 degree angle to the left. The caption on the right hand side of the ad (Take Another Look) actually invites you to take another look. As this is the case one cannot really consider that this ad has any covert message.
The ad on the right makes use of the same type of imagery to promote the very worthwhile, fairtrade, activities of cafedirect. But it does not require a caption, as the page is initially viewed 'right way' up so that one can immediately perceive a face. Presented as it is here, on its side, one first notes the ancient ruins. Only a second take is likely to reveal that the mountain tops have been altered to produce face like features with cloud drifting across the 'nose'.
Whilst ads with captions can indicate that an ad is intended to be humorous, witty, or playful in nature, other possibilities exist. Such invitations can also be used to distract attention from less acceptable features of an ad. Another ad in this Dunhill series does, in fact, do this. The caption distracts attention from additional features placed in the border of the ad.
A couple of ads from Seagram's Distillers making use of similar, apparently helpful, and encouraging, requests, are actually designed to distract attention from less acceptable features as can be noted on the Ads from the Archives page.
Are there any nuts in the audience?
Here is a Benson and Hedges 'crossword puzzle' ad that relies upon the arrangement of nuts and a spanner to produce a gorilla like figure. The clue is 'Easy to crack' and the overall arrangement of the nuts and bolts indicates, once again, how easy it is to reproduce human features in collections of inanimate objects.
Without the facial features this ad would probably only appeal to nut fetishists and mechanics. But viewers should beware - cigarette ads are rarely as innocuous as they first appear.
This ad - like a number of other Benson and Hedges ads - plays upon various colloquial linguistic features and is open to at least two interpretations. One interpretation indicates that the ad could lead to mood changes within viewers, increasing the likelihood that they would turn to smoking. The other would associate Benson and Hedges in the minds of potential smokers with sexuality and an activity that is common in the hands of young males. Your immediate response on reading these statements is likely to be along the lines of 'This guy is bonkers'. Read on before you reach a firm conclusion.
Consider first, the colloquial meaning of 'nuts'. It typically used to describe individuals who have a 'few bolts' loose. There is thus some likelihood that the ad would trigger a train of thought concerning mental illness. However, there is a much stronger possibility that this ad alludes to anatomical features also often known as 'crown jewels'. Similarly the Benson and Hedges packet is in the grip of a 'tool' for gripping 'nuts'.
When this specific ad is considered in the context of Benson and Hedges ads during the period this ad appeared, it is clear that this ad has a 'sexual' component. Viewers can see other examples of Benson and Hedges ads, including 'In the heat of the night', on the Gold Brick page. There is also additional illustrated commentary on this and other ads based upon visual presentations of colloquial terms on the Slang page.
If one concedes that the target audience for such ads is a young male audience then there is a possibility that Benson and Hedges will be associated with masturbation (witness the intent look on the face of the ape). With other male target audiences the response may be simply related to the production of anxiety. - getting ones 'nuts' squeezed is a painful business in any circumstances.
Interpreting ads is not a straightforward business, and there is never one single, definitive, interpretation. A final comment on the ad caption will indicate this. The 'crossword puzzle' clue notes that something is 'Easy to crack'. This is a notion that the tobacco companies would like to instil in the minds of young smokers, particularly if it were mentally filed away in association with cigarette smoking.
The belief that it is easy to give up smoking is common in young smokers. They believe that no matter how many other individuals become addicted, they will have the strength of will to 'give it up' any time they like. Unfortunately, they are usually wrong. By the time that they realize that smoking is a strongly addictive habit they have become addicted and passed the point where they can give up the habit easily.
Don't be a nut and don't get conned by tobacco ads. Don't get misled by faces. Turn the other cheek. Bear in mind that many ads, cigarette ads in particular, are never as straightforward as they seem. But each impression they make on the minds of viewers is an impression that smokers and potential smokers could do without.
Hooch! Mon! There's a beast loose aboot the hoose!
Hooch might seem to be Scottish Highlanders battle cry or an extract from a 60's pop song. It is, in fact, a rather mundane but nevertheless very popular brand of Alco pop. Alcopops were the bane of the mid 90's and the problems that were laid down during the period young drinkers rushed to drink the sweet, alcohol laced drinks are now coming home to roost according to a recent report by Alcohol Concern.
If one looks at the current labelling of the product one can only see rather boring representations of various fruits: lemons for Lemon Hooch, raspberries for Raspberry Hooch, etc. However, before the brand became established the situation was markedly different. Note the labels on the bottles above. They depict something quite different.
The original Hooch logo seems on first appearance to be a rather aggressive little beasties - in accord with the marketing campaign. On closer inspection the aggressive 'beasties' do not possess the features of fruit nor those of aggressive faces. In fact, the images have a number of different features. Focusing on some of these features, to the exclusion of others (as with many visual illusions), leads to a specific interpretation. In addition to the 'aggressive fruit', the most readily perceived alternative image is that of a 'foetus'. To perceive the foetus, take the head as the focal point rather than the central area of the figure. In the case of Lemon and Orange Hooch there was a single 'foetus'. With Blackcurrant Hooch there were 'triplets'.
Now why should labels contain foetal representations?
One can presume that given the adolescent nature of the potential drinkers the marketing experts wished to capture, the logos were designed to play upon fears of pregnancy. In the case of girls, the fear of becoming pregnant and, in the case of boys, the fear of getting a girlfriend pregnant.
Hooch, became the leading alcopop. It may have been the aggressive marketing campaign, the emotive labels, or simply the chance to drink highly alcoholic drinks with the taste of soft drinks. Or, it may have been a combination of all three factors. Whatever, Hooch almost became the generic name for alcopops.
Now that Hooch has an established market - and the cohort of individuals with an continuing interest in Hooch has grown older and lost their adolescent anxieties - the aggressive lemon/foetal figures have been replaced by more mundane images. But, are they as mundane as they appear. Not on your life. Their is meaning there when you consider the elements in ads in any manner other than superficially.
One should note that there are critics of the form of interpretation of semi-subliminal elements in ads that is evident on this and other pages on this web site. One of the most vociferous has been Martin Gardner who publishes regularly in the Skeptical Inquirer. One edition of this magazine was devoted to a number of articles debunking subliminal advertising (but really addressing subliminal perception). Where reference was made to subliminal advertising the articles were actually referring to the type of ads discussed on this site i.e. semi-subliminal advertising. For a more detailed explanation of the meanings associated with these different terms see the FAQ and Glossary pages.
Martin Gardner rightly points out that it is easy to perceive faces and other meaningful images in many natural and unnatural drawings and illustrations. All it requires is a combination of features that resemble something more meaningful e.g. two blobs for eyes, a squiggle for a nose line, a slash for a mouth. See the example below, taken from Gardner's article. In the Great Stone Face example attention is drawn to one specific 'face'. However, dependent upon where one focuses ones attention, it is possible to perceive a number of additional, less distinct, 'faces' in this one picture. See also the pages produced by Miloslaw Smyk [The man in the moon and other weird things] for similar examples based on observation of the moon. On the basis of such evidence Gardner then takes issue with the thesis underlying Wilson Keys books - that similar elements - with connotations of sex - are intentionally embedded in many ads in attempts to influence consumers.
Key, it is true, does go overboard in some of the assertions he makes (or perhaps have been attributed to him). For example, that 90% of spirits ads contain subliminal embedded material. The present author finds considerably fewer examples. But, as the examples throughout this set of Web pages illustrate, there are many companies that do seem to use this technique consistently.
It is this issue of consistency that is one of the key characteristics that distinguishes semi-subliminal advertising from the perception of images in chaotic lunar landscapes or an artists brush strokes. The other factor is the intentional nature of semi-subliminal advertising. As will be demonstrated in Sexy, Subliminal & Deadly: The psychology of manipulative advertising (in preparation), semi-subliminal material in advertising follows the same rules as other advertising material. And semi-subliminal artwork in advertising makes use of principles that have been used by artists for centuries. Gardner thus goes well beyond the boundaries set by his evidence when he extrapolates from known misinterpretations of certain phenomena to judgements concerning semi-subliminal advertising. As do many of the other author's whose work is briefly discussed on the Experts page.
Essentially most writing on the subject of semi-subliminal advertising rather surprisingly fails to address the topic of advertising or, if it does consider advertising, does so indirectly by carrying out surveys. Alternatively the focus is on experiments of visual perception, again with no direct link to advertising practice. These writings either treat the influences of advertising as the equivalent of those evident after one-off experiments or, in many cases, they completely ignore advertising. Such approaches leave the prime exponents of this technique, the tobacco industry, laughing up their sleeves (see Gold Brik, Silk'n'Tears, Camel Crud, Masters of Manipulation.).
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Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003