The French Connection
The Peugeot 205 was described as the sexiest car of its generation. Perhaps such a description is appropriate for an inanimate lump of steel, plastic, cloth and rubber given the contemporary preference for anthropomorphic descriptions of cars. However, there are some semi-subliminal reasons why Peugeot cars, the 205 in particular are described as sexy. In fact, here are six of them.
Lets start with a Love in. It is fuzzy Love, but Love nevertheless. Anyone who saw this ad or any of the other ads in the series presumably noted that the caption underneath the captivating imagery stated Love It. 'It', of course, is a very ambiguous word. One need only reflect upon the colloquial use of the term to appreciate that in addition to referring to a specific object or action it is often used to refer to sexual activity. However, given the context, one would generally consider that the ambiguous 'It' referred to in this Peugeot 205 ad refers to the car. Maybe it does! Maybe it doesn't! It all depends on ones perspective. Perhaps if the creatives had taken a line from the Beatles we would have known for sure. All you need is Love! Love! Love!
But the creative artists who produced this Peugeot ad were not simply prepared to allow their viewers to peruse this ad briefly and make up their own minds whether they Loved the car or not. They inserted a semi-subliminal element into the ad. This complements the obvious printed statement.
Find an original copy of the ad and look at the upper right portion of the ad. There you will see what appears to be a smudge [ reproduced actual size on the right ]. Unfortunately the resolution does not allow it to be perceived clearly enough to read what it says. It also states Love it. However it is presented in script in a form reminiscent of when water has made hand written text 'run' or if written on blotting paper. The script is also upside-down and the L is in the bottom right.
Somewhere in his writings Wilson Key claimed that embedded messages were intended to circumvent conscious reasoning. If he were correct then this is a perfect example. Not only is the message presented twice. In one instance, viewing the printed text, it can be seen and reflected upon, perhaps even rejected. In the second instance, perceived at exactly the same moment as the printed message, was another complementary message that would not be consciously perceived and therefore could not be reject. Note that the caption Love It and the smudged, scripted version of Love It are presented immediately one above the other. Not only would they be mentally processed at the same time as the double page ad came into view as the page was turned the printed version could be deemed to act as a cue to help preconscious mental processing 'identify' the meaning of the smudged lettering.
Take another ad in the series and you will find that Love flies out the window and sex takes it place somewhat more covertly. Whereas the previous message was displayed on a hillside, this message was presented in the clouds. In this case, the charge that is often made against critics of semi-subliminal advertising, namely that look at the clouds long enough and you can see whatever you want to see, is true. If you look at the clouds, the only objects in this ad, other than the car and text, you will notice that there is a gap in the clouds. Nothing unusual in that you might say. However, what would you say if I said this offered a representation of sexual penetration: the clouds represent the female and the inserted 'object' the male? Nuts, I hear you say. However before you send off for the straightjacket, consider the following. And better still, reserve judgements until you have read all of the commentary regarding the other ads in this series. And, even better, look at some other ads for Peugeot. The author contends that not only do they emphasize sex in ads when it seems appropriate to the model they are advertising, they also emphasize aggressive driving when that is more appropriate. In other words, they are thoroughly familiar with the use of semi-subliminal embeds in a variety of forms to promote themes that would be socially unacceptable if promoted overtly.
Here are the clouds referred to. Again to get a clearer view you will need a copy of the original ad as the screen resolution leaves the image rather indistinct. Note, however, in the top, centre-left, there is a darker patch of 'sky' protruding/inserting itself into the cleft in the clouds. Taken in isolation this would mean nothing. Even when considered in conjunction with the other ads in the series this is unlikely to be considered a useful sexual representation. But note firstly that when one sees this cloud and the 'insertion' for the first time as the page is turned it comes into view alongside the phrase Love It. Additionally, one can perhaps perceive (in the original ad) the letters SX embedded in the area at the foot of the clouds [their position is indicated in the rollover]. But even without any additional 'evidence' of embedded lettering, if one considers the phallic image and the Love It caption, together with the general sexy theme, it no longer seems inconceivable that susceptible viewers might find their thoughts turn not to Loving the 205 but to Loving sex. The ad agency who produced these ads certainly expected the outcome of triggering sexy thoughts to be the formation of mental associations between sex and their little car. In this they may have been successful, the 205 was publicly acknowledged as the 'sexiest' small car of its time and it was a European best seller.
If the authors interpretations of the two ads above are correct, then the agencies working for Peugeot are nothing if not creative. They used a variety of techniques to get across to the public that this little car is sexy, as the next two ads show. If one keeps in mind that the whole series of ads for this car had a covert sexual message then again the author's suggestion may not seem too far fetched.
In the ad on the right, note that there is no head rest on the car seat. All one can see initially is the outline of the top of the seat and its occupant as they gradually comes into focus. Gradually the features of the woman and the seat come into view. As with the ads above viewers will wonder what is sexy about this ad, other than the connotations that might be associated with an attractive woman. But consider this. Embedded in the hills in the background is not the Love It message of the first ad. Here you will find 'letters' indicative of the word sex. Additionally, if the imagery is deemed to be sexy, and this is complemented by the embedded lettering, what are the connotations of this ad?
To begin with there is an outline of two merged figures: the head of a woman and the top (head) of the chair. The chair can be perceived to have a somewhat phallic nature, especially if some mental association is made with the embedded letters of the word 'sex'. But that is not all. Note that the head of the woman gradually tips further backwards in each frame of the ad. As she comes into focus the phallic shaped evident in the first frame 'disappears'. Is this ad perhaps intended to be construed as 'giving head' or 'penetration'? All of the elements that are needed to produce such (unconscious) interpretation are in existence in the ad and the audience has been primed by previous ads and possibly also the contents of many of the magazines the ad appeared in.
In this final ad from this series presented here (there were others) there is seemingly less emphasis on semi-subliminal content. However, if the reactions of a number of my students to this ad were typical then the theme of sexuality seemed to have been taken to a possibly brutal extreme. They reported that they felt disturbed and disgusted upon viewing this ad. It is probable that their reactions were unintended by those who created the ad as the ad was probably intended to present a visual representation of an unseemly male chauvinistic view of women. Read on for on possible interpretation of this ad.
Unlike the previous magazine ads, the image presented here is a low resolution newspaper ad. Nevertheless it has been artistically modified. Note how the woman's shirt tail flies out behind her, as if it were starched. There is no indication of any wind so the obvious question ought to be Why is this the case? Her hair, for example, is not blowing about, So why does she have 'a tail'?
The following definition extracted from the Dictionary of Contemporary Slang gives one explanation. Tail, as is commonly known, is a noun whose meaning is quite clear: tail/women are merely sexual objects - exactly what the promotional activities associated with the Peugeot 205 were attempting to achieve with the car. However, the reason why the students (who were female) were disgusted with the ad may have somewhat different origins. Although they may have perceived the disparaging meaning associated with the term tail, their responses may have been more visceral because of the positioning of the woman behind the car and the (shirt) tail behind the woman.
Note that the model was leaning over the rear of the car. It is thus conceivable the students felt the ad not only suggested that women were merely tail but also that
penetration would occur from the rear by a tail-like object. I would not discount that as a reasonable (if unconscious) interpretation, given the previous elements of this ad campaign and the connotations of the various elements in the ad. To see additional commentary on ads apparently based on visual representations of colloquial and contemporary slang see the Slang pages.
If you accepted the interpretations of the ads discussed above, you are undoubtedly feeling that you have missed the essential meaning of a lot of ads in the past. Here are a few others from Peugeot. And they are not all concerned with sex but this next ad uses the same embedding technique combined with a more overt message as was present in the smudged Love It on the hillside.
Initially this ad gives the impression that it is a typical holiday slide or a picture in a holiday brochure. Not a single car to be seen even although the ad is for the Peugeot 106. A second look, however, would reveal that this car 'flies'. In the upper right hand corner of the ad is a vehicle, presumably a Peugeot 106. Peugeot, as you will note after viewing this ad and the one that follows, are pretty good at suggesting their vehicles are very speedy without stating this overtly. Such emphasis, of course, goes against the guidelines of the Advertising Standards Authority. Nevertheless Peugeot ads continue to try and present the same message by covert and semi-subliminal means, as do other car manufacturers.
Here is the key excerpt from the present ad. The flying car undoubtedly suggests that the Peugeot 106 can 'fly'. But embedded in the hillside is a semi-subliminal figure that complements that relatively obvious visual message. It is the figure of a bird with a long tail and outstretched wings. Come fly with me, indeed!
In this ad, and that with the smudged Love It, there is an indication that the Peugeot team have taken wholeheartedly to the notion that it pays to offer the same message by complementary means: one relatively easy to see, the other semi-subliminal. I wonder if their market research reveals that this technique is effective.
And now for a final word regarding Peugeot and Speed. Readers may be tempted to think the author is on 'speed' but he isn't, unless someone has been tampering with his drinks. Here we have another apparently innocuous Peugeot ad. It seemingly depicts no more than a slim bridge across a river. One might even say the bridge is flying over the river if one wishes to bear in mind the previous emphasis on speed. But there is, in fact, more to this ad than initially meets the eye.
What is of interest is the 'white line' running down the centre of the ad. It is no ordinary line dividing the lanes of this carriageway. Look carefully and you would see that it is actually a series of letters. No, not sex. The letters are indicative of the yell one hears as fairground revellers plummet earthwards after climbing to the top of gravity defying white knuckle rides. Yieeeeeeeeeeee fades into obscurity. The lettering conveys the thrill of the chase or the rush to confront seemingly deadly danger.
The TV commercial aspect of this campaign takes a more conservative line and emphasizes the YeeHa call of the American cowboy and line dancer. The printed ads deviate from this to offer a more exciting message. But if the lettering were all that mattered, then this ad would simply be another attempting to circumvent ASA guidelines regarding selling vehicle on the basis of claims about speed. However, it also has a semi-subliminal element that complements the death defying speed that is encouraged.
If you look under the top end of the bridge (on an original copy of the ad) you will see that there is a rather worrying, cat like, face. In the insert, two light dots are apparent. These are the beast's 'eyes'. And approaching the section of the bridge above this 'face' is the racing Peugeot 106.
To interpret this combination of elements requires reference to psychological research. Various studies indicate that speeding is one means of testing oneself in the face of danger. To survive is, in some sense, to prove ones immortality. Or at least to 'prove' to oneself that it is possible to face up to a challenge and not be fearful of death or injury. To survive each brush with danger is to receive positive reinforcement for such activity. The positive evaluation of the risk taking activity leads to continuance of the behaviour. A similar challenge is posed for smokers every time they light up a cigarette.
In order to enhance their covert message about speeding, the ad agency has attempted to raise anxiety by incorporating a figure likely to trigger an (unconscious) emotional/fearful reaction. But, the resultant anxiety or fear will not be attributed to the ad. The tiggering cue, in the shape of the anxiety provoking face, is semi-subliminal in nature. Thus any emotional arousal engendered by this aspect of the ad will be consciously associated with the positively evaluated activity of speeding. Ergo, the Peugeot 106 is a thrilling car to own/drive, speedily of course (and, additionally, you unconsciously know you can brush with death and survive).
* Peter Fuller discusses in an interesting fashion his views on a more extreme aspect of risk taking, the 'death wish' involved in various sporting activities in the The Champions: The secret motives in games and sport. Published in the late 1970's this book is undoubtedly out of print and the author would be interested in receiving any information about more recent books that discuss the same topic.
Peugeot 306 and 405
To demonstrate that there is manipulative intent across many Peugeot ads, here are some for the Peugeot 306 and 405 range. Although there might be nothing untoward in the ad on the left it clearly is attempting to sell the vehicle on the basis of behaviour that has absolutely nothing to do with the vast majority of automobile use. And the occupants seem sufficiently well heeled to be able to canoodle in more luxurious surroundings, so why don't they?
A deeper meaning can be discerned in the ads for the 405. The caption here is a questioning 'Remember that feeling of total control?' The ad, one can note, does not depict a mature individual capable of answering such a question. Instead it depicts a small child playing. The child is presumably male and the ad is thus primarily directed towards male viewers.
Now think! When was the last time that you were in total control? Even when you were a small child playing with your toys you probably did not feel totally in control regardless of how egocentric you were. Freud probably had the answer to this question. And it revolves around an appreciation that the most profound period of our lives, in terms of control, was when we first exerted control over our bodily functions - and indirectly, over our parents and the surrounding world.
The child in this ad is thus not there simply to remind male viewers that they once played with toys, or to trigger of reminders of ones own children or grandchildren. Any such notions kindled by the ad would have been anticipated by the creators of the ad. But, additionally, they would also have expected a response in terms of a deeper meaning to the adk. Essentially, the child is there to remind viewers of the 'potty training' era of their life. The one period of their life before they were disillusioned by reality, that they felt 'in total control'.
There is also a reminder of this period of ones life in the connotations associated with the second 405 ad. Again a young male child is playing with a toy car and the caption states 'Now you can handle 57 cubic feet the way you handled 1 cubic inch'. However one should note that neither this car, nor most toy cars, measure one cubic inch: only the most dinky of Dinky toys would have this dimension.
There is, however, one physiological piece of apparatus that is handled regularly by a male that probably did measure around one cubic inch: a male child's penis. The same underlying theoretical notions associated with development are thus evident in this ad, as in the previous one. However, the connotations inherent in this ad go beyond associations between childhood activities and control.
Although this next interpretation was probably unintentional, the ad can also be conceived to convey the following message.' If you can handle 57 cubic feet of car the same way you handled 1 cubic inch of penis then you probably drive like a prick.' At this point, a moments reflection indicates that, perhaps, I have misplaced this ad. Perhaps it should be in the section alongside the Peugeot ads presenting covert messages about speeding.
For an analysis of another ad that seems to have required contemplation of theories of human development check out the commentary on an ad for NatWest bank.
So far, the French Connection has been rather weak as all the ads displayed on this page are from the UK, even though they are for French cars. This last ad was acquired from a French magazine.
As the sole representative of Renault adverts on this site it cannot be considered typical of Renault ads. However, it would seem to indicate that Peugeot are not the only French car manufacturer whose advertising agency makes use of semi-subliminal content.
It should be evident that the two full size extracts from this ad, reproduced below, do not contain natural cloud formations. The extract on the left one illustrates an embedded male face with a rather pointed nose looking at the car. The extract on the right is a bit more complex. To the right of this extract is a female figure, leaning backwards. The figure looming over her would seem to be a large, rather indeterminate, threatening or ogre-like, figure. On the basis of its relationship with the female figure, this is likely to be perceived as either an elderly female or a grumpy dominating male. Note that the latter figure is presented in an odd way, with the 'eye' floating against an incomplete background. It may be more clearly perceived when extracted from the main picture (see insert and rollovers below ).
The second figure is judged to be female because of its less dominant position and because it also has a type of hairstyle more common in females than males, just as the 'flattop' (somewhat higher than would be expected) of the figure in the left hand extract is more common in males.
Inherent in this juxtapositioning of figures and the ideas they would seem to be associated with this ad is the following message: the younger / female members of a relationship are of lesser importance in any pair/family intending to purchase this model of Renault.
For other examples of faces in ads click here.
For information about a series of interesting books and videotapes focusing on various aspects of advertising and its implications for the understanding of gender, addiction, corporate power, etc click here. These include hardback and paperback editions of the book Deadly Persuasion: Why women and girls must fight the addictive power of advertising by Jean Kilbourne, illustrated on the right.
Despite the title, this book is recommended as suitable reading for males of all ages, especially those regularly exposed to the sexist images and messages common in drink, car and cigarette advertising.
Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003