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   Imagination, Illusions and Projection: Part I


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If you think you are seeing a pink dragon when none exists then you are hallucinating.

If you think you are holding a pink dragon then you are psychotic.

If you perceive a pink dragon when you are presented with a picture of a pink dragon or even minimal cues indicating the presence of a dragon i.e. those based on the techniques used by cartoonists and caricaturists, then you are in good company. You are normal. You are also normal if you think the combination of blobs of colour and dark lines in the image on the right is a  representation of Clintsketch of clint eastwood Eastwood.  And you are equally normal if you perceive the few sketched lines in the image on the left as a representation of a woman.

Neither of these images are pictures but, nevertheless, very basic line drawing of a womanthe artists who produced them knew that the combination of lines and colours would lead viewers to perceive a likeness of the movie star or a woman.  Variations on the same techniques are used to produce semi-subliminal images within adverts.  See, for example, the sketched figures on the Bud Ice label.

The sketched information can be minimal, such as the few classic lines used to indicate Alfred Hitchcock in silhouette, or be very faint.  Some examples are provided on the Faces page. Or the image can offer only the vaguest indications of a face, as in the logo on the Macintosh Operating System Version 8.0, of which four animated variations are shown below. Note that each animation presents two 'faces' but only one can be perceived at any particular moment. The logo thus shares some of the properties of the classic vase/face illusion, of which some variations are shown later on this page.

Animated lines 1 animatied lines 2 animated lines 3 animated lines 4

On the right is an example of a classic image found in many psychology textbooks. It contains very ambiguous information. Illusion of beared ChristEmbedded in this classic illustration is a male figure. Once it is 'seen' it is difficult not to perceive it afterwards. However, before one 'recognizes' the position of the face of this figure it is normal just to 'see' a pattern of black and white. Rollover the image to see the positioning.

As the information in this jumble of black and white is ambiguous, not everyone can perceive the figure. I, for example, 'recognise' quite easily a bearded individual, rather like Christ or Che Illusion of beared Christ and 'Salvador Dali' in backgroundGuevera and another figure. If you possess the capacity to distinguish 'figure from ground' i.e. an ambiguous object or figure against what is seemingly background, then you should also find it possible to 'see' a second figure. He is looking over the right shoulder of the main figure. Look for a 'devilish' face, a little bit like Salvador Dali, in the extract shown alongside. There is even a hint of Dali's moustache.

Another classic black and white image, that of a Labrador dog against a background of snow can be found on the Psychology page and various illustrations of paintings with embedded figures can be found on the ArtAttack page.

There is thus plenty of evidence to indicate that figures can be embedded without difficult in ads. Nevetheless, advertising professionals continue to deny that such activities occur As it the case with works of art so it is with adverts. Whether or not they are presented very subtly or in an incomplete manner, such images present cues or stimuli to which visual and perceptual processes will respond. They exist outside the imagination of the viewer.  They are not figments of the overly creative imagination as is continually claimed by critics of Wilson Key such as Burtch, Haberstroh and others.

This means that when you are presented with examples of semi-subliminal advertising do not get gulled by arguments from the advertising profession claiming that no such phenomenon exists. The cues in semi-subliminal adverts might not be as obvious, pink and dragon-like, as in the illustration above, nor as clear-cut as a cartoonist's silhouette, but they certainly exist. They might not influence you but the many examples on this site testify to their existence.

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Cigs, Alcohol and Rock'n'Roll

If you smoke or drink, or even if you don't, you can bet your bottom dollar that in lateanimated cockerel setting of TNT teenage or early adulthood, and even earlier, you would have been exposed to many ads containing semi-subliminal ads. Advertising in general is a strong influence in these years when one is sometimes desperate to become accepted as an adult. It may not seem as though advertising had any influence on you at the time but advertising played its role to perfection, just like the Rooster in this animation. Give some thought to the role played by Joe Camel, Reg, the Hamlet cigar ads, the Marlboro TV commercials and other promotions and advertisements played in the development of your understanding of cigarettes and smoking? There is no equivalent of these iconic characters in the field of alcohol advertising but nevertheless key elements in advertising have had their influence on you. Whether it be Carling Black Label, Carlsberg, Molson, Jim Beam, Miller Lite, or whatever, these adverts had an impact on you. And some of these contained semi-subliminal elements. So what, you might say. They didn't influence me. Well, don't be so sure. No company spends the amount that tobacco and alcohol companies spend without getting an adequate return on their investment. Even if that investment is simply intended to ensure equity with their competitors, they expect value for money.

Cigarette and alcohol ads tend to have three primary functions. 

First. They present a socially acceptable face to the world: they generally look good and they are found them in classy magazines. They keep company with ads for other, less problematical, products. This association works only to put a 'gloss' on cigarette smoking and the conspicuous consumption of alcohol. The association rarely works the other way around to tarnish the image of products advertised in conjunction with cigarettes or drinks because the number of non cigarette/alcohol ads vastly outnumbers cigarette/alcohol ads. The result you accept that cigarette and alcohol advertising is O.K. 'No problem!'

Second. Such ads are often calculated to keep smokers and drinkers and others in a state of anxiety, often using imagery associated with death or confrontations with death. See the various Marlboro, Jack Daniel and other ads for examples. Your response will be 'Can't be the case'. 'Never influenced me'.

Third. Many ads, particularly those for cigarettes and alcoholic drinks, also attempt to develop a mental link between sex or anxiety and the Brand. The process is known as paired or associative conditioning.  Simply by presenting the two sets of information together viewers become accustomed to the pairing. Viewers thus tacitly acknowledge the association and there is 'cross fertilization' of ideas associated with the brand and whatever they are associated with. The outcome of this process is likely to be that your store of knowledge about cigarette and alcohol brands also contains knowledge of many socially acceptable subjects. In addition, if your preferred brands advertise using semi-subliminal material, you will also 'know' other, less desirable types of information obtained from viewing the semi-subliminal components.

The semi-subliminal content of ads do not need to be simplistic. Marlboro ads, in particular, indicate it is often possible to incorporate two or more semi-subliminal messages within one ad e.g. messages associated with sex and death. It simply requires multiple sets of cues or trigger images in the same ad.  So long as the two sets of cues or triggers are not placed in positions where they conflict with each other, susceptible individuals will tend to 'identify' only those messages that are salient for them. For example, one may find something attractive, another abhorrent, depending upon their own personal

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To See or Not to See

A distinction was drawn above between seeing and perceiving.  These terms are not synonymous in meaning.  Psychologists and others can demonstrate very effectively that there is a difference between what is seen and what is perceived.  In brief, the eye responds to light.  It thus only 'sees' colours - perhaps even shapes - but there is no sense or meaning in what is seen.  The world is just a booming, buzzing, confusion of changing colours.  This is the type of description offered by people who have been blind for most of their life and an operation restores their sight. They have to learn how to interpret the visual information they begin to receive. It is information provided by different wavelengths of light registering on the eye that have to be interpreted before it can make sense. For more information on this subject see the entries in the Glossary and also view the Psychology page for examples.

Book cover: Visual Intelligence.It is only when the sensory input to the eye is combined with knowledge gained from experience that one perceives objects, people, etc.   In effect, information that is merely seen is essentially meaningless. It needs to be converted into something meaningful by perceptual processes.   What is important is what we perceive. When perceptual and related processes do not function properly we hallucinate or become psychotic.   When they function normally they 'turn' the sensory input produced by line drawings or simple paintings into something that we recognize - as with the Clint Eastwood image and other examples shown above.

People, in other words, are active participants in making sense of their world. We are not simply biological video recorders.   What comes to our conscious attention is the outcome of a complex set of psychological processes. But this does not mean that we do not and cannot respond unless we pay conscious attention to the world around us. Book cover: Understanding consciousnessThe widespread use of semi-subliminal ads by major international corporations are possibly one indication of the ability to make sense of information without paying conscious attention to it. But everyday experience at home, work and when travelling provide many other examples of behaviour that operates on the basis of our habitual 'autopilot'. Most thinking and most responses to visual information function on autopilot and it is undoubtedly the case that if semi-subliminal images are perceived then they tend to have their impact, if any, out of conscious awareness.

A fuller discussion of psychological processes can be found on the Psychology page. Additional information, when necessary, can also be found in the Faq's, the Glossary and in chapters on visual perception in most psychology textbooks.

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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: 3rd January, 2003


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