PRINT January 1991


Desublimated Advertising

IN THE LATE 1950s a market researcher named James M. Vicary unveiled the tachistoscope, a device that could repeatedly project succinct verbal messages onto movie theater screens for an imponderable moment. Though unnoticed, he contended, these messages would speak to people’s unconscious minds and influence consumer behavior. Legend has it that an evanescent suggestion, “Hungry? Eat popcorn,” drove zombielike audiences of the ’50s on sudden expeditions to the candy counter.

Since that time, there has been an enormous and stubborn popular fascination with the subject of subliminal advertising. Many people have been influenced by Subliminal Seduction, or other books by Wilson Bryan Key, a man who has made a career out of decoding covert—often sexual—enticements that he sees concealed within the overt visual messages of advertising. Many students come to my classes full of a critique of advertising based on advertising’s pernicious—and apparently infinite—subliminal appeals. American consumer culture has produced its legion of subliminal hobbyists, people who spend their free time thinking about, locating, and deciphering the cryptic codes that are ostensibly embedded within our ads.

This preoccupation with subliminal advertising is part of the legendary life of post-World War II American capitalism: the word “SEX” written on the surface of Ritz crackers, copulating bodies or death images concealed in ice cubes, and so forth. Tales of Madison Avenue’s subliminal cunning are part of the erotic folklore that is passed along the grapevine of American youth culture. A passage to modern adolescence comes when one learns of the man with an erection (or, by another account, the alluring nude woman) who resides—unnoticed by most people—on the foreleg of the camel on the frontside of each pack of regular, unfiltered Camels.

While there are questions about whether many of these subliminal come-ons are truly there, or whether they actually work, the popular obsession with subliminal advertising is nonetheless significant. It speaks to something real about the experience of life in contemporary American society. It is a sign of a persistent and prevalent awareness, an aversion, that is spawned among people whose eyes and minds are continually the marks for scheming sales appeals. It betrays a trepidation that arises among those who are uninterruptedly targeted by commercial behavior-modification projects. It verbalizes the dissatisfaction that flows in a world where image-management and spin-doctoring have become social norms. To some extent, the folklore of subliminal advertising that runs—mostly by word of mouth—through the byways of American culture is an example of the “consumer resistance” that advertisers, in their marketing plans, are perpetually attempting to “break through.”

Perhaps to this end, certain advertisers over the past several years have moved to join the opposition, making the practice of subliminal advertising an overt part of the sales pitch, something designed to be noticed. In divulging the inside cunning of their craft, they have attached themselves to a critical vernacular outlook, creating a bond of cynicism with potential buyers, reducing the adversarial tension that so often marks relations between commercial hucksters and the shoppers they wish to persuade.

One of the first to move in this direction was Edge shaving gel, in a magazine advertisement that promised “Not Your Ordinary Shave” and offered a close-up of a man’s lathered face, the white facial froth filled, on close inspection, with the gossamer outlines of nubile, near-naked women. More recently, an ad for Absolut Vodka appeared on the back cover of Atlantic Monthly magazine, strategically juxtaposed with a cover story about product placement in Hollywood films, a subject closely tied to the question of subliminal advertising. In the ad, above the bold words ABSOLUTE SUBLIMlNAL, rests a frosty glass of vodka on the rocks. The words ABSOLUT VODKA—faint and distorted, but clearly perceptible on second glance—can be discerned through the surface of the ice. Lately, it’s been revealed (Advertising Age, 20 August 1990) that if you stack three of Pepsi’s special promotional “Cool Cans” on top of each other, the abstract neon swirls come together to spell the word “SEX.” (This gimmick, it should be added, works only with one of the four different “Cool Can” designs, the neon and black pattern.)

Perhaps the most universal example of desublimated advertising is the “Smooth Character” billboard for Camel filter cigarettes. These days, this cartoon camel—the handiwork of Mike Salisbury, a highly regarded graphic artist—can be seen everywhere, commandeering a status once owned by Spuds McKenzie. Some have decried these ads for countenancing smoking among young people. Yet this criticism—in and of itself—misses the point. The ad’s drawing power is in its dialogue with the youth lore of subliminalism. Building on a well-established mythology that already circulates around the Camel insignia, this image has now been remodeled to carry on a campaign for the near total genitalization of public space. The “Smooth Character” is truly the Henry Ford of phallus worship. While at first glance he appears to be little more than a dapper camel, nattily dressed and drawing the admiring glances of beautiful human females (just like Spuds!), a second glance reveals that his head—more specifically his snout—is a comic caricature of the male genitalia. This smoker’s habit has transformed him into a walking sex organ. Wherever he goes, women swoon and common visual clichés of sexual power are wondrously unleashed: jets take off, motorcycles zoom by, pool cues are flashed, the smooth nose of a nuclear submarine comes up through the surface of the water.

The head of the camel is just enigmatic enough to provide the decoding viewer with a sense of personal achievement at having unmasked the ad. In the process of seeing the “Smooth One” for who/what he is, the viewer is symbolically invited into the inner sanctum of advertising, is given access to the room where men and women conspire to mold behavior. More than its sexual message, or even its smoking message, the “Smooth Character” campaign affords the consumer a rare, if illusory, sense of power. This is exactly the opposite of the sense previously evoked by subliminal advertising, that of a passive, manipulated consumer.

While the old, popular folklore of subliminal advertising was most often an expression of anger, distrust, and paranoia in relation to advertising, this desublimated ad is seen as relatively benign, an amusing form of blue entertainment, something to cherish. Playing on this, R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company has recently made available large “suitable for framing” posters—at $2.75 each—of the Smooth Character in a variety of familiar settings, to be mailed away for, and hung up in one’s room. T-shirts, sweat clothes, and baseball caps are also widely available. This is the ultimate irony: advertisements transformed into mass-merchandized trophies symbolizing a popular triumph over subliminal seduction.

Stuart Ewen is professor of media studies at the City University of New York.