I recently came across a book by researcher Wilson Bryan Key in which he claims to find subliminal images of sex, death, and the occult stuck into photos in print advertisements. They range from screaming skulls airbrushed into ice cubes to an orgy depicted in a plate of fried clams. My major impression is that Key is a crackpot (he can find the letters S-E-X spelled out anywhere there are squiggly lines), but some of his findings seem a little too real to be coincidental. What’s the truth, Cecil? Do advertisers really hide these images (while denying all, of course), or does Key just have an active imagination? –Jay Schloss, Chicago

I won’t claim no eager beaver account executive ever slipped a subliminal message into an ad, Jayzie, but Wilson Bryan Key is the kind of guy who could find something suggestive in a dial tone. Revealing testimony on this score comes to us from the Skeptical Inquirer, one of the nation’s leading antifruitcake journals. Psychologist Tom Creed reports attending a college lecture in 1986 in which Key described in detail the subliminal images he’d found in a picture of a martini. In the middle there was a man with an erect penis, in the upper left a woman scolding the man for drinking, and in the lower right another man, who Key somehow determined was the woman’s henpecked husband.

Creed thoughtfully includes the suspect photo with his article, and by jiminy it looks like there is a man with an erect penis in the middle. (All I see in the upper left is something that looks vaguely like a face, and I can’t make out the alleged husband at all.) Aha, you think. Maybe there’s something to this after all.

Key went on to tell the students he first saw this photo on the cover of the paperback version of one of his own books with the headline, “Are You Being Sexually Aroused by This Picture?” At first he assumed that the publisher had taken the photo from an ad. Naturally he was consumed with guilt, since the publisher was using (perhaps inadvertently) the same sleazy techniques to seduce people into buying the book that Key himself was condemning in others. So he called up to protest. The publisher informed him they hadn’t taken the photo from an advertisement, they’d merely had a photographer set a martini on a table and take a picture of it, without bothering to stick in any subliminal stuff. The apparent image of the man with the erect penis was just happenstance, the equivalent of seeing a face in the clouds.

At this point a rational person might have said to himself, boy, I been on this job too long. Not Key. He immediately concluded that his own publisher was part of the subliminal seduction conspiracy. “I guess it’s my word against theirs,” he told the students cheerfully.

Also in the remarkable martini photograph, Key claimed, there was an image of a man’s face that could be discerned only with an “anamorphoscope,” a mirrored cylinder that works sort of like a fun-house mirror. Through some miracle of photography, the face had been superimposed on top of the image of the man with the erect penis. Why go to all the trouble of putting in something that no reader could recognize without special instruments? Because, sez Key, your subconscious brain doesn’t need special instruments. And how is a man’s face (or, for that matter, a scolding woman or a henpecked husband) supposed to seduce you into buying something? I dunno, and as far as I can tell neither does Key, but his view seems to be that if it’s in there, it’s in there for a reason.

This is a guy who also claims that every Ritz cracker has the word “sex” embedded on it 12 times on each side; that on April 21, 1986, Time magazine published a picture of Moammar Gadhafi with the word “kill” embedded on the face; and that once at a Howard Johnson’s he felt compelled to order fried clams, even though he hates fried clams, because (he later discovered) the place mat had a picture of fried clams containing subliminal images of an orgy including oral sex and bestiality with a donkey. This guy doesn’t have sex embedded in his pictures, he’s got sex embedded in the brain.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.