In your recent column on Wilson Bryan Key and Subliminal Seduction [June 26], you stated that Key “doesn’t have sex embedded in his pictures, he’s got sex embedded in the brain.” Before dismissing Key as a crackpot, take a look at the attached article from Consumer Behavior: Concepts and Strategies (1978) by Berkman and Gilsen:
“[In] Subliminal Seduction . . . Key . . . offered numerous examples of sexual symbols, four-letter words, and pornographic pictures buried in the otherwise bland content of various ads. He concluded that such ‘hidden persuaders’ were carefully contrived by major advertisers and their agencies to seduce consumers at a subliminal level.
“But to people who have worked in ad agencies, there would seem to be a simpler explanation. Much photography for advertising art is sent to professional retouching studios, where artists set to work correcting photographic imperfections and adding visual effects not captured by the camera. Ice cubes in ads, for example, are completely the work of retouching artists, since real ice cubes would melt under the hot lights of the photographer’s studio. Retouchers, like most artistic people in commercial fields, want to add something of their own creativity to their work. Some even find it humorous to introduce carefully designed sexual elements to an ad that must be puritanically straitlaced for the mass market. . . . Concealed symbols and words in ads . . . are most likely the work of individual creativity, boredom or mischievousness rather than the cunning and insidious strategy of marketing decision makers that Professor Key suggests.” –Jerome Julian, S. Michigan
You have defamed a very astute and responsible person in your attack on Wilson Bryan Key. It appears from your column that you relied completely on secondhand data from a notoriously unreliable source–a psychologist. Of course a psychologist is going to try to smear Key. Psychs are among those who try to figure out the unconscious motivations of alcoholics and smokers so that ad agencies can sell them harmful products. They did most of the research from which subliminal ad techniques were developed.
I enclose an ad from the July 1987 Life containing a pretty good example of a subliminal “embed.” Once you’ve seen the man with the erection on the Camel cigarette pack he will be clear to you ever after. –Faxon Bowen, Los Angeles
Let me deal with you first, Jerome. Cecil’s principal aim was to discredit the notion that there is some organized conspiracy to seduce the public through subliminal techniques. He is perfectly willing to concede that practical jokers have occasionally snuck dirty words and the like into print. One notorious example appeared in a 1980 Montgomery Ward catalog entitled “999 Price Cuts.” On page 122 one could find the F word etched faintly into the background of a shot of a bedspread. (All Ward’s catalogs at the time were identified by letter; perhaps coincidentally, this was the X catalog.) The incident caused quite a stir around Ward’s. It was traced to an employee of a retouching studio used by Ward’s who evidently got mad one day when a piece of artwork was sent back for what he considered to be trivial changes. His editorial emendation, which was done with bleach on the negative, was his way of expressing his feelings on the matter. He and the retouching studio parted company soon thereafter.
As for the alleged Camel embed . . . well, judge for yourself. People have been claiming to see mysterious figures in the illustration of the camel virtually since the day the brand was introduced nationally in 1913. (The drawing is based on a photo of Ol’ Joe, a camel in the Barnum & Bailey Circus.) The man with the erection is sometimes identified as a woman, and there’s supposedly a lion lurking near the camel’s hindquarters. An R.J. Reynolds spokesman claims it’s all just coincidence. Unfortunately, we can’t ask the original artist–his name has been lost, Reynolds says, and he’s probably long dead anyway. The company has never bothered to modify the drawing because it only gets about ten letters on the subject a year. Or so they tell me. Believe what you like.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.