World Premiere: Eric McLuhan says his say about subliminal messages

Many have wondered at the lack of acknowledged permissions for using the ads in both books [The Mechanical Bride and Culture Is Our Business]. The reason is that permissions were unnecessary: the ads were available for free. Editors at Vanguard had found a curious legal fiction. Advertisers were being given huge tax breaks on the grounds that they were engaged in a sort of educational enterprise, “educating the public” about products so that it might better make informed choices. The upshot is that anyone can make use of the (government-supported) ads for free providing they were not being used as ads, but as educational materials, for educative purposes. Needless to say, the agencies were reluctant to let these matters become known to the public.

This is the excerpt from Dr Eric McLuhan’s introduction to the 2014 edition of Culture Is Our Business by Marshall McLuhan (from Subliminal Junk XII here) concerning which I reached out to Eric McLuhan. This move has initiated an exchanges of emails between Eric McLuhan and me. Eric’s first four emails were published as Comments to Subliminal Junk XIII (here). I presently make an entry with these emails and two more, due to their importance. Here are they.


August 15

Dear Florent Boucharel,

Thank you for your intriguing letter. I was unable to access either of the links that you included, but never mind. It would have been interesting to see the sources you cite. The notion of “subliminal junk” rings a lot of bells here: I spent years investigating things subliminal and am something of an expert re the matter. However…

Let me say right off that I have no personal legal or legalistic expertise in the matter of copyright of ads. The publishers (Vanguard, for Mechanical Bride, and McGraw-Hill for Culture Is Our Business) gave my father freedom to use any ads he wished, and he did so, never once asking permission. Vanguard set the stage by doing the initial research–I assume it was done by their legal department. McGraw-Hill evidently took their word for it. We never heard of a single objection from any of the owners of any of the ads used in either book. Both publishers, by the way, are located in New York. The Bride never went on sale, but Culture Is Our Business did, and copies were sold outside the US, though I have no idea how many.

Lots of teachers use ads in their courses and I have no knowledge of any of them ever seeking permission to discuss an ad used in a class or classroom. Of course, there is a multitude of textbooks for teachers to use and hundreds of ads in them, but frankly I have never checked to see if permission was asked or given. I seem to recall that these books routinely list the sources of ads in their “Acknowledgements” section, as do art textbooks for the images that they use. But all of them are academic textbooks.

I am quite certain that it is safe to study ads in the classroom without permission; I assume, from past and present experience, that it is safe to provide students with copies of ads that are being studied in a classroom setting for academic purposes. The sole proviso would be that the ads are being used as specimens for academic scrutiny and not AS ads.



August 16

Dear Florent,

Well! You are a devotee of Bill Key’s! I too was a fan if his when he put out the first three books, starting with Subliminal Seduction, and subsequently.

As I mentioned, I taught embedding techniques until recently–I retired a couple of years ago. Let me suggest a couple of things. One thing that damaged Key’s credibility was that he quickly became very sophisticated in his ability to detect subliminals; as it were, he was working at a post-doc level while his readers were still at the undergraduate level. I found the same problem: I could see things clearly that were still opaque to my students. So I had to tone it down, restrict my exhibits to the simplest and most obvious ones or I would lose them.

I’d suggest that you try something similar. In each of your reports, have several sections. Make the first a group of simple and easy examples, obvious things; the second, a little more subtle; and the third, the not-so-obvious group. And put headings on the groups.

Eventually, I began my class on subliminals (I used a carousel tray of 80 slides) with covers of Playboy magazines. Very effective: slightly naughty and caught everybody’s attention. Here’s the secret: since the first issue, Playboy has embedded their signature icon, the rabbit, somewhere in every single cover. They still do it. The homework assignment for that class was to visit a newsstand and examine the cover of the current issue and “find the rabbit.” Playboy covers are not only entertaining, but VERY useful as a training device.

You see, the Playboy artists use every single embedding technique several times over the course of a year or two of covers, with a lot of them repeated because after all there are not that many techniques–it’s a matter of theme and variation. But after scrutinizing 20-25 covers, the audience becomes quite expert in spotting the rabbit–and some of the covers are really clever embeds! THEN I hit them with a few ads, and they are often ahead of me. Seldom do I need to explain what is going on: the audience does it for me.

Even so, I begin with a few obvious ads, and then get progressively more subtle.


August 17

I have never written up the way that I taught subliminals using Playboy covers. I just did it, each year for a dozen or more. Actually, I think that my letter to you is the first time I have written anything about it. It was–and is–a very powerful means of teaching the subject. I’d suggest that you find somewhere a cache of covers, from the first issues to the present, and made a file of them. (When you do, I’d appreciate a copy!) They fall into a small number of groups if sorted by techniques, and exhibit a wide range of sophistication from simple to complex in each group. Actually, now that you mention it, it might be fun to put together a small book on the subject as an approach to ads and kindred items.

Playboy is a useful tool because their useage is all in the spirit of play and has no moral judgments attached or implied. Nearly everyone who writes on the topic, and I include Bill Key here, along with his detractors–nearly everyone feels compelled to work up moral indignation to a fever pitch. All of that is actually irrelevant. Try this: take any criticism text on subliminals and remove from it every vestige of moralism, and see what is left. It is quite the same with how people approach criticism of media. You are required to express a moral position. If you don’t, the assumption is that you approve of it. So in self-defence you must state whether you approve or disapprove. People want to know, right off, “is it a good thing or a bad thing?” The moment you tell them, they are relieved of the responsibility of examining the thing any further: they know now what and how to think. My father made a point of never giving his moral opinion of the things he examined so was widely accused of being an advocate. Except once. His first book on ads, The Mechanical Bride, included a lot of moral outlook. He learned from that experience and you will be hard pressed to find thereafter any similarly moralistic tone in his subsequent writings or his lectures. The second book on ads, Culture is Our Business, is entirely free of moralism. Along the same line, you might like to have a look at Wyndham Lewis’s essay, “The Greatest Satire is Non-Moral.” The non-moral approach pulls the teeth of the opposition.

My class on subliminals was part of a larger discussion of artistic techniques and ways of managing the attention and, just as importantly, crafting the inattention of the beholder. Consequently I never experienced opposition from faculty, though occasionally a student would object, either on moral grounds, or because he or she simply couldn’t see the things I was exhibiting. Every serious artist, whether poet or painter or sculptor, etc., spends at least as much time on the elements of inattention as on those things the beholder is to attend to. The language of figure and ground, which we use often in Laws of Media: The New Science, is well suited to these discussions. Ground is the area of inattention, the 95% area of any experience. Another word for it is “medium.” It provides the way of seeing whatever is figure. Ground is the mode of perception. Another word for the ground area is “style.” Ground is by definition the part that people are trained or induced to ignore, and they have great resistance to any incursions into their areas of ignorance. People will defend to the death their right to preserve their ignorance!


August 18

Here’s an idea of what I meant by a cache of covers: It does not include ALL of the covers for individual years, but gives quite enough to work with. Quite a number of sites will supply examples.

Of course, if you can find a box-full of actual mags, so much the better. But perhaps you know someone who can make digital copies of these for use as a display. (If you do, please send me a copy!)

If you go to the site above, look especially at the following (play “find the rabbit”):
1960 March, November
1961 March, April, July
1962 Feb., March, April, June, Aug., Dec.
1963 March, Aug.
1964 March, May, Dec.
1965 March, June, Oct., Nov., Dec.
1966 June, July, Nov., Dec.
1967 Feb., March, Nov.
1968 December

1970 May, July, Nov.
1971 April, Aug.
1972 March, April, June
1973 Feb., June, Aug., Oct.
1974 June, Nov.
1976 May, June,July, Aug.
1977 May, Nov….

But you get the idea. Look through the rest.
Occasionally, you’ll see white (rabbit-shaped) paper cutouts obscuring parts of anatomies–for the obvious reasons. Too titillating. Ignore the cutouts: they are not the embedded rabbits.
I have underlined several dates, above: these are particularly fine and challenging examples (1973, 1974, 1976). If they stump you, ask me.

Present company excepted, moral indignation generally takes the place of understanding. Try editing out the moralism from one of your own earlier fine posts and see what is left. I imagine it will be just fine, and harder-hitting. (The moralism component is one of the things that got Bill Key fired.)

Wyndham Lewis pointed out that if you criticize someone for being immoral, he and she can sort of snigger and joke that yes, they WERE being naughty, wink wink nudge nudge ha ha–that is, they can turn the criticism to account. Being banned-in-Boston does have a certain PR value. But if you satirize them/show them up instead as being stupid or ignorant or insensitive, why, there’s no PR value in that. You got ’em. All they can do is get angry, and that works against them.
The moral approach encourages somnambulism in your readers. I’m not sure that that is the response you wish to promote.


August 19

(…) Anyhow, you see why using a parade of Playboy covers makes a usful way to warm up an audience to presenting and examining some more sophisticated embedding in ads. The big difference between the covers and the ads, is that you are supposed to scrutinize the covers and to ignore the ads. And of course the covers are not intended to have an effect beyond that of enticing the beholder to buy the mag.

Incidentally, “ground” is a useful way to refer to embedding areas because the key to ground is that it is always configurational. In any situation there is the figure (the object of attention) or the procession of figures one at a time, and the con-figures, that is, all of the other potential figures assembled at once which is ground. In other words, the figure is by definition an artifact of the beholder’s attention. The figure area is sequential; the ground area, simultaneous.

August 20

My course was on perception, taught at a school for musicians and professional recording students. I devoted one or two classes to the topics we have been discussing. In that slide tray there were about 30 covers and the rest, about 50, had to do with ads.
My heartfelt thanks to Eric McLuhan.

…………….”It’s not your imagination”

Besides practising with Playboy covers as suggested above by Eric McLuhan, you may benefit from these four film posters that provide examples of figure-ground ambiguity as an artistic technique. Here the ambiguity is made obvious to produce a conscious effect.
From top to bottom
1 Premonition (2007) by Mennan Yapo. The poster copy reads “It’s not your imagination.
2 Cabin Fever (2002) by Eli Roth.
3 Shrooms (2006) by Paddy Breathnach.
4 Poster to the French video release of Rise of the Gargoyles (2009), a Canadian television film by Bill Corcoran. The background is two or three different things at the same time. Two: the city and a hole leading outside an underground crypt. Three: The hole has the shape of a gargoyle’s head; it mirrors the head of the gargoyle figure. The mouth on the background reflection is the head of a man peeping into the dark well.

Subliminal Junk XIII: The Merguez Undergloss (I Can’t Stand It)

In Subliminal Junk XII (here) (Complements), I kind of pictured myself as a man engaged in a lonely struggle attempting to expose subliminal practices in advertising. The truth is that it is far from being the case, as a brief search on YouTube can convince anyone that the topic is very hot. Scores of videos, viewed by hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, just do the same as I do. Yet the advertising industry and media carry on their business unconcerned.

To be sure, many of these videos seem to circulate chiefly in certain networks preoccupied with the power of an agency they call the Illuminati. I understand that these Illuminati would be some organization inside the freemasonry, the top managers of the whole business, so to speak, apparently having (according to some) direct communication with Satan, which plans they intend to fulfill on this earth. Subliminal techniques, in this peculiar view, would serve Illuminati’s goal of world domination.

That some die-hard Christians, faced with the secularization of our societies and cultures (perhaps a sham, this secularization, in fact), are apt to explain things in terms of spiteful, inimical agencies – and the Devil himself – is not a big surprise. That they are, on the other hand, if not the only ones, at least the most active and successful (counting the number of viewers of their videos) in exposing subliminal techniques, and thus in contributing to the knowing of our times, in short that they proved to be the spearhead of the movement toward the truth, even if it be in that field only, must be a little shocking for a die-hard Secularist.

One is compelled to acknowledge that advertisers are like conjurers. If you knew the conjurer’s tricks, you wouldn’t go to his show. Likewise, if you knew how advertising worked, then advertising would fail to achieve its goal, which is to influence behavior. That such is its goal is somewhat concealed by our society, its laws and law courts’ calling it “commercial information” notwithstanding the fact that such “information” is always aiming at the consumer’s purchase in the interest of the “informant.” Given this goal – suggestion –, advertising must remain undiscussed and unexamined if it ought to be efficient. Democracy has proved often enough over time that it can accommodate to complete lack of transparency in many matters; yet, on the plane of principles, both concepts – democracy and opacity – undermine each other, so how one reconciles the status of advertising with our national constitutions is a problem that so far has remained unresolved.

…………….Case 96 Boodles SEX

Cases 96 & 97 are taken from Vanity Fair n° 672, August 2016 (English edition: “Vanity Fair is published by the Condé Nast Publications Ltd., Vogue House, Hanover Square, London,” p. 26).

Case 96

Case 96

The above picture shows a woman’s face looking at the viewer. Albeit the model’s chin seems to rest on her left hand, not a single flesh fold, which the pressure of the palm on the fatty parts of the chin would make one expect, can be seen. Evidently, the picture is a montage. Perhaps the hand is not even the same person’s.

Now, if you take a closer look at the area where the hand is supposed to be in contact with the chin, the feeling arising is actually that of distance rather than contact. It seems that the graphic designer made no effort at all to create an illusion of contact, and that he wanted to tell us a quite different story than that of a chin resting on a hand, which a quick glance at the advert first suggests Gestalt-wise.

The model wears a cream-colored jersey. The fabric’s fold on the shoulder is extremely peculiar; I can’t figure out how the jersey could become so folded, unless it has been very poorly cut… or the fold designed to that effect for the ad. So let’s take a closer look at this fold. I have outlined nothing in the picture because I think the effect is obvious. The hand, seemingly used to support the model’s chin, is in fact clenching an object that protrudes from it, on its right, and is suggested by a double fabric fold. This object is no other than a penis. It is a still flaccid or half flaccid penis curving downward, and the hand masturbates it, making it bob to and fro because of its not being quite stiff yet.

Furthermore, the two folds delineating the penis can be connected to a third one further on the left, the resulting compound making a stylized vulva.

…………….Case 98 Creed SEX

Case 97

Case 97

97 - 2

97 – 2

97 - 3

97 – 3

The above picture 1 is taken from a two-page ad for the new Creed woman perfume Aventus For Her, of which it is the first page, showing only the “classic” Aventus perfume for men. We see the perfume bottle salient on a marble-like whitish background and some greenery probably representing the fragrances involved and which I identify as blackcurrants, mint and licorice. The licorice stick is leaning against the bottle top. Its tip is reminiscent of a penis, which I have outlined in red.

The curvature is suggestive and, although the stalk somewhat tapers toward the tip, the glans neatly partitions from the shaft thanks to a visible ridge. The texture of the stick provides veins on the shaft (I outlined one) as well as finer creases around the frenulum (a few being outlined).

I suggest this penis-like object is in fact a clitoris. Just above the point where the meatus would be, lies a dark area given to construe as the shadow of one of the mint leaves. The whole display of shadows looks rather messy and not quite according to the laws of optics. This particular shadow here delineates a pool, that is, an ejaculate pool. Its smoky aspect could also represent some sprayed substance, a cloud of fine moisture particles emanated from the clitoris due to arousal. In short, the arrangement suggests to you the effect that Aventus perfume will have on women: it will arouse them and make them wet and receptive and consenting to any sexual proposition.

…………….Case 98 L’Oréal SEX

Cases 98-102 are taken from the American magazine Glamour, August 2016.

Case 98

Case 98

98 - 2

98 – 2

98 - 3

98 – 3

The present ad for L’Oréal “Infallible Pro-Glow” is endorsed by Ethiopian model and actress Liya Kebede, whose name appears on the bottom left of the upper picture, for those, like me, who did not know who the model is. Not that the name was known to me either, but I was made aware in that way that she was a celebrity. Mentioning the name might betray that the celebrity in question is not so famous, after all – or does it mean that it was thought she would be impossible to recognize in the ad due to massive airbrushing of the picture?

I don’t know what the apparatus on the left of the upper picture is; it looks like some hairdresser’s or gymnastics equipment. On another plane, it looks like a human skull looking at the model, with the chrome parts drawing the jaws and mouth.

The model is looking at the viewer. Among the intricate patterns of the left ear (the model’s right ear) a fellatio has been embedded, which I have outlined in white. Next to the model’s temple appears a penis – shaft, glans and meatus visible. Its impressive size can be measured by comparing it with the human face drawn beside it, the mouth of which being entirely concealed by the glans. The performer of the fellatio must be currently licking the shaft.

…………….Case 99 Johnson & Johnson’s Aveeno SEX

Case 99

Case 99

99 - 2

99 – 2

Another case of celebrity endorsement, this time for Johnson & Johnson’s Aveeno daily scrub and daily moisturizer (to be used together). (For theoretical considerations on celebrity endorsement, see Case 39 here.)

Contrary to Case 98 with actress Liya Kebede, the celebrity here is not named. She’s the American actress Jennifer Aniston, as a quick internet research taught me. I guess she’s more expensive a model than her colleague Liya, whose name has to appear on the ads.

At the bottom right of the ad, a string bean (French bean) is leaning against the moisturizer bottle. Two beans are out of their pod. The whole thing is a naïve (I mean the pictorial genre) representation of an erect penis. I don’t need to outline anything; it’s as plain as the nose on your face. The pointed tip may hint, if you like, at a condom.

…………….Case 100 Chanel Eau Tendre SEX

Case 100

Case 100

On this picture there is wind, but looking carefully you will find that it is impossible to tell from which direction the wind blows. If you look at the cap of the perfume bottle, blown away from it, and at the model’s dress, the wind blows from behind her back. If, on the other hand, you look at the model’s hair and shawl, the wind blows from left to right. The apparent inconsistency, likely to be missed on conscious level by many viewers anyway, may suggest a maelstrom of sensations; surely this is something of the sort the creators will tell you if you ask them what they were meaning with such multidirectional winds.

Yet there may be something else than just that. Salvador Dali has devoted a whole book to Jean-François Millet’s painting L’Angélus (below): The Tragic Myth of Millet’s Angelus (in the original French Le Mythe tragique de l’Angélus de Millet), in which he explains among other things that the man’s hat is concealing an erection. Dali shows a cartoon in which a naked character can be seen in the same position as the man in the painting, holding a hat at the level of his genitals; when the character takes his hands off the hat because he needs them at once for another use, the hat does not fall and instead stays in the same position, so the reader understands it is maintained by the character’s erect penis. Dali tells us that this subliminal erection (I don’t remember if he actually uses the word “subliminal”), together with the woman’s attitude, which he describes as mantis-like, was what spooked him as a child after he first saw this painting.

In the advert here, the same technique may have been used (intentionally here, whether Millet’s effect was intentional or not). The dress would look as if it were blown forward by a powerful wind but, as the shawl and hair a few centimeters higher are blown in the opposite direction, it would not be wind but instead a powerful erection that elevates the dress in such a manner. The ad would thus appeal to women’s penis envy (Freud) by subliminally depicting a woman with a huge penis capable of mighty erections.


…………….Case 101 Unilever’s Dove SEX

Case 101

Case 101

Another case of celebrity endorsement (see Cases 98 & 99). The personality endorsing the product is, I suppose, the woman seen in the ad, and her name the one given under the quoted words, namely, Simona Di Dio. I searched for this name on the Web and found that no single Simona Di Dio can be deemed a celebrity but a few of them, if any, because I found one dancer (a belly dancer, actually), one poetess, one lawyer… As the ads talks of perspiration, I suppose our Simona here is the dancer. So much for celebrity endorsement.

They were right anyway not to use a better-known personality for their ad, because they intended to have her tell a lie. The quote reads: “I didn’t know an antiperspirant could make my underarms softer and smoother.” Let’s ponder for a moment over how things happened. Did Simona, one day, buy Dove Advanced Care and became aware after using it that her underarms had become softer and smoother so she wanted to advertise the fact to the whole world and reached out to Unilever to that effect, or was Simona (if she exists at all) called by the advertising agency to appear in an ad under words alleged to be hers for cash payment? Well? I needn’t answer, need I?

In a way, the process is the same with all celebrity endorsements. The glitterati do not care a dime about the product they advertise (as long as it does not injure their image), they only care about the money they get from being associated with it. In most cases, however, it’s not so direct; if it’s an actor, for instance, who’s paid, he will play a little sketch in a TV spot or pose for a picture. Here, it is the celebrity’s own words that are supposedly quoted, and the name has the same function as a signature.

Moreover, the copy reads as follows: “Dove Advanced Care goes way beyond protection. 9 out of 10 women agreed that it made their underarms soft and smooth.” Can Unilever prove it? Can they show the questionnaire, the answers given to it, the research protocols? Can they explain how the survey was carried out? Perhaps they can – why not? – but the material is their propriety and they won’t disclose it. Only justice could compel them to disclose their proprietary material, but on what ground? Figures without sources, it’s what advertising is all about. No deadly sin, you may argue; but not commendable either. Far from commendable, in fact.

…………….Case 102 Chevrolet Malibu Suicide

Case 102

Case 102

Where does “a complete 180 on the ordinary” (copy) drive you? According to this ad, it may well lead you to the brink of an abyss.

Albeit “Drive Safely” is written on the license plate (in red letters), the Chevrolet Malibu stands on some perilous edge. If you look at the visible front wheel, you see a diagonal line running behind it in a slightly upward straight direction. Even though the white wall on the right of the car continues further toward the front, this line, beyond which nothing is to be seen (below the wheel and car) but a black space, a different space from that on which the car is now standing, seems to indicate the end of the parking lot, or whatever that place is. The parking lot opens on a mountain scenery under bright sky. The feeling conveyed is that of height, the parking lot looks as if it were accessed through an opening in a mountain slope, and the line the car is about to cross if it advances just a little farther is the edge of a chasm. By escaping the ordinary, the advertisers thus seem to mean indulging one’s suicidal tendencies.

That advertising would appeal to some Thanatos urges (death wish) in man comes as no surprise. That a car is a fitting object to make appeals of this kind goes without saying, given the death toll our societies are paying to their road networks. – Appealing to (and exacerbating) aggressiveness when selling cars, as the ad in Case 88 does (here), may be regarded as criminal, by the way, bearing this death toll in mind, because those who use their cars and see driving as an outlet to their aggressiveness are likely to provoke more accidents. If research proves this intuitive view wrong, and the counterintuitive view that these people have less accidents right, then I’d be glad to be informed of it.


Several ads in Glamour magazine are copyrighted (you can see the copyright symbol on Case 99’s picture, for instance). This is something I have found frequently in magazines’ American editions but much more infrequently, or even not at all, in other countries’ editions at my disposal. For instance, I do not find a single copyrighted ad in the Vanity Fair August issue, English edition, from which Cases 96 & 97 above are taken.

Does it betray a pettifogging spirit in American business law? Be that as it may, it looks like I’m infringing on legal rights by using copyrighted material (like in Case 99). All I can say for my defense is, please go back to Subliminal Junk XII (here), Complements, and to Eric McLuhan’s quote. It explains why, when writing The Mechanical Bride and Culture Is Our Business, Marshall McLuhan did not ask for permission before using several advertisements in these books, because his publisher found it was not necessary. If it was unnecessary in Canada only, or whatever the publisher’s country was (Marshall McLuhan being a Canadian, I assume his publisher was in Canada, but whatever the country is, it is only one country in any case), then the books still would have had to require permissions for sales outside that country, in other legal contexts, that is – a point on which Eric McLuhan does not say a word, which in turn leads me to assume, provisionally, that permission is unnecessary worldwide, no matter how strange that sounds (but remember we’re dealing with multinational companies on the one hand, internet on the other hand, and that nation states look a little irrelevant in this context).

Yet it is astonishing that, in one and the same issue, some ads are copyrighted and others are not. Some companies copyright their ads and some don’t. I have no idea what is to be inferred from the practice, or its absence, but, still, here are the companies that copyright their ads and those that don’t in the Glamour issue for August 2016:

Copyright: Maybelline LLC (4 ads), Levi Strauss & Co., Estée Lauder Inc. (2 ads), CliniqueLaboratoires LLC, L’Oréal USA Inc. (10 ads), Garnier LLC (7 ads), Johnson & Johnson Consumer Inc. (3 ads), Allergan (2 ads), Jockey International Inc., Unilever (2 ads), Kao USA Inc., Procter & Gamble (4 ads), Mondelez International Group, Simple (2 ads), Merck Sharp & Dohme B.V., Del Monte Foods Inc., GEICO, Otsuka America Pharmaceutical Inc., Kraft (2 ads, p. 121, p. 133), Bayer, Condé Nast (p. 135).

No Copyright: Nordstrom, Condé Nast (pp. 6-7), Essie, Unilever (3 ads), Sunglass Hut, Buffalo David Bitton, AG Jeans, Chanel, Current/Elliot, Forever21, Paula’s Choice, Covergirl BeautyU, Arm & Hammer, Ogxbeauty, Kraft (p. 115), It’s A Ten Haircare, Chevrolet, Epicurious, Wet Brush, Hair Recipes.

Though the un-copyrighted ads tend to be for minor brands, this is not always the case (Chanel, Chevrolet). Some companies or groups even have some of their ads copyrighted and others not, in the same issue (Condé Nast, Unilever, Kraft).

August 2016

Subliminal Junk XII: Transmarginal Advertising

Back to our Subliminal Junk series! (Go to Index for previous issues.)

For an explanation of the title “Transmarginal Advertising,” go to Complements, after Cases 88-95 below.

……………Case 88 Tyrannosaurus Toyota

An advert from the Italian weekly L’Espresso (1st October 2015).

Is it possible to miss the ferocious look of the car, with its headlights designed as brutish eyes and the bumper as the mouth of a furious animal ready to attack? It seems possible, yes, because who would admit, even to themselves, that they buy a car that looks frightful – a car that takes one back to some fantasy prehistoric times when cavemen would be riding dinosaurs to raid on their enemies and exterminate them to the last man?

Here you get an illustration to some scholarly conclusions I find thus expressed: “It is well-known that staring eyes can elicit fear in humans and other nonhuman species (Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989; Aiken 1998) because such patterns are associated with ambushing predators and aggressive conspecifics (Coss 2003). Eyespots are exploited by certain organisms to ward off potential predators and sometimes they are even present in art, architecture, and design (Joye 2007). For example, some car brands seem to tap into these arousing effects by designing vehicles whose headlights are similar to frowning and threatening ‘eyes,’ which can give them a conspicuously aggressive look (Coss 2003; Joye 2007). Recent research by Aggarwal and McGill (2007) indeed confirms that car fronts are perceived as face-like and can express different types of emotions.” (“Evolutionary Store Atmospherics” – Designing with Evolution in Mind, Yannick Joye, Karolien Poels, and Kim Willems, in Evolutionary Psychology in the Business Sciences, G. Saad ed., 2011)

The “seem” in the next to last sentence (“some car brands seem to tap”) is superfluous: They do tap into these effects.

In the last sentence the authors cite some research that tends to show people are conscious of their perception of car fronts as being face-like. No doubt you can, in a psychology lab, draw the attention of people on the fact, but I suggest the perception is not conscious during purchase decision, for a man who would acknowledge he is buying a car because of its threatening and aggressive look would by the same token admit to himself either that he needs to compensate for some deficiencies in his life or that he is a public danger. Besides, if the same man is conscious of the ferocious look of his car, then certainly he can reflect that others will be conscious of it too and that they may make inferences from his choice of such a car to the kind of man he is, namely a man in need of compensation for deficiencies or an outright antisocial person, or both. Therefore, I think the ferocious aspect of the car as pictured in the advert remains largely subliminal. If perceived at conscious level, it will be explained away as unintentional, when it is in reality that sick mind of his that manufacturers and advertisers are tapping.

Case 88

Case 88



……………Case 89 El Corte Inglès SEX

Cases 89 to 92 are taken from the Spanish magazine ¡Hola! (30 September 2015).

El Corte Inglès is a local store chain. I specify it because nothing in the ad would tell you. On this ad you only see a model leaning against the frame of what seems to be a huge mirror. Or maybe it’s just an empty frame, because you see no reflection; instead it’s the same whitish, empty wall inside and outside the frame. And the model is leaning against it. The copy, in Spanish, says “Inspiras otoño,” or “breathe the autumn.” The local store chain advertises its autumn fashion collection.

Yet this is not all. The back of the model’s left hand is in contact with some gilded pattern of the frame. This adornment is an erect penis, of which I have outlined the testes, the shaft and the glans (picture 89-3). What would make you overlook that it is an erect penis is not only the downward direction of the penis but also the somewhat warped proportions of the shaft and glans. No matter how realistic the curvature of the shaft, it tapers at the junction with the glans, which makes the latter look extremely big.

The model is caressing it with the back of her hand. Moreover, the index finger is pointing to the model’s mouth, which may be telling you she is intent on putting the penis in her mouth.

Case 89

Case 89





…………….Case 90 Jo Malone (London) SEX

The copy says that the combination of mimosa and cardamom is “sensual, warm and enveloping.” Fine. Now, strangely, part of the tablecloth is hooked to, I don’t know for sure, either a branch of mimosa or the model’s ankle just behind it (more likely the branch, however). This, in my opinion, is completely crazy. How could the advertisers overlook such a blunder? Couldn’t they just disentangle the tablecloth from the plant or the model’s ankle bracelet before taking the picture? How much were these incompetent fools paid for that shot?

Yet, when you look more carefully at the tablecloth, you see that the fold it is making due to its being entangled with the mimosa looks like an erect penis. It’s not that they needed the hooking to make the fold, because most of the picture seems to have been airbrushed and they could have airbrushed any type of fold they wanted, but they needed a dissonant element to draw your subconscious attention to the subliminal sexual depiction. From the tip of the penis, sperm, drawn as white irregular blots, is spurting (sluggishly). This ejaculation happens on the same spot where the copy’s word “sensual” is written.

Further on the right of the penis, you can see a spectral face on the cloth. The model herself has something eerie about her too. She may be described as been completely thoughtless and emotionless, as if zombified.

Case 90

Case 90





…………….Case 91 Travelkids SEX

Travelkids organizes travels and sojourns “for the family.” Yet, in case you would find it a bit trite, they suggest you may find more excitement than just that. I am not talking about the meeting with Santa Claus, which is the copy line, but of the subliminal embed in the background. A woman is laid with two men. One man is actually lying beneath her; you can see his face, looking at you, between her right thigh and her right breast. The other man’s face is against her face. I have also outlined what seem to be a stretched arm and a hand resting on the woman’s head, hinting at the possible presence of a third man. The man beneath the woman is penetrating her in the anus (picture 91-3). The vaginal slit may be stuffed with a penis too, if you look carefully, but I have not outlined this because I’m not so sure there.

Case 91

Case 91





…………….Case 92 Rabat (Barcelona Madrid Valencia) SEX

The bust shows almost only naked parts, uncovered skin. The pattern of the few centimeters of dress that you can see looks like spermatozoa.

Under her eyes, in the shady area, have been embedded a couple of SEXes which I leave to you to spot.

What I have concentrated on is the subliminal presence, in the background, of a woman wearing only a dark shirt or blouse wide open on her naked breast. The blouse has fallen down her shoulders, slightly, so the shoulders too are largely uncovered. Her left hand is on her vagina. The inclination of the head hints at a moment of abandon. That subliminal woman is masturbating.

Case 92

Case 92




…………….Case 93 Gucci SEX

Cases 93 to 95 are from Cosmopolitan UK Edition, October 2015.

On the left page of this two-page advert for perfume, you can see, beside the name of the brand and the copy (“Underneath it all she wears Gucci Bamboo” – this by itself is eroticism, isn’t it?), a Japanese-like ink print, complete with birds in bamboo trees and grass by a river. The river stream and grass stand for a moist, oozing vaginal slit with pubic hair.

The model on the right page, wearing a risqué evening dress, is looking at you intensely. You too are on the picture, mind you, because albeit you may think the shadow on the wall is hers, whose shadow is it that is on her? There is only one shadow and that’s the shadow of a man with erect penis (outlined on picture 93-2). This is whom the woman is looking at.

Case 93

Case 93



…………….Case 94 Pantene SEX

Are words necessary? I don’t know how to tell you, but there’s not even a façade of propriety in your world. You talk like a person of worth and dignity, and yet that’s the kind of stuff your guests will find in your living room, on the sofa or under the coffee table – depictions of fellatio.

Please take a look at what I wrote on Case 72 (here), where I already discussed the “blow dry” copy. The present advert confirms that I am right. For, yes, it’s a fellatio that you’re seeing just now. And it’s a fellatio that was intended, with that hairdryer and that wide-open mouth. Had it not been intended, there would have been some guy in the staff telling the others: “Shouldn’t we do something to make the picture look less like a fellatio?” And someone would have replied: “Oh yes, it’s true some people will think of a fellatio there! Let’s do something about it.” No, they wanted it that way.

Case 94

Case 94

……………Case 95 Fiat SEX

A female hand is about to apply lipstick to a car rear light. Because, as the copy goes, the rear light is as glossy as lipstick. On the other hand, the stick is about to penetrate the dark space between the red glossy “lining” of the rear light. It’s just another sexual representation.

Why do women put on lipstick in the first place? According to evolutionary psychologists, it’s a way to simulate sexual arousal, since her lips tend to redden and shine when a woman is aroused; such a state of arousal being in its turn sexually arousing for men, lipstick makes women more attractive. It’s like swollen genitals during estrus among certain primate species. Among species with visible estrus, a female can take no rest at these periods because all males want to copulate with her, and even if she’s monopolized by one dominant male he won’t stop copulate with her, in case she would be inseminated by another male despite all his vigilance (and he wants to counter the other male’s semen with his own: this is called sperm competition, see my Science of Sex series).

In echo with Case 88 (Tyrannosaurus Toyota), even though the ad is obviously aimed at women, its copy intends to be alluring to aggressiveness: “The Icon Reloaded. Change the Fiat 500? That’s crazy talk. So we set out to subtly style-up the little beauty. Take a look at the red hot halo-style rear lights with body coloured inserts. Just one of many ferociously fashionable (author’s emphasis) touches that make the new Fiat 500 even glossier. Shine baby, shine.”

Being fashionable is not enough, one has to be “ferociously” fashionable. Many a psychologist (even among evolutionary psychologists) will tell you women are not aggressive… They don’t live in the same world as us, seemingly. Women are aggressive and when they mean business they know how to use men as weapons.

“Icon” can apply both to the car and the customer, that is, the female ad viewer. If the latter needs “reloading,” and that can mean something very organic such as vagina-loading (this is consistent with the whole seduction line of the ad), she’d better reach out for the car.

Case 95

Case 95


Have I the right to make use of all these adverts (95 so far, folks!) without asking permission to no one? I have read several scholarly books dealing (more or less competently) with advertising and they all thank the companies for their kind permission to let them use their material.

On one occasion, when Kentucky Fried Chicken faced a viral campaign on the Web because of a racist ad, first they hinted somewhat ominously at unpermitted use of their advert by the people who launched the campaign. Then they pulled the ad like good boys.

Still, I find it would be strange that the companies that otherwise pay for an advertisement to be made for one of their products and also pay for that advert to appear in various media, object to another medium showing the same material without even asking money for it. To be sure, I take the liberty of making comments on that material, which the other media never do (they take the money and shut up – that’s what they call informing the public). This is why I add here the following excerpt from Eric McLuhan’s introduction to the 2014 edition of Marshall McLuhan’s book Culture Is Our Business (1970):

Many have wondered at the lack of acknowledged permissions for using the ads in both books [The Mechanical Bride and Culture Is Our Business]. The reason is that permissions were unnecessary: the ads were available for free. Editors at Vanguard had found a curious legal fiction. Advertisers were being given huge tax breaks on the grounds that they were engaged in a sort of educational enterprise, “educating the public” about products so that it might better make informed choices. The upshot is that anyone can make use of the (government-supported) ads for free providing they were not being used as ads, but as educational materials, for educative purposes. Needless to say, the agencies were reluctant to let these matters become known to the public.

And, on behalf of advertisers, thank you for the tax breaks.

Whether this legal provision applies to my case or not, I haven’t the slightest clue (under which jurisdiction lies this blog is unknown to me), but I guess that if multinationals want to crush me they have the means. But I, on my side, have nothing to lose. (They perhaps have the means to buy me, as an alternative, who knows?)

I’ve got nothing to lose and besides I’m not alone; there is at least one living dead with me, namely Aldous Huxley, whose book Brave New World Revisited (1958), written about 25 years after Brave New World was published, I urge you to read, especially, regarding the present topic, its chapter IX “Subconscious Persuasion,” which I quote:

Poetzl was one of the portents which, when writing Brave New World, I somehow overlooked. There is no reference in my fable to subliminal projection. It is a mistake of omission which, if I were to rewrite the book today, I should most certainly correct.

Last but not least, a quote from William James on his views about the “transmarginal field of consciousness,” in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902):

Such rapid abolition of ancient impulses and propensities [by religious conversion] reminds us so strongly of what has been observed as the result of hypnotic suggestion that it is difficult not to believe that subliminal influences play the decisive part in these abrupt changes of heart, just as they do in hypnotism. Suggestive therapeutics abound in records of cure, after a few sittings, of inveterate bad habits with which the patient, left to ordinary moral and physical influences, had struggled in vain. Both drunkenness and sexual vice have been cured in this way, action through the subliminal seeming thus in many individuals to have the prerogative of inducing relatively stable change (author’s emphasis). If the grace of God miraculously operates, it probably operates through the subliminal door, then.


Incursions from beyond the transmarginal region have a peculiar power to increase conviction.”

And the money-grubbers would deem it below their dignity to make use of such a powerful tool at their disposal?…

July 2016