Authors who have written on subliminal advertising, such as Wilson Bryan Key, pioneer in the field, (Subliminal Seduction, 1973; Media Sexploitation, 1976; The Clam-Plate Orgy, 1980; and The Age of Manipulation, 1989), and August Bullock (The Secret Sales Pitch. An Overview of Subliminal Advertising, 2004), adopted a Freudian viewpoint on the subject, assuming that the analysis made by advertisers themselves were on those kinds of lines. My guess is that this assumption is based on Vance Packard’s exposure of The Hidden Persuaders (1957), in which for the first time the public was made aware of the extent with which so-called motivational research (MR) was used in commercial advertising; Packard seemed to believe MR was based on psychoanalysis. However, reading Ernest Dichter’s (one of the first practitioners of motivational research) best known book The Strategy of Desire (1960) brings no confirmation of the importance of psychoanalysis in the latter’s thought. In that book, Freud and psychoanalysis are mentioned a couple of times, not in a subservient way, and indeed Gestalt psychology is mentioned oftener and seems to have exerted a greater influence.
Among the people presented by Packard, “the most genial and ingratiating of all the major figures operating independent depth-probing firms,” motivational researcher James Vicary, started, the same year as The Hidden Persuaders appeared, a business called Subliminal Projection Corporation, intended to sell subliminal projectors for television and the silver screen. However, public outcry made him cancel his plans. Today, subliminal techniques, in the US, are prohibited on TV — but not on cinema (see Bullock): What makes the difference relevant according to the law? one may ask. As to paper advertising, it goes undisturbed.
There is no need to resort to Freudian unconscious in order to explain subliminal advertising, and the fact that Key and Bullock rely so much on that theorizing is a weakness rather than a strength, since the validity of specific psychoanalitic theses is quite shaky, to say the least (see H.J. Eysenck).
Our brain is made of several parts, corresponding to different stages of our evolution. The most archaic part is what we call the “reptilian brain,” located in the brainstem. Mammals have it in common with reptiles, birds, and fish. The two other parts are the paleocortex or limbic system (emotions) and the neocortex (thinking). It is sometimes talked of an “old brain” (as limbic system including the brainstem a.k.a. reptilian brain) and a “new brain” (neocortex). The reptilian brain is the organ of survival: In remote life conditions, it was continuously scanning the environment in order to detect threats and objects of vital interest. In primates and humans, it is visual. Researches have shown that it visualizes objects even before these enter our consciousness. The principle of subliminal images is that they are visualized by the reptilian brain without entering our consciousness. Advertisers believe this can impact consumer behavior (the “sovereign consumer”), relying on what is known as the Poetzl effect, according to which subconsciously vizualized images are stored in an unconscious memory whence they may influence behaviour.
……………………………… Case 1 Beachcomber (from French weekly Le Point, March 12, 2015)
A happy family is going to the beach. There might perhaps be something striking in the fact that her bath suit is a bit too large for the girl on the right, and one does not see clearly either what the smiling lady is looking at, she seems to be gazing either in the void or just before the man’s pelvis, that is at his erect penis, but these, I would say, are only suggestive, non-subliminal or half-subliminal tricks. There is, however, a subliminal SEX painted on the man’s shirt. (First picture shows the ad, second picture shows the shirt, third picture shows the shirt with the SEX delineated so you can compare with picture 2.) (Click To Enlarge)
…………………………….. Case 2
From Time Magazine, March 30, 2015, on a Briefing page (12), a soda can is shown to illustrate a news on diet sodas. Although it is not brand advertising, it is some all brands-encompassing advertising for soda consumption, and one can find SEXes painted at the bottom of the can. On picture 3, one SEX has been delineated, forming a straight line; an alternative SEX is on picture 4, with same S and E but X taken from above so the three letters form a triangle. Other S, E and X, even bigger than these ones, can be picked up.
……………………………. Case 3
From Time Magazine, March 30, 2015, p.46, the following picture of three actors from a movie presented on p.45. People in the media call it film criticism, some other people call it advertising. Whether subliminal techniques are required for film criticism, I don’t know, but I can see SEXes in the picture, in the background on the left, where some shady area is apparent, inside of which clouds of embedded letters can be perceived. Several overlapping SEXes pop up, of which I have delineated one.
………………………………. Case 4 Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group (from The Economist, March 27, 2015)
It’s only a lady (she might be famous but I don’t know her, sorry) looking at us or someone from inside a car. All is trim and neat in the picture, except for a little chrome bar on the right side below the window, where some small graffiti are visible. When you look closer, you can see three letters, X, S, E, which makes a SEX puzzle (for your reptilian brain to play with).