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


  1. florentboucharel

    Dr Eric McLuhan, whom I contacted about the point raised in his 2014 text and here discussed, has had the kindness to answer, for which I express to him my heartfelt gratitude. Here is his email (August 15, 2016):

    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.


  2. florentboucharel

    Another kind email from Eric McLuhan, in which he tells me he actually taught subliminal advertising in his classes!! Wow, that is big news! Enjoy!

    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.


  3. florentboucharel

    In this email (August 17, 2016), Eric McLuhan explains that he has never published anything as of yet on the content of his classes about subliminals, so the writings here posted are a world premiere!! Make sure you let your friends know!

    Dear Florent,

    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 opccasionally 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!


  4. florentboucharel

    Exercise your skills on Playboy covers.


    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.


  5. florentboucharel

    Case 98: “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.” Nathan Bell ( emailed me (Aug 14): “I think the model in the L’Oreal ad is holding an American football helmet.” I thank him for that; living in Europe, an American football helmet is not something that would come to my mind. Yet I am sure in real life a snow-white football helmet is an oddity, so the advertisers may well have meant to carry the idea of a skull.

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