Tagged: embedding

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.

Eric McLuhan on Settee with Pet Dog Finnegan

Eric McLuhan on Settee with Pet Dog Finnegan

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: http://www.playboy.com/articles/playboy-covers-guide 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 by Eric McLuhan, you may benefit from these 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.
5 The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
6 Tales of Halloween (2015), collective.
7 Crush the Skull (2015) by Viet Nguyen.
8 Courtesy of Eric McLuhan: a slide from his class on subliminals.

Subliminal Advertising VII: Ghosts from Epinal

At my grandparents’ house, hanging on the wall of the lavatory were a couple of Epinal printings, old images that peddlers used to sell as entertainment, as one would have some pleasant time looking for the hidden objects in them. These printings were quite popular, and some really tricky as riddles, even though the caption or legend told viewers in florid style what object to look for. Thus, family members and guests could enjoy at my grandparents’ house the riddles while in the lavatory.

This may account for my not being very much surprised, years later, as I read Wilson B. Key’s books on subliminal advertising, because the techniques he described reminded me that, in former times, artists from the small French town of Epinal, in the province of Lorraine, did just the same.

Only their goals were different. An innocent game then, it is now utilized to penetrate consumers’ psyches in order to manipulate their purchasing behavior.

In the following case studies, 47 to 52, from the April 2015 issue of the magazine Vogue (American edition), besides a few new cases of sex embeds, I presently extend the scope of the ‘Subliminal Advertising’ series by providing examples of hidden objects Epinal-wise (Cases 51 and 52).

Before, as you may have heard or read about Wilson Bryan Key in dismissing and disparaging terms, if you have ever read or heard of him at all, it will be useful to quote some respected scholars who ackowledge his contribution. The following lines are taken from the book Sex in Advertising, 2003, editor by Tom Reichert and Jacqueline Lambiase. W.B. Key authored a chapter in this book, which is certainly one of his last written contributions (he died in 2008). Interestingly, in the section ‘About the Contributors’, the editors have this to say about him: ‘He is currently CEO of Mediaprobe Inc., an international consulting and educational firm, and is writing a new book on media analysis.’ To my knowledge, the book here alluded to has never been published; it would be great if the manuscript, even if unfinished, could some day find its way to a publisher.


This book also includes original work by Wilson Key, one of the most prolific (and widely read) writers on the issue of sexual embeds in advertising and media [and, in fact, the one author who discovered and exposed the practice. FB]. Key’s writings … have sold millions and influenced not only a generation, but sparked considerable controversy as well. (p. x)

Possible proof of his influence is brought forth by several surveys. One, cited in Haberstroh 1994, a book aimed at discrediting Key’s findings, shows that 62 percent of Americans agree with the statement that advertisers utilize subliminal techniques – and the more educated one is, the likelier he is to agree. According to another survey, cited in Acland 2011 (Acland has read Haberstroh and, like Haberstroh, he finds Key’s ideas ‘kooky’), the figure reaches 81 percent, among which 44 percent believe it has some effect on purchasing behavior. All in all, however widespread Key’s influence might have been, academic and other research and writing on the matter remains strikingly shy, if not nonexistent if one look for books that support the idea and carry on with the work on that direction.

Although sex in advertising is a controversial topic in and of itself, nothing in this area raises more debate than the supposed use of sexual embeds. Often referred to as subliminal advertising, sexual embeds are defined as referents or forms of sexual representation designed to be perceived subconsciously. Common types of embeds include: the word sex; objects that are shaped or positioned like genitalia and sexual acts; and small, hidden images of naked people, body parts, and genitalia. Sexual embeds are integrated into images by ad creators and are intended to go undetected by those viewing the ad. … Controversy pertains to the existence and supposed effects of sexual embeds. (p.25)

Have you heard of the controversy? If yes, was it recently? Do you think the issue is being duly debatted in the public sphere? Do you know of public personalities expressing themselves on the issue?

As embeds trigger unconscious recognition, they stimulate sexual arousal and motivation. Ultimately, observers are motivated toward goal-directed behavior (e.g. movement toward the stimulus). When embeds are consciously detected their power diminishes because viewers’s defense mechanisms are stimulated. (p.27)

Many researchers and advertising professionals consider embeds to be a hoax because controlled research has not substantiated their effects, and they doubt that media professionals intentionally use embeds. … At this point, interested readers are encouraged to review work in sexual embed research to reach their own conclusions. (p.27)

May the present series contribute to interested readers’ reaching their conclusions, knowing extra-lab research on sexual embedding in actual media advertisements is scarce.

……………Case 47 Ralph Lauren SEX

The word sex has been embedded on the crocodile skin-looking material of the lady’s sandal. The color patterns of said material are frankly irregular, hinting at real animal skin. The S and E show up as black marks, whereas the X appears in a white rhombus next to E. The rhombus is made of four of the units that seem to constitute the hide’s scaly texture: these four units’ intersection in the white rhombus makes an X. If you’re not satisfied with this X, maybe you will agree, then, that the next white stain on the right, a bigger one, shows an X-like shape.

As I told you this time I would look for more than mere word embeds, I would like to call your attention to the lady’s left hand. The middle and third fingers are touching a button from the trousers or shirt (it’s not very clear), a button that seems to be the only one of its kind in this particular place. When one remembers that the word ‘button’, in English as well as other European languages such as French (bouton), can designate the clitoris, one is led to infer that the image is meant to be subconsciously perceived, and felt, as a scene of masturbation.

Alluring women via female onanism makes perfect sense in a context where, according to the Hite Report on Female Sexuality, 70 percent of women will never experience orgasm if not by means of masturbation. Of course, the relevant question here is not so much whether said report gives an accurate picture of the reality as whether advertisers tend to opine it does.

Case 47

Case 47

47 - 2

47 – 2

47 - 3

47 – 3

…………….Case 48 Estée Lauder SEX

On this one, I have outlined a banal hairline sex embed on the blonde lady’s head. More can be found on both ladies.

This advertisement, however, triggered my interest for another reason. You can’t see the blonde lady’s hand, so you won’t easily admit she’s grasping the brunette’s buttocks. In fact, her hands may lie slightly below the buttocks, but very close to them, just far enough to defuse any eagerness at indignation. The idea remains the same: Between these two women goes some special intimacy that includes erotic body contact. Unless, of course, the brunette is standing between parallel bars or is a legless cripple who has been carried up on an armchair, on which arms the blonde’s hands are resting, but I think we can safely discard such interpretations although we’d rather advertisers didn’t tap our sex drives with so much compulsion.

Case 48

Case 48

48 - 2

48 – 2

48 - 3

48 – 3

…………….Case 49 Gucci SEX

Another sex embed on sandals. The sandals’ reptile skin material, by the way, color and all, is the same as in Case 47 above. It shows that, intriguingly, Gucci (Kering group) and Ralph Lauren have the same sorts of ideas about shoes at the same time.

Case 49

Case 49

49 - 2

49 – 2

49 - 3

49 – 3

…………….Case 50 Burberry SEX

We have already seen in this series two ads from the same Burberry campaign, involving models Naomi Campbell and Jourdan Dunn Star (Cases 17 and 26). However, contrary to both previous ones, on this ad we can see their uncovered legs. What will we see next? This campaign is a million-dollar striptease.

(The advertisers responsible for this campain might expostulate that they have not launched the different ads in such striptease arrangement, but all more or less together. If this is true, it still allows that a consequent number of people will be exposed to the campaign in the same sequence as has been the case for me.)

Case 50

Case 50

50 - 2

50 – 2

50 - 3

50 – 3

…………….Case 51 Calvin Klein SEX

Now we arrive at Epinal, Lorraine. For Calvin Klein Jeans, the pop singer Justin Bieber is exhibiting his abdominal muscles. In the business jargon we call that a beefcake image: an athletic, scantily clad man. He seems to be admiring his abdominals. Is he? Are you? I guess the huge penis embedded on his abdomen will not leave you indifferent either; you might even dream about it afterwards (Poetzl effect), unless, maybe, I show it to you. (The exact same kind of embed is described in Wilson Key’s book The Age of Manipulation.)

Case 51

Case 51

51 - 2

51 – 2

……………..Case 52 Cadillac CHILD PORN

Now we go where Epinal artists of old would never have dreamt of. In that New Epinal, there is no limit to the wildest fantasies.

This is an advertisement for Cadillac, a General Motors marque. It extends on six pages, three times two, of which I bring forth nb 1 & 2 (picture with legend Case 52) and 5 & 6 (picture with legend 52-4). (Pages 3 & 4 are just bla bla that no one reads: it isn’t even technical information, but pseudo-philosophy in aphorisms: “It is not the critic who counts” etc. This sentence, the first one in the bla bla, intended at most to be read cursorily, perceived but not processed, could actually be construed to effect a subliminal injunction to relinquish critical thinking).

The two pictures distinguish themselves from all other ads on this Vogue issue by their realistic depiction of our urban world and life. Instead of garish, gay dresses, people wear dark, dull clothes, their faces are worn and concerned. It should serve as a reminder, by the way: Why do you buy bright dresses when you know you cannot put them on because you would be regarded like an alien from Mars, would make yourself too conspicuous and thus the target of mean comments? Anyway, this is the real word, from which Cadillac owners withdraw.

To make it a bit more nightmarish, the graphic designer has embedded hidden objects in the pictures. Remember one thing: Most people are taking pains to avoid looking at advertisements, so advertisers must find a way to attract people’s attention in spite of their reluctance and avoidance. One way to do it is to wave hello to the reptilian brain (limbic system), that part of the brain that is permanently scanning its environment, having done the same ever since it has been the survival tool of an ancient primate lurking in primeval wilderness in quest for food and fearing deadly attacks. The reptilian brain will perceive the embeds without your knowing it. Once perceived by the limbic system and thus stored inside the implicit memory system, hidden embeds can tell their little stories undisturbed to our drives and motivations. Expectations with respect to ads, as vapid and insignificant material, in a word as noise (which they are), will contribute to prevent perceptions of embeds from accessing consciousness. So you won’t see the ghoulish faces and zoomorphic demons embedded by mercenary artists in the thousands of commercial messages you are exposed to on a daily basis.

On picture 52-3, I have outlined a few SEXes, but also an eerie face staring at you from a waft of fog, and an awe-inspiring cowlike, bosomy goddess blowing smoke from her nostrils. My outlining is not adequately conveying the actual eeriness of the former face and stare, I find, but my drawing skills haven’t been much exercised as of late.

With respect to picture 52-6, I must ask you to be prepared to anything. The sex embed on the greyish air is nothing. On the left-hand side, between the two realistic-looking, middle-class, dark-clad wretches on foot, one sees a pole, maybe a street lamp. It is given a prominent position in the picture. Not only that, it also displays a large number of confused, black and white forms. These are the forms to which I would like to draw your attention, because it is there the graphic designer has embedded a variety of meaningful images.

At the bottom, two faces are smooching, a man on the left, a woman on the right. The woman has long hair. The man is middle-aged at least, given the baldness on the top of his head.

From the bottom go directly to the top. There I have outlined two ghostly faces. The face on the left is a skull. That on its right is some demonlike fiend.

Below these haunting faces, something very nasty is going on. A young girl is forced to perform a fellatio. The physiognomy of the face, as well as its dimension compared to the penis, indicate a child, unmistakably. This is subliminal child pornography!

Should be enough for the present. Some of you will react like: ‘You want to make us see what you yourself are projecting on the picture, but I won’t.’ To those ones I would like to remind Epinal printings: You won’t see the hidden object in the printing unless you look for it. But it is there. Someone has put it there, not my or your imagination. The trick has been known for a long time.

Case 52

Case 52

52 - 2

52 – 2

52 - 3 with Epinal hidden embeddings

52 – 3 with Epinal hidden embeddings

52 - 4

52 – 4

52 - 5

52 – 5

52 - 6 with Epinal hidden embeddings

52 – 6 with Epinal hidden embeddings

May 2015