Tagged: embeds

World Premiere 2(b): Material from Eric McLuhan’s Class on Subliminals 2

Hi there!

With Prof Eric McLuhan’s permission we continue disclosing the material related to subliminal advertising that he discussed in his class. The first part of this disclosure is available here.

Same as before, his words are in italics, my own remarks in romans.

Without further ado, the floor is his!


Another nice, innocent one.

All the action is, of course, in the glass, in the center two bands.

The scene is romantic: a couple stands on the beach, holding hands and observing a sunset. They are Giacometti-like stick figures, not fully depicted characters. In the distance, in the band above them, they see a square-rigged sailing ship silhouetted under full sail. Romance, nostalgia–nicely executed.

Interesting ambiguity in the copy line, don’t you think? “This country” could be anywhere the ad appears.



Playboy didn’t confine its naughtiness to Oui magazine: they dabbled a bit in their signature mag.


It’s the same technique as here (at the end), with one side, the centerfold, being the nude model and the other side ‘’completing’’ the centerfold subliminally. Here the centerfold is completed by a rather impressive penis penetrating the model in the guise of an airplane. The plane’s tail even provides an optical curvature.


Not all of the subliminals concern sex. Some, a much smaller number of course, work the other end of the life spectrum: death. I’ll send some examples in the next few days.

This Crown Royal ad ran for the longest time. It was everywhere, for over a year. Ad agencies have big budgets, but they are not known for throwing good money after bad, so it must have shown enduring results.

Possibly one reason is that it hands the beholder a subliminal double-whammy of symbols.


Sex and death in the same ad is a rarity: they usually occur in isolation.

All the action is in the bottom half of the page.

Sex is invoked in dozens of ways in ads; death, uses a smaller vocabulary of symbols. One of the main ones is “the hidden enemy”–silent, stealthy underwater creatures such as sharks. Coupled with the threat from the animal is the threat of drowning.

In the bottom left corner, above and left of the word “Have”: a large aquatic predator emerges from the sea (of spilled booze), jaws agape. Big enough to swallow the companion figure on the right. All we see is the head, but that is enough to prod our imaginations to fill in the rest.

To the right, a nude female beckons. Above the words “man cry?” is her torso; from waist to shoulders is clear enough. The right breast is silhouetted, and the left shoulder and arm. The head is obscured but there are vague hints of one in the place where a head ought to be found. Below the torso the legs are evident, and open. The right leg extends from tip of toe, above “Have,” to crotch, above “man.” There, we can see the beginning of the left leg, and imagine the rest.

I think the copy offers a rather strong instance of flimsiness and mere pretext, for the deeper, subliminal content offered by the broken glass and spilled liquid as a good milieu for embeds.


Along similar lines is this one, which you might call The Specimen.


A glass of Puerto Rican Rum splashed over some ice cubes.

The colours are at the cold end of the spectrum–purple, sliver, black: nothing warm or cozy or inviting here.

The exception is dramatic, the red and beige label with the letter A on the side of the glass, which immediately suggests a laboratory instead of bar. The copy at the bottom boasts that the advertisers performed a properly “scientific” quantitative experiment concerning the rum, hence the symbolic  labelled glass. The professional emotion inside a lab is supposed (by the layman) to be comparatively cold, distant, objective.

The death end of the spectrum.

Closer inspection of the glass discloses that the liquid teems with action: it is a virtual aquarium, beginning with the whale (by the tail fins) at the very bottom. In all, altogether about a half dozen fish of various sizes.


A roll(ed cigarette) in the hayloft

Do you remember EVE cigarettes? For a brief time, tobacco manufacturers tried marketing fags designed for fems. Another (slightly earlier) brand was Virginia Slims. Men did not, as a rule, buy or use these brands, though there was only slight difference between these and other cigarettes, other than size. Pricing was competitive with regular cigs. EVEs were introduced in the early ’70s.

This ad is rather rich in symbolism and subliminal suggestion… Let’s take a walk through it. It is nicely crafted, and not overly subtle.


Right off, we have a woman lounging in/beside a stable–traditionally a male preserve. Leather pants–more often menswear than womenswear. (A hint of transvestism.) The hank of rope suggests a bridle–for tethering or leading a large animal. This ad is aimed specifically at women. No men here. The model is looking straight at the female reader–a direct, inviting gaze, nothing demure or hesitant about it, as if to say, “come on; try it!”

Eve–the original Eve–was daring, and a temptress. Never mind that it got her into trouble. She dared–to do forbidden things, to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This contemporary Eve is standing, leaning against a post with one leg cocked, i.e., legs somewhat apart. Self-assured, relaxed, in charge.

The headline announces that “There’s a little Eve in every woman”–a little of the daring, the feminine curiosity, the temptress, the unconventional (unconventionality was a selling point at the time).

OK so far.

“Eve” is spelled two ways. As EVE, it refers to the product; as Eve it refers to the woman in the Biblical Garden. The designers are careful to observe this distinction.

Two packs of cigarettes are shown, edge to edge, simulating a book lying open. The text there consists of a garden with Eve prominently displayed. The book, symbolically, naturally, is the Bible and it is open to Genesis and the tale of Eve in the Garden of Eden. No Adam in sight. But there are two Eves, one on the left page and one on the right, side by side in a bed of flowers… The cigarettes displayed also bear the word EVE and the signature band of flowers. The Eve posing here holds one which she has been smoking.

Note that she too is decked in flowers: her jacket mimics the pattern on the package. She and the two EVEs (and the tobacco) are simply rolling in flowers. and the copy line, an injunction, suggests another kind of roll in the hay. Be daring, unconventional… “Try today’s Eve [the woman, by the spelling]. Flowers on the outside. Flavor on the inside.”

Enough said?


Ads play endlessly (pun intended) with the bookends of the life spectrum in their hijinx with subliminals and symbols. To wit, death, and sex. Picking up the Garden of Eden theme and (lesbian) sex theme in the EVE ad, here’s one from the other end.

The model, made up to simulate a death mask, holds a symbolic apple in her hand (the bottle is apple-shaped). Or rather on her hand.

Hand and forearm clearly imitate a serpent.

Serpent + apple are pretty overt echo of the illicit antics in the Garden. Floral pattern on the arm suggests (Edenic) foliage.

And–death motif–the product is named Poison.

The message: take Poison–make it that special “something within you.”

There’s more, but that’s the essence.


Could there be an appeal to the murderer within the woman as well? Poison has always been the “weapon” of the frail sex. Many examples in French and Italian cultures (Naples widows &c).

Another association of ideas from this funerary scene is that of Egyptian tombs, sarcophagi, and mummies, hence of embalming and countering the effects of time, i.e. of aging. Being frozen in eternal beauty.


Another flower from the Garden

Here’s another bit of Garden material. In the 60s and 70s, there was a lot of concern about health and exercise, and the tobacco companies were having a rough time of it. So they all began to emphasize health in every imaginable way in their advertising. It was the dawn of the Green Era.

This ad is for Craven M cigaretes. (M for Menthol–very cool!)


The setting is Edenic, a “natural” setting with all the knobs and whistles: green foliage, flowers, a waterfall (not too large). It fairly screams HEALTHY! Clean air, cool and humid, as the copy emphasizes.



                most refreshing!

Even the package sports the colours white and green.

Overall impression: healthy, natural, clean.

And they boast that the cigarettes have “Just a single drop of menthol.” What could be better?

Everyone knows that cigarettes are bad for the health of the smoker. Reports of people dying from lung disease are too numerous to be ignored. Warnings were appearing on the packages.

The sinister element in the ad, the bit that connects it to death, is on the cigarette itself. Notice the print just below the filter. There is the crown logo followed by the name of the product, Craven M.

The two cigarettes have been rotated ever-so-slightly and the package tilted so that you can read only the end of the name: you see VEN.M on each of the cigarettes displayed. Venom–as in snake venom. It is pure, alright: pure poison.

And the snake is an age-old fixture of The Garden. In this case, lurking in the shadows, off-stage. And the “single drop” is displayed too…

Menthols make 32% of the market (2011), a big share, and women are 1.6 times more likely than men to smoke menthols.

Another study shows that women more than men smoke for the non-nicotine effects of tobacco such as the taste of smoke: “Compared to men, women may smoke less for nicotine and more for the non-nicotine effects of smoking like seeing and smelling tobacco or social pleasures involved in smoking rituals.” (Dr Firuza Parikh, quoted in The Times of India, July 13, 2011)

Advertisers probably deal with the product accordingly. I’d like, then, to spin a little further my yarn about poisoner women (it complements Eric’s analysis and does not negate it in the least). Venom for sale appeals to beings who undergo constant venom depletion within their bodies and need constant replenishment. The message is: Refill your venom glands with Craven M, madame.

It’s like the previous ad: ‘’Something within you is Dior’’ – when the Dior product in question is named Poison. ‘’Something within you is poison,’’ and it’s mighty precious to you!

In French (Dior’s country), ‘’une poison’’ (feminine use, while in its common usage the word is masculine) is a mean woman. In that usage it is a little antiquated, so it won’t ring a bell to the average French shopper (one has to be a little bookish), and the appeal to the meanness of one’s truest self –‘Be yourself, la Poison!’’– is not so obvious either.


Another corpse

Ok, then. Here’s another corpse to consider.
This is an ad for… Opium.


Plain and simple.

For a while, they played with the idea of the inner trip (as here, the Opium user) as a form of death.

The body is frankly corpse-like (I’ll tell you why), yet the name ‘’Opium’’ is somewhat misleading because it associates with catatonic inner trip rather than with, first thing, death.

The name ‘’Opium’’ invites you to construe the scene as depicting a woman high on a trip–in ecstasy. Yet, at the same time, your brain will not fail to register the absence of all paraphernalia associated with opium-smoking or any other intoxicating indulgence. There’s not even a pillow. It’s just a (pale) woman lying flat on her back (not crouching), and for all we know she may be lying on the naked ground. Just like a corpse after sudden, unexpected death.

And I’m sure you can poison someone with opium! Like, say, a rival: the corpse in the picture…

February 2017





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 Tales of Halloween (2015), collective.
6 Courtesy of Eric McLuhan: a slide from his class on subliminals.