Tagged: Eric McLuhan

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 2: Material from Eric McLuhan’s Class on Subliminals

In World Premiere: Eric McLuhan says his say about subliminal messages (here), Professor Eric McLuhan talked about his class on perception and subliminals at Ontario College of Art (OCA) in the seventies.

In this correspondence he says he was using a carrousel tray of 80 slides to familiarize his students with the subject. In the mean time, he digitized this material and has been kind enough to email me some of the slides, allowing me to publish them on this blog as another world premiere.

In these slides readers interested in the topic of subliminal messages as used in our mass culture will find not only fine examples of subs’ occurrence in advertising but also a method for their research.

Prof. McLuhan’s comments on his material will appear in italics. In some cases I have allowed myself to add a few remarks.

The first slide he sent me from his carrousel has been already added to my previous World Premiere post as item nr 8 from the posters file.

Then he sent me this painting from Salvador Dali, Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (1940), which, incidentally, I had already mentioned in my subliminals series (Subliminal Junk X, Case 74 here).


I can name at least two more Dali’s paintings in the same vein: 1/ Metamorphosis of Narcissus; & 2/ Swans Reflecting Elephants. You can google them. Also, at the small Dali Museum in Montmartre (Paris), there is an anamorphosis: A butterfly is painted which reflection on a vertical metal tube transforms into a grinning Harlequin’s face.

Then Eric McLuhan sent me the following.

I generally approach the matter of embedding from the angle of visual puns. Doing so allows the discussion to proceed minus the annoyance of moral indignation.





Then, the word FLY embedded in the intervals between the figures…

I find it really useful as a demo of embedding technique because the object is not presented as a figure but as a pure product of use of interval (ground) and con-figuration.



Here’s another example of embedding that uses con-figuration–that is, ground. The only elements that are to be taken literally appear in the centre strip. From a Ben Casey cartoon.

The Ben Casey exemplifies how an assemblage of disparate elements can be used to compose an image not implicit in any one of them–exactly how subliminals are constructed when a gearshift lever or a baguette serves as a penis, etc…


The mouth and nose of the four-square face is provided by a lamp in the bottom-right square. The bottom-left square, it’s other (rather undefined) deco elements and at the same time the chin.


I use this one, the Family Circus cartoon, to introduce the notion of the “beholder’s share” in completing the image, whether done consciously, as here, or unconsciously, as in the usual round of subliminals in ads.



Let me close with a dandy, one of the most subtle subliminal ads ever made. For Beefeater gin.

The Beefeater ad is an excellent example of an ad designed to be ignored. As such, it does its work while the beholder is occupied elsewhere, in this case, with reading the column of print on the left. The ad itself can be grasped in a second or two at most: there is nothing there, just a few fragments of a situation. The bottle cap, the martini glass and olive and its reflection, the single word. The beholder fills in the rest and thereafter relegates the entire to the area of inattention so the ad continues to work for the next minute or two or three as he reads the print. The entire ad is subliminal.


I get Eric’s point all right, yet my feeling, as I was searching for a subliminal embed, was, perhaps based on a misconstruction of the word “dandy” he used, that the picture was very appealing. I fancy some people may like to linger gazing at it. It magnifies the glass of gin as pure light on a background of unmitigated darkness. The reflections have been airbrushed to produce a vertiginous effect of infinite light-beam plays. It’s a diamond. A diamond for cheap. Real art, I would say. Abstract art. Clean, uncluttered style. It takes a lot of work to streamline an object like this, even if on paper only.


Here are a couple more from the slide tray. I think you’ll enjoy them.

The first is a fake, a send-up: I use it to set up the next two…



After the laughter has died down, comes this one…

From erect to flaccid.



And then this one… (From Good Housekeeping, I think.)

Twinkle did several with the same theme.



The academic reaction to my lectures on subliminals were generally, er, disappointing. Or downright dismissive, to put it mildly. Not serious scholarship. Mind you, I avoided the moral approach entirely and pursued the practise in terms of art technique and visual ambiguity. But the literati, it must be noted, have a profound distaste for puns, visual or otherwise.

Speaking of which…


And in Chatelaine, of all places! Tsk, tsk!
The jock strap as Tote Bag–or is it vice-versa?


Variations on a theme…




The essay to be written (or spoken) on this one is easy, and obvious…
No wedding rings
They’ve been to a party / ball
They’re going to her place
He’s focused outwardly; she, inwardly…

‘How do you know they’re going to her place, I asked. The groceries she’s holding?’

Yes, it is the fact that she is carrying the groceries, cradling the genitalia, clutching the milk to her breast, that tells the story. Normally, the gentleman would carry the bags.


Here’s one for today…
No comment needed.


It seems even more outrageous that advertisers talked of “dirty minds,” about the very few people who voiced their suspicions, given such transparent items…

Hard to believe, isn’t it? The best way to hide something is to put it in plain sight.

Of course they say you have a dirty mind. What else can they say–unless they admit to being naughty?

Tsk, tsk!

Wink wink nudge nudge.


Lipstick ads can usually be counted on to provide a sandbox for the embedders to play in. Here’s a rather exuberant example…

Hey, sport, how’s the old stick?

Moisture-soft lips? Come ON…

Hour after hour? And this was before Viagra and its companions.


The background here again is important. Whereas on the Bols ads the figures (objects: groceries, baguette, bottle and tennis balls…) told the story, here the lipstick is, to be sure, a phallic shape, yet somewhat remotely so. It needs the “moisture” Eric is talking about to specify the effect, and it is provided by the white, marble-like veins of the background wall and their “spurt effect.”



Here is the copy to consider. Meaning subliminal oral sex in the lipstick pointing toward the model’s mouth is not per se sufficient, methodologically speaking, because in any case it is the vocation of lipstick to be applied to the lips, which would make all lipstick ads subliminal. (It would be like saying everything is sexual, like Freudians: eating is a sexual pleasure [orality] etc.)

The copy is about a “big love stick.” Double entendre. The advertiser, however (an imaginary advertiser who would go beyond the ‘dirty mind’ stance), might reply that there is a dissonance in that construction, because of “quick”: doing it quick is not a favorable attribute for a “love stick”… But perhaps it is meant that the stick is quick to get hard, hence that it is a healthy stick and that once it is hard it will not be soft again before a long time… The stick is quick to be a love stick.

Bear in mind that almost every reference to lips in these contexts is also a double entendre: facial lips and genital lips. As, for example, in the Sportstick ad, or in this one (inviting cunnilingus). See also the next few…


The field is rich.



This one deserves prolonged meditation: it is loaded.

First, note the manufacturer is Chap Stick.

Here we go again: same ballpark as SportStick…. Same tune, different key.

Composition: standard eye-leading: eye is led from top left to bottom right. Plunge — Wet Wet — Quencher, Chap Stick–and so down.

The model strides over a gap in the pavement: legs apart. Through that gap/between her legs there gushes a waterfall, a torrent of foamy liquid.

She is airborne (ecstatic?): only the very tip of one toe touches the ground.

The headline tells the reader to take a plunge. Figuratively of course as the depth of this water is an inch or less. But “take the plunge…”

So Chap Stick / Lip Quencher provides the wet wet world–and there they go with lips again. Really subtle!

Now turn to the copy for the second course.

Headline: Come and enjoy MOIST LIPS. Only it has to be read aloud in a suitably excited voice: COME! and enjoy MOIST LIPS.

(Remember the waterfall…)
(Pause for emphasis)
(there’s those lips again).

Then: Once you enter our wet wet moist lips   world, …

It continues,
Chap Stick is
drenched with protective emollients,
overflowing with creaminess,
to soften your lips and keep them lusciously moist.
In mouth-watering creams…

Enough said.



Here are two cliches from the lipstick ads. Lipsticks not only have a very useful name (lips + stick) and set of suggestive (symbolic) phallic associations, their very ubiquity and familiarity blocks the readers’ imaginations from seeing them as anything else.

First, circumcised:


Second, uncircumcised:

…in the inset on the right side.


Also, there is the usual double-entendre about lips, and so on.

Check the main headline: Put your lips in our hands…


Is that a thumb?



It’s amazing, the variety of contexts in which male genitalia can be used!

It’s a visual pun. Puns are the essence of our subject.


This shape can be related to the “super deformed” genre from some Japanese mangas and video games, a type of normed caricature. It’s fine “super deformed” genitalia. I suggest to use this grid when looking for subliminals.


There’s a nice (and innocent, for once) subliminal embed in the top left corner, behind and just below the word, “tu”–a man’s face.


The point is, you examine the model’s expressions and demeanour, and ask, what is on her mind, what is she grooming for? The answer is there, connected to “tu”–second person (male in this case) and very singular. Her dream companion.

There is nothing naughty about this ad or the use of the subliminal (or nearly sublimninal) image since readers can easily discern the ghostly boyfriend if they pay attention. It is just a nicely-orchestrated composition.

I have my own interpretation on this one. The ‘dream companion’ is in the gloom. As I guess people will tend to look at the model, they won’t notice the face in the background. When they see it, for those who do see it, it must be startling, like a spook coming out of the dark… He looks befuddled, as if not well awoken from his eternal sleep. Or sad and melancholy: The man is a suicide. Men will die for this woman. She’s a witch. “Tu” is the informal/intimate you, but also the masterly, the superior you. The advertiser intended to convey a sense of power, magic power and power over males. That the man stands in the dark could also mean the woman will be the one who shines in that pair.


My heartfelt thanks to Eric McLuhan for sharing and commenting this material.


Then there is this.

Just remembered–the very first issue of OUI mag, in 1972, featured a brazen subliminal that might interest you, inasmuch as there was little or no recognition of it–the embed, that is. OUI was published by Playboy.

From Amazon

It is a simple subliminal: open the centerfold and hold it up to the light. One side is a reclining nude. The other has a drawing of Marlon Brando in a rather odd pose. With the light shining through, you see Mr Brando performing cunnilingus on the model.

You might like to add this one to your collection.

I ordered the copy and saw the embed all right. I was to take a picture of it when Prof. McLuhan sent me the picture he himself had taken and just retrieved. Here it is.


For more cases go to Index and my posts in the Subliminals Series.

January 2017