Tagged: figure-ground ambiguity

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).

dalibustofvoltaire-2

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.

vw-2

Magritte

magritte-2magritte2-2

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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.

fly-2

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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…

bencasey-2

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.

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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.

familycircus-2

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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.

beefeatergin-2

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.

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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…

winner-2

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After the laughter has died down, comes this one…

From erect to flaccid.

macho-2

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

Twinkle did several with the same theme.

twinkle-3

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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…

chatelaine-3

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

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Variations on a theme…

jacket2-2

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aftersix-2

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.

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Here’s one for today…
No comment needed.

bols-2

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.

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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.

lipstick1-2

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.”

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lipstick2-2

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…

lipstick3

The field is rich.

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lipstick4-2

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.

Hilarious!

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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:

lipstick5

Second, uncircumcised:

…in the inset on the right side.

lipstick6-2

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

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

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Is that a thumb?

redken-2

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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.

lobster-2

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.

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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.

woolworth-2

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.

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

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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.

brando-2

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

January 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.

Regards,
Eric

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
premonitionShroomsposter
 cabinfever
 riseofthegargoyles
 thetownthatdreaded.
talesofhalloween
 .
crushtheskull
.
subskull
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.