Stuart Ewen (Distinguished Professor of Film & Media Studies at Hunter College) interviews Wilson Bryan Key (author of Subliminal Seduction, Media Sexploitation, Age of Manipulation, The Clam-Plate Orgy, and Subliminal Adventures in Erotic Art) at the Park Lane Hotel in New York City on June 29, 2002 about the influence of hidden sexual messages embedded in advertising. The interview covers the following topics: 1) how subliminal images impact the unconscious lives of potential consumers; 2) the extent to which subliminal messages constitute the true locus of persuasion in advertising; 3) the uses of subliminal messages within recent Republican political advertisements; 4) the relationship between “subliminals” in advertising and in the history of art more broadly; 5) the influence of psychoanalytic theory on Key’s thinking; 6) interesting features of Key’s life, including his work in advertising, the hostility that his ideas have garnered from advertisers and academics, and his removal from a tenured professorship at the University of Western Ontario.
I’ve known your work since 1973, when Subliminal Seduction first came out. I teach a course which is a broad social history of the media, and I have a unit within it that deals with advertising and consumer culture. And over the years, after the first lecture in this series, the number of times that students have come up to me after the class and said, “Do you know about this book called Subliminal Seduction by Wilson Bryan Key? It’s amazing!”
And I was just talking to my wife, who teaches in the SUNY system, and she says, “My students have always loved his stuff.”
That book went two-and-half million copies—including translations into Spanish and Japanese.
I would imagine that most people reading this are familiar with you and your work, but for those that aren’t, maybe you would begin by laying out what you see as some of the key premises, or arguments, or discoveries that your work, over the years, has made.
Well, I can do that in terms of how many dirty ads I found last week, or I can talk about the philosophical implications. I think the significance of this, looking back on it now—I have five books on subliminal persuasion—I don’t ever accept anything in this society, or probably in any other society, at face value. Nothing is ever what it appears to be. We’re not taught that. We’re taught to believe, to accept. We’re not taught to discriminate between reality, which is hard to find anymore, and fantasy. Our fantasies now are far more engrossing, far more entertaining, far more stimulating. Reality is a drag, let’s face it. So we have doctored up reality to a point, and I think you get this most disturbingly out of young people, who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing. This condemns them to a lifetime experience of endless bouts of consumerism—buying, buying, buying, in order to save money—and never realizing that they are caught in a major paradox. So, I think what I have poked my fingers into in these five books is human gullibility — which we exploit to an unbelievable degree. Our present president of the United States got himself elected by one vote from a mole his father had planted on the Supreme Court way back. Of course, his father is a former CIA director, he knows about these things. Bush used subliminals in his campaign commercials. If you walk into a TV studio and you say the word “subliminal,” they will kick you out. They’ll try to get rid of you, because all their advertisers are doing it, and they don’t want to deal with the subject. The advertising director on [George H. W. Bush’s] campaign was Alex Castellanos. He’s one of the world’s noted authorities in the advertising industry on subliminal persuasion. He did a campaign for Jesse Helms against a black candidate in North Carolina, where he used subliminals.