- Can’t Ignore Subliminal Ad Charges
Haberstroh, Jack. 1984. Canât ignore subliminal ad charges: adfolk laugh, but students listen. Advertising Age, September 17, 3. Text reprinted with the permission of Advertising Age; illustrations were courtesy of Wilson Bryan Key.
Most of my professional advertising colleagues, I suspect, regard subliminal embedding as nothing more than a fictional flyspeck on a bookcase crammed with advertising memorabilia. The less said about Wilson Bryan Key, author of “Subliminal Seduction,” and his fevered fantasies, the better.
Ignore him, conventional wisdom suggests, and, like the flasher he sees in your martini, he’ll disappear when the ice melts.
The guy’s a crackpot some say. Finds S-E-X all over Ritz crackers. Penises in Parkay patty advertising. Orgies in cocktails. Male and female ice cubes. And fellatio on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Besides, they hint, his books will never sell. No one really believes any of his naughty nonsense. So just clam up and let him rest in peace.
The problem with this is: He and his notions won’t go away!
A youngish 59 years old, Mr. Key has achieved a permanent place in American advertising folklore. Like him, loathe him, he’s here to stay.
He now has written three well selling books on subliminal persuasion, and a fourth is near completion. His first, the watershed treatise on the subject, appeared in 1973. “Subliminal Seduction” now has sold nearly 1 million copies.
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“Media Sexploitation” rolled off the press is 1976 and takes embedding a step further. Not only are subliminals being used in advertising, Mr. Key says, but also in products - including Ritz crackers. This book has sold more than 330,000 copies.
Nearly 200,000 copies of his latest, “The Clam Plate Orgy,” have been sold. The book appeared in 1980 and —for starters - finds S-E-X in Lincoln’s beard, oral copulation in Michelangelo’s Original Sin, a clam plate orgy on Howard Johnson placemats, an erect genital in Picasso’s Woman Asleep, and a giant anamorphic skull in Holbein’s Ambassadors.
“Subliminal Seduction” was christened with respectability when Marshall McLuhan wrote its meandering, but quite flattering, introduction. The book is enjoying its seventh printing and is being sold throughout Central and South American in a Spanish translation.
There are few American or Canadian college campuses that have been missed by the ubiquitous Mr. Key. Often appearing before large standing-room-only crowds, his illustrated lectures now command $3000 fees. He will give between 80 and 90 such major lectures every year and appear in thousands of advertising classrooms along the way.
And although it may be fashionable along Madison Avenue to pooh-pooh the professor - he has taught at universities for 14 years - he continues to spend his controversial gospel on talk shoes. TV, radio, and newspaper reviews of his books have appeared in major cities around the U.S.
Advertising practitioners ignore him at their own risk. Often that ignorance can be embarrassing. Thousands of students are graduating every year thoroughly conversant with Mr. Key, his books, and his theories. Many may have seen or heard him personally. And some are quick to believe the worst about advertising and its practitioners.
Some support for this latter statement can be found in surveys I conducted of students in my classes to whom Mr. Key had lectured. One of every five thought that “the majority of artists and photographers and others involved in the creation of advertising” deliberately were placing subliminal words and symbols in advertising, and that 50% of the students to whom he lectured thought that at least half of all artists willfully were inserting subliminals.
Mr. Key claims that no attack ever made against “Subliminal Seduction: dealt “with my evidence and charges.” It is his so-called “evidence” and a few of his more outlandish charges that I want to address.
He sums up his charges on Page 5 of “Subliminal Seduction” with the indictment of almost everyone charged with creating and producing advertising.
“You cannot pick up a newspaper, magazine, or pamphlet, hear radio, or view television anywhere in North American without being...