The second wave of widespread worry over secret stimuli hit the United States in 1973, when Wilson Bryan Key's popular book Subliminal Seduction resurrected subliminal hysteria. Subtitled Ad Media's Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America, the book charged that the use of hidden messages and images in print ads is widespread and causes millions of consumers to buy more, more, more.
The subliminal mechanism that concerned Key most was the "embed" -- a word, slogan, or symbol inserted faintly -- so faintly it is not perceived -- into advertisements. "You cannot pick up a newspaper, magazine, or pamphlet, hear radio, or view television without being assaulted subliminally by embeds," Key claimed.
Key saw a subliminal conspiracy of major proportions at work. Subliminal stimuli "have been regularly used in the North American media for over twenty-five years without anyone getting wise to what was going on," he wrote. Commenting on the $20 billion then spent annually on advertising, he claimed that "an enormous proportion of this expenditure today is devoted to the research, development, and application of subliminal stimuli with strong sales or manipulative potentialities."
Subliminals infiltrate our minds so often, Key argued, that "as a culture, North America might well be described as one enormous, magnificent, self-service, subliminal massage parlor."
Key's arguments rest on this and other brash claims, such as: "The use of subliminal stimuli as a device for motivating audiences in the various media has reached a high level of technical proficiency" and "We know, beyond any question, that subliminal stimuli sell products." Readers of Keys book will notice that significant questions remain, however. Where is Key's documentation? Are there no witnesses to the preparation of the embeds? If subliminals are used by virtually every advertiser, why can't Key quote just one of them on how they use the tactics? Of the thousands of illustrators and technicians who have staged the multi-billion dollar embedding campaigns, is there not one individual who tired of such deception and came forward with the truth?
Apparently not -- if there is, Key does not cite that person. One researcher who has asked advertising professionals about the controversial advertising method has found no evidence of its use. "I've surveyed more than a hundred ad directors throughout the country, and not a single one has ever worked on a subliminal ad," says Jack Haberstroh, a professor of advertising at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Instead of presenting sturdy evidence, Key backs up his case with a hodgepodge of theories from the fields of communication studies, media criticism, and Freudian psychology, along with a heavy dose of his own ruminations on embeds. He sees them virtually everywhere, and believes they are responsible for many a successful ad campaign:
"The basis of modern media effectiveness is a language within a language -- one that communicates to each of us at a level beneath our conscious awareness, one that reaches into the uncharted mechanisms of the human unconscious.... This is a language that today has actually produced the profit basis for North American mass communications media."
An entertaining aspect of Key's anti-subliminal tirade is its non-stop focus on sexual appeals, overt and covert, in advertising. In a chapter titled "Sex is Alive and Embedded in Practically Everything," Key says that "SEX is the most frequently embedded word in the American advertising industry." He claims the one-word cue for lust is hidden in everything from liquor ads to Ritz crackers, the holes of which he says are arranged during baking to form several depictions of the letters S, E, and X. "Words such as fuck, cunt, ass, whore, prick, and death are also used frequently as subliminal triggers to motivate purchasing behaviors," Key explains.
In his 1980 book The Clam-Plate Orgy, Key announced more subliminal sex findings. The book's title, if you can believe it, refers to a pile of deep-fried clams pictured on a Howard Johnson's placemat. Instead of an innocent plate of seafood, Key saw blatant suggestions of group sex and bestiality -- little people and animals writhing around in ecstasy. In addition, Key argued, the ad copy with the picture was sexually suggestive: "a batch of succulent tender clams"; "Piled high with creamy cole slaw and french fries"; and "They always come... out crispy and crunchy."
Like his allegations regarding the clam-plate picture, many of Key's supposed subliminals seem less than conclusive. In Subliminal Seduction he writes: "Consider a cigarette ad that was designed to appeal to the woman readers of Cosmopolitan... Kent is a strong masculine name, suggesting a solid and distinguished WASP heritage. Simply change the vowel from E to U, however, and Kent becomes the phonetic word symbol for the female genital. Keep this in mind as we review Kent ads directed at both male and female smokers." As Walter Weir, a critic of Key's analysis, retorted in an article in Advertising Age: "Keep in mind also that Kent cigarettes were named after Herbert Kent, president of Lorillard at the time the cigarettes were introduced."
Key's analysis may not be persuasive, but it can jog one's thinking on the subliminal issue. Perhaps the main lesson to be learned from Subliminal Seduction and Key's other books is that if you look hard enough, you can see some arguably suspicious things in all sorts of unlikely places. Anyone who has ever looked for images in the clouds knows the technique. While readers might not become convinced, as Key is, that "embedded words and picture illusions are part of most advertising throughout North America today," they will get an idea of how scary the world looks for those convinced of the pervasive presence and power of subliminal ads.
If nothing else, Key's unique assertions -- for instance: "Bestiality may be illegal throughout most of the world, but, at the symbolic level, it appears to have sold a lot of Sprite" -- have added a hysterically funny ingredient to the heated debate over the danger of subliminals.