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Propaganda in the Classroom
Sex and Death Among the Ice Cubes

Ad Analysis
Scoundrel perfume

I believe that the ad below contains a symbolic subliminal message.  Such a message is transmitted via plainly visible objects or images.  If they exist, these messages appear framed to appeal to our baser instincts, fears and faculties.  Their producers would know from testing and research that the target audience would psychologically repress them; but would hope that at least a certain percentage of viewers will, while consciously ignoring or rationalizing them, subconsciously recognize and respond to them.

The controversy surrounding this type of subliminal stems from a long-running debate over the existence and nature of the subconscious; and from the fact that all things in which humans find symbolic meaning (words, numbers, images, music, etc.) can, and most often do, have multiple meanings.  If you doubt that last statement, open any dictionary; you'll see that almost every word listed has multiple meanings.  We attach specific meanings from the context in which we find the symbol.  When Sigmund Freud famously said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar", I think he meant that in some situations people simply smoke cigars; in others they use them as phallic symbols.  Likewise, the objects that convey subliminal meaning in this ad will have different meanings in other contexts.  You need to ask, does this specific context give it a subliminal meaning?

Review the ad, then think about the answers I've provided to the questions beneath it.  If you disagree with my answers, try to determine what you see that I don't; or vice versa.

  1. What item are you analyzing? An ad for Revlon's Scoundrel perfume
  2. The message you chose to work with is transmitted via (check off all applicable categories)
__X__ written language _____ spoken language _____ music _____ other sound
__X__ image (photo, drawing, etc.) __X__ color _____ other visual _____ other _______________________
  1. The medium used to transmit the message is (check off the type that applies)
_____ book __X__ magazine _____ newspaper _____ mail or e-mail _____ billboard or poster
_____ TV _____ radio _____ film _____ CD, audiotape, etc. _____ other _________________
  1. Who authored the message?


  1. At whom is it targeted?

Women, and the men who desire them sexually

  1. Is it commercial or non-commercial?


  1. In one clear, brief sentence, summarize the message with which you've decided to work.

Using Scoundrel causes a woman to attract men, just like a female ape in estrus attracts males of her species.

  1. Are there other propagandistic messages in this item?


  1. Is the author attempting to elicit a behavior or a belief?


  1. Clearly state the behavior or belief the author wants from the target.

S/he wants women to buy this perfume, or men to buy it for them.

  1. Does the message attempt to manipulate with emotion, reason or both?


  1. Describe how you think the manipulation works?

This very attractive model is dressed in a seductive black, backless dress.  She clearly wants to attract one or more men.  As no wedding ring is visible, she may well be unattached.  Aside from her skin, and the bottled perfume, the only color in the ad is the red mask she is holding behind her.  This fact draws our eye and attention to it.  On the surface, it appears that she might be attending a masked ball or party, and is absent-mindedly holding the mask behind her.  But closer examination shows that this cannot be the case.  When you imagine her moving her hand back to her face to cover her eyes with the mask once again, you'll see that the mask would be upside down.  Also, place your hand in the same position as the one holding her mask.  Such a position feels awkward; it is very unlikely that anyone would absent-mindedly rest a hand like that.  The photographer clearly had her hold the mask in that position for some other reason.  Here is one plausible possibility.

Females of several primate species develop a swollen, red protuberance on their rears, just above their genitalia, during the times of the year when they are sexually receptive.  Additionally, at these times they produce odors that excite the males of their species.  In this context, the red mask, located as it is, and the odor associated with perfume give special meaning to the ad's second line of text, "A major new disturbance."  As males in other species often fight over sexually receptive females, the disturbance could indeed become major.

The producer of this ad probably believes that as primates, human viewers would subconsciously recognize the estrus symbolism and connect the primal urges they'd feel to a conscious desire for this perfume.

Here is how primatologist Dennis O'Neil describes estrus (scroll to the bottom of the linked page to find the section I've quoted here):

"In some species of Old World monkeys and apes, adult females have sexual skins or swellings, which are nearly hairless large swollen patches of skin around the genital area that become very prominent when they are in estrus. These areas swell with fluids and turn bright pink or red due to hormonal changes that occur in preparation for ovulation. The sexual skin also produces odors that excite males of the species. They become highly attentive to the females at this time. In the case of olive baboons, males are most attracted to females with the largest sexual skin bulge. Those females tend to have babies more often and subsequently pass on the genes for this impressive signal of sexual readiness."

His page also displays this picture of a female Hamadryas baboon in estrus.

  1. Do you believe this item was successful propaganda?


  1. What evidence supports your answer to the last question?

This ad ran over time in different magazines.  Advertisers test consumer response to individual ads, and do not reuse those that fail to generate expected sales.

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original web posting: Monday, February 25, 2002
last modified: Thursday, December 09, 2004