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Propaganda in the Classroom
Sex and Death Among the Ice Cubes

Ad Analysis
Newport Cigarettes

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 Newport Cigarettes
  2. The message you chose to work with is transmitted via (check off all applicable categories)
_____ written language _____ spoken language _____ music _____ other sound
__X__ image (photo, drawing, etc.) _____ 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 __X__ billboard or poster
_____ TV _____ radio _____ film _____ CD, audiotape, etc. _____ other _________________
  1. Who authored the message?


  1. At whom is it targeted?


  1. Is it commercial or non-commercial?


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

Newport cigarettes help you get even with that dominating, know-it-all boy friend.

  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 Newports.

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


  1. Describe how you think the manipulation works?

In this ad, the subliminal promise starts with the presence of the bow and arrow.

On the surface, it seems that we simply have a guy giving archery lessons to his girl friend.  His arms are around her, and his hands are covering hers as they grip the bow and bowstring.  Clearly, he is in control.  Or is he?

Look at the expressions on their faces.  She is letting go with a huge laugh, while his appears to be a nervous one.  Why?

When we look at the position of the arrow, we start to see an answer.  It clearly isn't doing what arrows are supposed to do - fly powerfully and quickly towards its target.  No, this one has fallen limp.  Maybe that's why he looks nervous.  Here he is, supposedly knowing all about archery, giving lessons to his girl; and he can't even loose the arrow from the bow.  That would be plausible and embarrassing; but, symbolically, more could be going on.

Arrows are traditional phallic symbols.  They were used by archers, once upon a time the most powerful and respected of warriors, and, as far as I know, always male.  But in this ad, the male's arrow (read penis) is no longer erect and powerful.  It hangs limp; a clear symbol of male sexual impotence.  It is probably not unconnected that some research links smoking with male impotence.  But why would advertisers make such a claim, even subliminally, in an ad?  The answer to that question is all over the female model's face.  She finds the situation uproarious.  But why?  Could it be that a domineering male, seeking to control her (remember the position of his hands and arms) has got his comeuppance at last?

Remember, this ad was produced in the 1970s, the height of the Women's movement in the U.S.  Many women were aware of their subservient position in society and were working hard to change it; but many others were not - at least not consciously.  This ad could easily have been targeted at them.  Consciously unaware of their chains, but subconsciously resenting the positions in which they found themselves; they would be prime fodder for a subliminal promise like the one in this ad. 

As the ad copy states, "After all, if smoking isn't a pleasure, why bother?"  What could be more pleasurable than seeing an oppressor unable to perform?  Maybe the look on his face when he recognizes his inability?  It might just be enough to make a girl buy two packs.  One for herself, and one for him - just in case he needs a little help to bring on that impotence.

  1. Do you believe this item was successful propaganda?


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

This was one in a very long-running series of ads.  Some, targeted at men, showed them deriving pleasure from clearly nervous women.  (See my analysis of a different Newport ad.)  Others showed men symbolically torturing nervous-looking women.  Since advertisers don't waste money on ads that do not generate sales, the longevity of this series attests to its effectiveness.

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original web posting: Tuesday, February 26, 2002
last modified: Thursday, December 09, 2004