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Propaganda in the Classroom
Sex and Death Among the Ice Cubes

Ad Analysis
Decade 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 Decade 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.) __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 __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.

Smoking Decade will satisfy any subconscious death wish you may harbor.

  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 Decades.

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


  1. Describe how you think the manipulation works?

Like the previous Parliament cigarettes ad,  this ad uses browns and oranges - fall colors; fall being the time of year when many plants die back and prepare for winter.  Once again the planet is barren and we see a setting sun.  However, in this ad there is one living thing visible - that tobacco plant looking quite healthy near the horizon.  Maybe that part of the message tells us, "In the world of death it brings, tobacco lives on."

There are some other interesting death symbols present.  The open white box with the word "Decade" on its side looks suspiciously like a coffin awaiting a body and a lid.  The tobacco ostensibly being rolled into a cigarette paper, could represent a dead body being wrapped in a "winding sheet" - a traditional way of preparing bodies for burial.  And then there is the product name.  Here is its pronunciation as shown in the American Heritage Dictionary:

Please note that two pronunciations are shown.  The second (primarily used in British English) is very close to that of the word we spell "decayed".  (I must give credit for that insight to a person who attended one of the presentations at which I showed this slide.)

Finally, look at the big D on the package.  The phrase "the Big D" was at one time a relatively well-known euphemism for death.  Maybe it still is.

  1. Do you believe this item was successful propaganda?

Probably not.

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

I don't recall that Decade cigarettes survived in the market place for very long.

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original web posting: Thursday, February 28, 2002
last modified: Thursday, December 09, 2004