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Propaganda in the Classroom

Sex and Death Among the Ice Cubes:
Subliminal Messages in Advertising
(jump to the ads)

You'll probably find the ideas and analysis in this section controversial.  The thought of subliminal manipulation frequently excites passionate reaction.  Some embrace these ideas immediately, others react with horror and disgust.  I hope you won't accept or reject anything blindly.  I only ask that you consider rationally what you'll see and read.  If you feel the desire to reject something out of hand, resist doing so.  Instead, generate as many alternate explanations as you can (working in small groups makes this much easier), then test each logically and rationally to determine which best fits the facts.  Remember that advertisers spent tens of thousands of 1970s dollars to create each ad I've included below, then hundreds of thousands or millions more to place them where they'd be seen.  You also need to remember that if subliminal messages were in fact included in these ads, they were most likely intentionally hidden from conscious perception.  (It is conceivable that in the case of some symbolic subliminals, the creators acted unconsciously.)  If the theory is correct, for them to work, it is necessary that our subconscious minds "see" them while consciously we ignore them.

On the whole, advertising may be the most carefully constructed of all human communication; it is certainly the most expensive.  The press likes to comment on the cost of motion picture and television production, but common sense (as well as research) tells us that advertising costs more to produce.  After all, in our culture it supports entertainment production and presentation.  Second for second, the cost to produce an ad is more than that to produce a feature film or TV show.  Therefore, it shouldn't be surprising when we find that more care (and consequently more cost) is devoted to the minute details in an ad than to those in either a TV episode or a feature film.

Like most people, advertisers sometimes like to discuss their work.  Reading the descriptions some have given of how particular ads and campaigns were created (caveat: before using this article with your students, review it for age-appropriate language and ideas - a good idea in general, but especially for links in this section of the site), we see that every component of an ad is carefully constructed and placed, sometimes deceptively so.  So before automatically rejecting a subliminal explanation for the presence of something, try to find a better one to explain its appearance.

I've titled this section Sex and Death Among the Ice Cubes because it is based in large part on my reading of the work of Wilson Bryan Key.  While I do not believe that attempts at subliminal manipulation are as common as Key asserts, I find the contents of a small number of ads impossible to explain reasonably in any other way. 

Key singles out ice cubes because, as something most of us rarely attend to consciously, they make perfect objects for subliminal tinkering.  As a psychologist, researcher and former advertiser, Key knew that photographers take large numbers of photos in order to give ad agencies and producers the selections they need to get just what they want in a particular ad.  Doing this takes time.  Since ice melts over time, especially under the heat generated by the lamps used to light photographers' sets, advertisers prefer to use substitutes of one sort or another.  Thus, what appears to be ice in an ad is either some sort of plastic prop, or is artistically added to the photograph (or enhanced in it) after the shutter snaps.

Sex and Death are topics of universal human interest.  In western culture they are also taboo.  I'm certain that many of you will think about contemporary entertainment, then question my sanity for choosing to write the last sentence.  Nonetheless, I stand by it.  The gratuitous sex and violence on display in print, film and television correlates to human experience almost as much as the appearance of models in ads correlates to the appearance of the average man or woman on the street; which is to say close to zero.  We are usually encouraged to repress our questions and fears about both sex and death, often to the detriment of our mental health and personal relationships.  Key asserts that advertisers know this, and use it to manipulate us subconsciously.

Here is how I summarize the argument Key makes in his books.  Please be aware that I do not have the educational or vocational background to either refute or support it.  I find it useful in understanding the ads linked below because I can explain what I see in them in no other way.

  1. Human minds instantaneously perceive all information transmitted through our senses (sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste).
  2. The conscious mind filters out those things with which it is unable to deal (either psychologically or because of the sheer volume of sensory experience), and constructs an acceptable and meaningful mental image from those stimuli made conscious.
  3. The remaining sensory inputs are stored (at least for a time) in the unconscious, where they can effect conscious behavior.
  4. Advertisers have found that subliminal messages in advertising can motivate purchases.
  5. Ads are designed to transmit their information in a fraction of a second (i.e. the time it takes to turn a page).  If an individual stops to read an ad, that is a plus.
  6. Advertisers realize that any given ad will only motivate a small percentage of people exposed to it to make a purchase, so ads are targeted at audiences most likely to be receptive to their messages.  Thus we have a market research industry.  If an ad can bring in $20 in sales for each dollar it costs, it is considered to have broken even.
  7. Beyond marketing effects, advertisers have not explored the effects of subliminal messages.  Furthermore, they do not know how or why they work.
  1. Research along these lines may have been done in the private sector; but, if so, it is considered proprietary and has been kept secret or destroyed.  Indeed, the federal government may also have commissioned such research in connection with the use of subliminal embeds on currency.  If so, that has also been suppressed.
  2. Public (i.e. university) research in these areas is almost non-existent as funding has been nearly impossible to secure.
  3. Key posits that subliminal ads work by connecting repressed needs and fears with a product.  When the unconscious feels the need or fear, the conscious perceives the need for the product, or becomes aware of the product.  Since Americans (indeed most of those from western culture) are taught from infancy to repress questions and thoughts about sex and death, they make the best subjects for subliminal ad messages.  While invisible to the vast majority of Americans (and others from western cultures), people from cultures that deal openly with sex and death have no trouble seeing such messages.
  4. By playing on people's repressed fears and needs, subliminal advertising may be a contributing factor to many personal and social problems - drug abuse, suicide, insanity, unmarried pregnancy, VD, the breakup of the family, violent crime, etc.
  5. Key reports showing an ad containing subliminal castration imagery to a group of college students.  He claims that a high percentage of the men reported feeling fear after viewing it, without knowing why.  Women had no such reaction.
  1. Subliminal techniques are used in all media.
  2. Print ads are the easiest to study.
  3. Broadcast subliminals are impossible to locate without sophisticated equipment (remember that Key wrote in the 1970s, the necessary equipment may now be cheaper and more common).  Indeed, since the techniques are constantly changing, it is often difficult to know what to look for even if one has the proper equipment.

The Ads

If they are present, subliminal messages in ads are either symbolic (plainly visible, but with a meaning that producers believe from testing and research will be psychologically repressed by the target audience) or embedded (hidden from conscious perception artistically).  Embeds are the most controversial, the most expensive to create (requiring expensive talent and technology), and (from my observation) the least common.

If you choose to use one or more of these ads with your students, you might want to make copies for distribution (clicking an ad image on any analysis page I've created will open that image in a separate browser window from which you can use your browser's print command to print it).  If you want, begin by adapting the activity outlined in What's Wrong with this Picture?, substituting one of the ads below for the album cover image.  Use it as an introduction before presenting anything about subliminal techniques or theory.  You can then proceed to use additional ads where you'll ask your students to complete a blank analysis questionaire prior to a group discussion.

Click on an image to open the page containing the analysis I have prepared for it.

Before clicking, try to identify one or more messages on your own.  The process that works best for me is to not focus on searching, but to let my mind go blank while looking at the image.  After a few moments, something often "jumps out".  I assume that by actively searching for meaning, my conscious mind is working to block whatever I've learned to repress.  Looking without seeking allows otherwise subconscious thoughts to find a way into consciousness.  I've used these ads in slide presentations to many groups over the years (secondary classes, teacher conferences and in-service days, etc.), and I can remember no one being able to identify a subliminal until after I'd gone through an example and explained this process.  I will say that once people see them, they don't forget them, unless of course they are among the group that finds this all a bunch of hogwash.

All of these ads ran in magazines in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Where I noted the source at the time I clipped an ad, I have provided it below.

Symbolic messages


source: Psychology Today, May 1977

source: Newsweek, October 24, 1977

source: Time, May 23, 1977

source: Time, August 1, 1977

Embedded messages


source: Time, July 25, 1977
source: Time, October 3, 1977

source: US News and World Report, September 26, 1977
source: Newsweek, May 18, 1981

Resources to extend this activity

Books Web Sites Additional Activities Top of the page


Wilson Bryan Key began publishing books on subliminal messages embedded in advertising during the 1970s. Most of his books are out of print; but if you can find them, they are fascinating to read and guaranteed to engage.  At the time of this writing (February 2002), Subliminal Adventures in Erotic Art is still available as a new book, as is The Age of Manipulation.

Attorney August Bullock developed his interest in subliminal advertising in the 1970s.  An avid researcher, his book (published in 2004) uses more than 100 images he has collected over the years to illustrate in precise detail how advertisers convey subliminal messages, what those messages mean, and how they might work.  The book is beautifully printed on high quality paper.  Anyone interested in the possibility of the existence of subliminal messages will not want to miss it.

While the following two books do not deal with subliminal messages, I'm including them here because readers should come away from them with a better idea of the attention to detail that goes into ad creation.  Once one recognizes the care with which ads are crafted, it seems a smaller jump to the realization that some advertisers might use subliminal effects as just one more tool in their creative arsenal.  I see this as a major message in Ron Rosenbaum's article too.  (To understand the care with which a movie is put together, listen to Terry Gross' March 6, 2002 interview with director Ridley Scott.  Scott, who began his career by directing more than 2,000 TV spots, has a lot to say, none of it dull.  If you have the Real Player installed for your browser, you can hear the audio by clicking on the listen link on the Fresh Air page.)

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Web Sites

Where subliminal embeds are attempted, they are undoubtedly based on research into optical illusions.  Here are links to some very good sites where classic illusions are presented and discussed.

Whether advertisers use subliminal techniques has been the subject of debate since Vance Packard raised the question in his 1957 bestseller The Hidden Persuaders.  Here are links to some of the better web sites devoted to exploring this issue.

The following sites present ads in which the webmasters believe they see subliminal messages.  They focus primarily on embeds, so much of what they see may be the result of overactive imaginations, but you can judge for yourself.

If you are curious to find out how well you (or your students) can tell if a photo has been digitally modified, you'll not want to miss the Fake or Foto challenge.

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Additional activities

Other activities that will help your students develop their visual literacy skills:

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copyright 2002-2004 All Rights Reserved.
original web posting: Sunday, February 24, 2002
last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2005