Every day we’re assaulted by hundreds of sex and death images in advertisements that tease our libidos and manipulate our egos. Or so claims Wilson Bryan Key, the author of Subliminal Seduction and Media Sexploitation. In this excerpt from his book The Clam-Plate Orgy, published in the March, 1980 issue of High Times, Key presents some startling demonstrations of castrated genitals in ads pushing margarine and skulls lurking in the ice cubes of liquor ads.
Over the past seven years an alarming number of seemingly normal citizens have been spotted leering strangely at advertisements in buses and subways, peering intently at magazine pages held upside down and sideways, and mumbling angrily to whoever will listen that they are seeing the most extraordinary things there: words like “sex” and “fuck” etched lightly into the pretty girl’s face in a cigarette ad, the command “U-Buy” scribbled in the background of a junk-food ad, skulls lurking in the ice cubes of a scotch ad, cocks and cunts airbrushed into ads selling everything from blue jeans to toothpaste to children’s toys. People exhibiting this odd behavior are not in the advanced stages of delusional psychosis, nor victims of mass hysteria; they have, undoubtedly, merely been reading the books of Wilson Bryan Key.
Since the publication of Subliminal Seduction, his first book, in 1973, Wilson Key has been at the center of a controversy that could blow the lid off our consumer society. He has been both praised as one of the most outstanding and outspoken critics of American mass media, and ridiculed as a “paranoid” and “lunatic” for alleging that advertisements are chock-full of subliminally suggestive graphics that are invisible to anyone who is not looking for them but are extremely effective sales tools. In addition to scores of simple “sex,” “fuck” and “U-Buy” embeds, Key has compiled a massive collection of highly complex and sophisticated subliminal artworks, some of which, selected from his latest book, The Clam-Plate Orgy, are presented on the following pages. While his argument may initially strike those unfamiliar with Key’s crusade as off-the-wall to say the least, a careful look at a few of his choice examples has been sufficient to convince thousands of skeptics that there is more to advertising than meets the eye.
Wilson Key at 55 is hardly the raving fanatic his opponents portray. He has worked in the media and advertising for 30 years first as a writer, radio and television producer, director and announcer; later, as the director of an international market-research group based in Puerto Rico whose clients included General Foods, Schlitz, Volkswagen, Eastern Airlines, Seagrams, Del Monte, Nabisco and Gillette. In Puerto Rico, Key was impressed by the incredible amount of money invested by advertisers in research to determine why people consumed their products (Schlitz, for example, spends $10 million annually investigating human behavior and beer consumption), and by the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere of secrecy surrounding this research.
Notes Key: “I’ve done studies for General Motors where they sent two guys over to my office who supervised the destruction of all the overlays, stencils and working papers that went into the study. Finally, five numbered copies, the only five numbered copies, were given to the board of directors in New York, and later kept in a vault.” To confuse competitors, other companies instructed Key to deliberately leak false information about his projects.
No question about it, these advertising boys were playing hardball, but Key didn’t suspect the more sinister aspects of the game until 1971. By this time he was regarded as a “ trained expert’ ’ on mass media and human perception, and had returned to North America to teach a course in advertising techniques at the University of Western Ontario (UWO). One day during a class lecture Key happened to glance at an upside down copy of Esquire and noticed an unmistakable phallus popping out of an advertisement. He shrugged it off as artistic whimsy—until he and his students discovered an array of similar ads. “After 100, I began to take it seriously,” he says. From these files, Key assembled several academic articles all of which were rejected by editors of scholarly journals with comments like “Nonsense!” and “This simply couldn’t be going on.” Typical was the response of the journalism department chairman at UWO who, without bothering to look at his examples, dismissed Key from his office shouting, “You’re making up all this filth. You are destroying young people’s confidence in the press. You should be locked up as a public menace!” His situation was somewhat reminiscent of Sigmund Freud’s, whose turn-of-the-century views on neurosis and sexual repression were dismissed as not only wrong but criminal. At a congress of German neurologists and psychiatrists, the sense of revulsion was summed up by one professor who, at the mention of Freud’s theories, banged his fist on the table and screamed: “This is not a topic for a scientific meeting; it is a matter for the police!”
Like Freud, Key’s response to criticism was simply to assemble more evidence: Not all the response was negative, however; Key attracted the notice of Marshall McLuhan, who wrote an insightful, supportive introduction to Subliminal Seduction, launching Key’s campaign.
Responses of admen to Key’s first book were predictable: The senior vice-president and executive creative director of Foote, Cone and Belding (the world’s fifth largest ad agency) labeled it ‘‘a total crock”; the vice-president account supervisor of Doyle, Dane, Bernbach noted, “Mr. Key’s dissection of the 1971 Calvert Extra ad [in Subliminal Seduction] may epitomize the delusions of a disturbed personality.”
As it turns out, scientists have known about the effect of subs on behavior since 1917, when the Russian psychologist Otto Potzl laid the groundwork in a lecture with a long title: “The Relationship Between Experimentally Induced Dream Images and Indirect Vision.” Potzl, like most early experimenters, used a tachistoscope projector with a high shutter speed, which can project images invisible at a conscious level but perceived at the unconscious level. Potzl, in his breakthrough research, demonstrated that subliminal images would surface in subjects’ dreams days, weeks, even months after they had “seen” them.
Thirty years of quiet research followed before the tachistoscope made its American debut in 1957, in a much publicized experiment in which over a six-week period the messages “Hungry? Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” were flashed to patrons at an East Coast movie house. Results: A 57.7 percent jump in popcorn consumption, an 18.1 percent increase in Coca-Cola sales. News coverage of this experiment was followed shortly by publication of Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, exposing American industry’s research into the use of unconsciously perceived information for marketing objectives. The public outcry after this double event was so vehement that most Americans are under the impression that the use of subliminals in advertising was outlawed. It was not, as Wilson Key is quick to point out. While a great many laws were introduced, with a great deal of attendant hoopla, between 1957 and 1958, none were ever enacted into law! Today, responsibility for overseeing such practices is juggled precariously (and ineffectually) between the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission; neither regulatory agency seems eager to press the issue.
Meanwhile, experimental evidence of the effectiveness of subliminals has mounted. In 1971, N.E Dixon, a psychologist at University College, London, published his monumental Subliminal Perception: The Nature of a Controversy. Dixon linked subliminal stimulation to changes in heart rate, blood pressure and sweating, and demonstrated that subs affected subjects’ judgments of weights and size, as well as their emotional response to perceptually neutral stimuli. (An expressionless face will be seen as “happy” or “angry” depending on which word is flashed with a tachistoscope.)
Dixon also indicated that taboo stimuli (words and images involving sex and death) were most likely to go undetected while still modifying fantasy behavior—especially in individuals with strong, rigid, moralistic preoccupations.
Dixon also linked subliminal perception with hypnosis. In a hypnotic trance, subjects are able to read messages written upside down and sideways; likewise with similarly presented subliminal material. Worried Dixon: “It may be impossible to resist instructions which are not consciously experienced. There would seem to be a close parallel between these phenomenons and those associated with posthypnotic suggestion and neurotic compulsive response.”
While Dixon’s book was almost unknown among the academics he first approached, Key comments somewhat ominously, “One U.S. advertising agency president told me, ‘Dixon’s book is basic reading for our creative department. We think of it almost as an operational bible.’ ’’
More recently, Hal C. Becker, a specialist in clinical behavior engineering at Tulane University has launched a highly effective weight reduction program using subliminal messages embedded in video tapes. Becker has also developed, and patented, an antitheft program currently in use in several U.S. and Canadian retail stores. It features an authoritative repeating voice embedded in background music instructing shoppers “I am honest. I won’t steal. Stealing is dishonest.” It sounds like Huxley’s “brave new world,” but it sure is effective—in six stores tested over a nine-month period, thefts dropped a whopping 37.5 percent.
“We do not know about subliminal phenomena,” says Key, “because we individuals in general do not want to know….The U.S. has a built-in need to disbelieve hypotheses that contradict the popular notions of ‘free-will,’ America’s fundamental mythology.”
Subliminal Seduction—in which he illustrated the use of subs in cigarette and liquor advertising, and in men’s and women’s magazines—was virtually blacked out by the media. Only an exhausting tour of small-town radio and television talk shows turned it from a flop into a Canadian bestseller and made Wilson Key something of a celebrity. Today he still spends much of the year traveling or lecturing. Though far from universally accepted in academic circles, Key’s work is taken seriously: Subliminal Seduction is even included in the advertising and psychology curricula of many colleges throughout North America. (Privately Key worries that his books are inspiring a new breed of admen to new heights of unreason.)
His second book, Media Sexploitation, continued his investigation of advertising, and extended it into the fields of popular entertainment. Key dissected The Exorcist frame by frame to demonstrate that it was loaded with subliminal death masks, rotting skulls, contorted screaming faces, all designed to maximize the film’s emotional impact. This technique of “kick-tripping” the movie audience—also used in The Texas Chain-Saw Massacre—Key discovered was well known in Hollywood.
The following excerpt from Key’s latest book, The Clam-Plate Orgy (Prentice-Hall, 1980), an account of his life in subs, offers a veritable treasure trove of subliminal art that may have some readers pondering the Marshall McLuhan maxim, “1984 really happened around 1930, but we didn’t notice.”
How “An Old Softie ” Takes Advantage
There is no such thing as an inert (motiveless) communication. The entire question of conscious and unconscious motivation is an integral aspect of any human communication system. Media cannot be meaningfully discussed unless the question of who is doing what to whom for which reasons is first carefully considered. This makes commercially motivated media a delight to study. The motive is simple and always known—to sell, to sell, to sell, to sell….
For many decades, the gigantic corporation Kraft Inc. has supplied, at substantial profit, processed foods to American homes. The Kraft Soft Parkay Margarine ad (Figure 1) was published in Family Circle magazine’s November 1973 issue, as well as in virtually all the women’s home magazines and many newspapers. Over several years, millions of dollars were invested in purchasing media space for this single piece of advertising. Family Circle—a multimillion-circulation magazine usually sold in supermarkets—is a bastion of middle-class morality. Nothing more controversial than how many egg whites should be used in an angel food cake ever intrudes upon the ads. Housewives are portrayed as clever, attractive, independent, righteous members of an affluent, food-oriented society (in which, the National Institute of Health tells us, 60 percent of adults are overweight). On the surface, Family Circle is pretty dull stuff—unless you are turned on by endless articles and pictures of food, which is apparently the case for many women (and men) across the nation.
The Soft Parkay ad is banality itself. When we observed people aimlessly thumbing through the pages of Family Circle, no one appeared to pay much attention to this sizable investment in art. Average exposure, or reading time, for this particular page was one to two seconds. About 1 in 15 readers used three to four additional seconds to read the brief paragraph of copy. Had a Kraft stockholder watched the Family Circle readers, he might have angrily protested the waste of money on an ad that readers ignored. Indeed, in the Parkay ad, there is really nothing to see: A glob of greasy Parkay, on the end of a knife blade, is about to be spread on a muffin—pretty unexciting, at either the emotional or intellectual level!
In the Eyes of the Beholder
Most readers agreed the ad presented a “wholesome,” “nourishing,” “desirable” “food product.” But, in any serious study of media, it is vital to accept nothing at face value. In human perception, the content of the unimportant (or background) often becomes of greatest significance. The apparently important is often mere decoration—like icing on a cake.
The first line firmly advises the housewife to “Take Advantage of a Softie…” and warns “that’s what happens when you’re an old softie.” The Soft Parkay copy is generally undistinguished as literary metaphor. That, of course, is precisely how it is intended to be perceived—as pure banality. The word softie, however, through free association could vaguely relate to the flaccid male genital.
The Fantasy Improves on Reality
In a media-dominated society, reality seeking becomes increasingly difficult. Americans are trained by the media to be unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality (assuming that reality can be represented in a simple photographic reproduction). Fantasies are intended to seem more real, more desirable and rewarding, more stimulating than reality could ever become. And indeed the Parkay, knife and muffin are not photographic representations, but cleverly airbrushed paintings executed by a skilled, highly paid artist.
Sophisticated devices can help determine whether a picture is a photographic representation of reality or an artist’s fantasy; these include the linen tester (a microscopic device for studying dot structures in an engraving), computer-enhancement spectrographic analysis techniques, and ultraviolet photography. But one simple test for exposing fantasy characteristics is to check with the real thing. For example, does the ad Parkay look like actual Parkay in a similar situation? Several students and I tried to scrape off, on a knife blade, a glob of Parkay that resembled the one in the ad. In several hundred tries, we never even came close.
At this point, many readers will accuse the writer of exaggeration or projection—having a dirty mind or a wild imagination. Such accusations are difficult to defend against—at least until you find the “Softie” in the Parkay painting. A quite identifiable glans (head of the penis) is peeping out from the patty on the right side (Figure 2). Another quite identifiable glans also has been worked into the Parkay design. Notice the coronal ridge that extends down the left side of the Parkay patty. As any medical text on genital anatomy will demonstrate, the coronal ridge at the base of the glans is fairly standard physiological equipment.
Media presents symbolic illusions via words, pictures and sounds that are perceived on at least two levels, conscious (or cognitive) and unconscious (or subliminal). At the unconscious level, the male and female imagery of Soft Parkay being spread with a phallic knife inside a muffin would most certainly be communicated. Portraying the heads of two penises on a knife blade could also suggest male castration—quite possibly an unconscious motivation for the highly insecure American housewife. If she can fatten up her husband, he may, at least theoretically, become less vulnerable to the attractions of a younger woman—a fear exploited by the ad agencies.
Moreover, the rich, golden, nourishing goodness portrayed in the Parkay patty is ultimately intended to be put in the mouth. Some very respectable psychoanalytic theory would explain the ad’s effectiveness in terms of unconscious oral regression. It is not at all difficult to envision millions of housewives salivating over their Family Circles—without the slightest suspicion of what was really turning them on.
Repression of the Forbidden
The Kanon men’s cologne ad (Figure 3) appeared in many of the so-called “crotch” magazines. An estimated half million dollars were invested in the rather innocuous photograph of a hand holding a bottle of Kanon. There is certainly little that could be considered threatening.
We videotaped readers thumbing through a magazine in which the ad appeared, and observed that virtually no one spent more than a second or two with the Kanon ad. However, perception is instantaneous. Most print advertising is designed for a perceptual exposure time of less than one second. If the ad is to justify its investment, any information capable of motivating a purchase must enter the reader’s brain in this instant, even if the actual purchase situation may not arise until days, weeks, or even months later. So how does the Kanon ad do its job? Compare your own left hand with the hand in the Kanon ad. Are they similar?
Vaguely similar, perhaps, but several things are distinctly different. Did you notice the thumbnail—and its relationship to the thumb knuckle? Though the entire knuckle does not appear in the picture, there’s no way you can get your thumb and thumbnail into the position shown in the picture. The thumb, bottle, thumbnail, hand and knife were first photographed separately, then all pasted together for the layout. (As proof, note that no fingers show through the supposedly transparent bottle.) Several artists estimated the complex composite picture involved an art fee between $5,000 and $10,000. There is no way such a perspective between the two hands and bottle could be achieved in a straight photograph—even with a special camera lens.
Now look at the palm where the thumb joins the hand. Compare the picture with your own left hand. Are they similar? The vertical hollow dividing the wrist and palm bisects two rather bulbous areas that strangely resemble testicles—or could this be merely your imagination? The rigid thumb, of course, becomes the semierect penis. It may take you a few seconds before the repressed genital registers in consciousness.
Tests on the Kanon ad were done with subjects who were—as far as could be determined—unfamiliar with the subliminal issue. Roughly 20 percent of the women instantly recognized the erect penis—though some were reluctant to admit it for fear of being accused of having “dirty minds.” Only about 2 percent of the male subjects spotted the erect genital.
An erect penis is certainly a taboo image when published in a “man’s magazine” advertising a man’s product to be sold to men. The symbolism would inevitably be repressed by the magazine’s macho readers. Much psychoanalytic theory suggests that a macho self-image is a camouflage for a more ambiguous covert sexuality and that the erect-penis image appeals to latent homosexual tendencies—which all men presumably share in one measure or another. Another theory of the ad’s subliminal significance might be the implication that Kanon will help readers achieve a large erect penis. The hand-genital symbolism may also unconsciously allude to masturbation.
At first glance, the ad appears merely to show a hand holding the product. But a mere hand and a bottle would not communicate anywhere near the feeling of strength, desirability and imperative use that transmits from the picture. Conscious perception is strengthened and emotionalized although the subliminal information does not surface.
A Rocky Sell
To my personal knowledge, there is no evidence that would prove beyond any doubt that subliminals actually modify human behavior. In a mass-communication situation, the variables involved are complex and impossible to measure with any investigative techniques I am aware of. We won’t know for certain until someone unravels the extraordinarily complex systems within the human brain—an event that may, quite conceivably, never occur.
To me, the most persuasive evidence is the billions of dollars annually invested by advertisers and media industries. I find it difficult to argue with an industry that invests more than $43 billion a year in advertising, year after year, a large portion of which is allocated to subliminal selling. Businessmen are not omniscient, of course; their assumptions and conclusions are wrong as often as anyone else’s. But in U.S. capitalistic enterprises there is a ruthless, basic decision-making premise: If it does not work (i.e., make money), investment cannot be justified.
The Johnny Walker Black Label scotch ad (Figure 4) appeared in virtually every major U.S. national magazine, including Playboy, Time, Newsweek, and The New Yorker. Over a three-year period, an estimated $2 million was invested in magazine space in which to display this single ad—which must have been extremely successful in selling scotch (upwards of $50 million worth) to have justified the prodigious investment.
Admittedly, it is difficult to believe that six ice cubes in an empty glass on a black background could be responsible for a $50-million scotch-whisky transaction. Yet the economics of advertising are relatively simple—as they are in most business transactions—in spite of ad executives’ frequent public statements that “advertising really doesn’t work.” Were they to repeat such nonsense in front of their clients, they would be instantly unemployed. Advertising does indeed work, and it works best when the consumer believes it doesn’t.
Considering the literary talent available in the English-speaking world, it is bizarre to consider the Johnny Walker ad’s two lines of copy: “The road to success is paved with rocks. Let us smooth them for you.” Could this assemblage of verbiage have anything to do with $50 million in scotch sales? The glass and ice cubes are even more banal. Logically, a half inch or so of golden scotch might have been poured into the glass to demonstrate the product. Since the ad appeared in Playboy, a lipstick stain could have been placed on the edge of the glass to add a touch of romance. But no, only an empty glass with six ice cubes—waiting to be filled with scotch.
Were you an executive at Somerset Importers, Ltd., which imports Johnny Walker scotch into the United States, how might you react to this ad? Your ad agency has seriously proposed that you invest $2 million of your hard-earned capital to purchase display space within every major magazine in the United States for this clumsily executed photograph. By the inexorable, simplistic logic taught in business-management university courses, you might justifiably fire the account executive who had proposed this apparently irresponsible investment. As anyone can clearly see, the photographer was careless. He allowed one ice cube to fall out on the table. For all that money, you might think they could find a photographer who could get all six ice cubes in the glass where they belonged. Audience reading time on this ad was designed to be no more than a second or two—which makes it even more difficult to explain.
The Happy Scotch Drinkers
The copy mentions “rocks,” presumably the ice cubes that appear to be the ad’s primary subject. Johnny Walker scotch is mentioned only in the logo at the bottom of the page. So, let’s carefully examine the “rocks” (Figure 5).
Observe the right one-third of the ice cube that has fallen from the glass. On the cube’s surface is painted an inexplicable, screaming, agonized, terrified face (Figure 6). The face is surrealistic, certainly not representational—hardly the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a scotch ad. Turn the cube upside down. Next to the screaming face appear a man’s feet and legs dangling or floating in midair (Figure 7). On the cube’s left (viewed upside down) appears another face in agony, this one melting away in a white heat, the tongue hanging limply from the open mouth (Figure 8 ).
The Johnny Walker ice cubes and glass are not photographs of the real thing. Because of their heavy advertising budgets, the alcoholic-beverage industry can hire the best creative talent available. The entire Johnny Walker ad is an artist’s fantasy—a sophisticated airbrush painting, executed by a master craftsman. One slip of his brush and some of this imagery might have surfaced in the reader’s conscious awareness, and this would mean big trouble for the advertiser. For painted into the ice cubes are 12 clearly definable images.
On the far right surface of the cube at the bottom right in the glass appears a skull (Figure 9). Turn the ad on its right side and a monster with encircling arms appears on the left surface of the bottom right cube (Figure 10). Turn this same cube upside down, and you see a snake charmer with a turban and skull face sitting in a lotus position with a cobra (Figure 11). The left bottom ice cube includes a teddy-bear monster with smiling mouth and flipper—a rather cute animal, but not one of this world (Figure 12). Turning the ad upside down, another twisted, agonizing face appears in the topmost ice cube (Figure 13).
On the right surface of the cube at top right appears the pained face of an old man, his tongue protruding from his lips (Figure 14), perhaps another satisfied Johnny Walker drinker. On the right surface of the center cube, turned on its right side, is a standing figure, wearing a grotesque mask reminiscent of the Japanese ceremonial devil’s mask. The figure’s torso is in a posture of torment, pubic hair is apparent, and the left arm seems to end in a stump. Objects, perhaps spirits, swirl about the masked head (Figure 15).
On the left surface of the center cube, turned on its right side, appears a bird—the body, eye and beak easily recognizable (Figure 16). My first thought was a raven—an archetypal symbol of death, hardly the kind of bird one might logically select to sell scotch whisky. The object below the raven’s beak, however, is even more curious. Turning the ad on its left edge (Figure 17), the object under the beak appears to have two orifices at the bottom and a head-like appendage at the top. A physiology text confirmed that the object is a quite accurate representation of a castrated penis. In cross section, the penis displays two symmetrical chambers such as those illustrated in the ice cube. There are actually three chambers in the penis, two filled with spongy tissue that expands when blood pumps in under pressure; the third, much smaller, surrounds the urethra. As readers can perceive for themselves, this is a very special castrated penis as a most somber human skull appears behind it.
We don’t know how the brain can perceive images presented upside down and in various conflicting perspectives. We do know it can perceive such images during hypnotic trance; many subjects read quite fluently textual material presented upside down and in mirror image, an impossible task for most people while awake. The brain appears to be able to perceive certain kinds of distorted information at the unconscious level; the discovery of this fact must have opened up vast new areas of manipulation potential for Madison Avenue.
Adding up the Johnny Walker ice-cube symbology, we seem to be dealing with nightmare imagery that involves self-destruction. You are unlikely to find an explanation for such unusual imagery in any textbook of which I am aware in the field of advertising or communication studies. For us, as for the advertiser, the only question is whether such bizarre imagery can sell scotch whisky.
The Alcoholic’s Nightmare
I demonstrated the Johnny Walker ice-cube imagery at several Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Numerous recovered alcoholics related the ice-cube imagery to their withdrawal hallucinations. The legs and feet floating in midair is apparently a common hallucination among alcoholics and other drug users. So is the melting face; during withdrawal hallucinations, various portions of the body often appear to be melting or burning. One AA member commented that the Johnny Walker ice-cube imagery could have been researched at an AA meeting simply by listening to testimonials of hallucination experiences.
The Johnny Walker ad is only one of several hundred alcohol ads collected that utilize subliminal death and self-destruction imagery. On March 8, 1976, I demonstrated the Johnny Walker ice cubes in testimony before the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare in subcommittee hearings on alcoholism and narcotics. Sen. Harrison A. Williams of New Jersey, committee chairman, mentioned he was considering the introduction of a bill that would require a warning label, similar to that used on cigarette packages, on every alcoholic beverage container. We briefly discussed the distinct possibility that self-destructive impulses could be an important factor in sustaining alcoholic consumption.
The “rocks” are loaded with nightmarish images of self-destruction, hallucinations, self-immolation, et cetera—which Johnny Walker Scotch will presumably help the drinker overcome or, if the death-wish theories have any merit, perhaps achieve. One theory, of course, is the old notion—going back at least to British philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679)—that self-destruction is an inherent human motivation or instinct. Freud discussed suicidal urges (Thanatos) as a powerful human compulsion, present in all individuals in one degree or another. Such modern psychoanalysts as Karl Menninger utilize the notion of life and death instincts.
Actually, what appears as self-destructive behavior may be a very normal part of the maturation or puberty process. Young people today risk their lives with motorcycles, hang gliders and parachuting. But while this behavior is often frightening to parents, it is not new. Plato wrote of such potentially lethal antics among the young in Athens around 400 B.C. Such behavior may serve positive maturational goals, establishing sexual identities or autonomy from parental domination.
Advertisers may have simply appropriated a normal biological growth phase on behalf of marketing alcoholic beverages. Thus the senator certainly should entertain some second thoughts about a warning label that might turn out to actually induce consumption.
One thing is apparent at this point: The alcoholic beverage industry knows a good deal more than its consumers and the medical profession knows about why individuals continue to drink.
Just Look out the Window
It would not be an exaggeration to describe contemporary America as a highly repressed culture, blinded by the narcissistic indulgences promised by media and in virtually total conscious ignorance of the grim social and economic issues that embroil the world. The result is a dehumanized, cynical society of alienated, often desperate individuals, each competing to get his.
No nation has ever survived when its people became strongly oriented around self-indulgence. When material acquisition becomes an end in itself—as it clearly has for so much of the United States—the society is in deep trouble. But then, maybe this one will continue to flourish; perhaps it will be the first to refine human and corporate greed into a viable philosophic perspective.
But the question should at least be considered: Can America afford, in terms of long-range survival, to be at the mercy of information screened through powerful commercial profit motives?
For decades, ad hucksters have claimed that advertising results in better, more competitive, less expensive products; this is one of the least defensible myths of American business. If anything, the large corporations’ massive ad expenditures restrain competition, establishing virtual monopolies among small groups of giants who often produce poorly manufactured junk. The heavy investments create images of quality and individualized preferences, since ads invariably look better than the real thing.
Consumers in the United States are not more naive than anyone else, but they have not been informed that they pay dearly for this torrent of banality. The mammoth sum of $43 billion invested in advertising during 1978 was added to the price of virtually everything bought—a costly and inefficient marketing system in terms of price and quality, though it is effective in increasing consumption. In 1979, ad expenditures were expected to exceed $50 billion.
As is hammered out repeatedly in even basic study of economics, there is no free lunch. Consumers subsidize the media in the same way they subsidize government institutions, and they have a right to know what they are paying for.
During November 1978, I served as script consultant on Agency, a feature film under production in Montreal to star Robert Mitchum and Lee Majors. A typically violent, bloody and sexy spy epic, the storyline featured a large U.S. ad agency that had been purchased by some unknown alien power. The plan was to corrupt and destroy American society through the use of subliminals embedded in the agency’s ads!
The film’s producers, nervous about their multimillion-dollar investment, kept asking about the plausibility of the subliminal idea in the plot. Apparently they were frightened that American audiences might laugh at the idea. Their most frequently repeated questions were: (1) What messages would you embed subliminally in ad media to destroy North American society? and (2) What would be the long-term effects—say, over a 20-year period? Each time I answered, they looked at me more and more incredulously, as though they didn’t believe me, thought I was kidding, or didn’t want to believe me. An hour or so later, they would work the same questions into our discussion again.
My answer was simple. U.S. society could be corrupted, disoriented, and very possibly destroyed by doing precisely what the mass media are currently doing with subliminal embedding. I showed them the Johnny Walker rocks and several other examples.
So much for the subversive content. As to long-term effects: I suggested they simply look out the window. The effects of massive subliminal indoctrination are already highly visible. The U.S. family is a disaster area with over half of the marriages ending in divorce. Men and women are alienated and distrustful of each other, their reproductive behaviors shunted through masturbatory fantasies of uninhibited sexual indulgence. A population anesthetized by immersion in endless hours of mind-deadening pap—a perverse, destructive manipulation of high technology toward instant gratification and sensual indulgence.
One thing apparent from world history is the low survival rate of cultures who repress their vulnerabilities and imperfections by constantly repeating to themselves how perfect, beautiful, noble, inspired and great they are. The Greek youth Narcissus never realized even at the point where he was destroyed by his self-adoration, that the magnificent being he had fallen in love with was his own reflected image.