Zine 98

Subliminal messages are everywhere, or so we've been told.
But does Nabisco really spell out sex in the brown splotches
on their delicious Ritz crackers to make us buy more of them,
or are the real crackers the people who buy into this theory?

In the seventies and early eighties, former advertising executive Wilson Brian Key wrote several books filled with examples of penises and vaginas embeddded in ice cubes, and subliminal dirty words polluting toy advertisements aimed at kids. His claim was that subliminal sexual references are often used in advertising to play on our unconscious libido and influence our buying preferences.

This Kent cigarette ad is one of the more subtle examples of this kind. In a Key analysis, the positioning of their skis, hands and poles would all imply something sexual. For example, the fact that the right ski of the man holding the cigarette is pointing upwards towards the woman's genital area, would be a sign of virility and potency. And the fact that this man is smoking Kent, and the woman's ski pole is pointing towards him, would imply that if you smoke Kent, you will be thought of as virile and potent, and hence get all the babes.

But while subliminal messages most definitly exist, some people think books like Key's are making a mountain out of a molehill (or a breast out of a meaningless blob), so to speak. Lane Hovac is one such skeptic.

"I've seen a few books on the subject of subliminal advertising, but I found these frustrating to say the least. Most contain pictures of an ad with text that says, 'Look at the third ice cube from the left. You'll notice a woman's breast if you squint and hold the picture to your nose.'"

"Books like these seem to be created by subliminal conspiracy freaks who see subliminal deviance in any advertisement they view, whether real or imagined," Hovac says.

The business of subliminal messages originated in 1957 when James Vicary thought he might try to boost the sales of movie theatre snacks by flashing the words "Drink Coke" and "Eat Popcorn" on the movie screen at a level below conscious perception. Afterwards, he reported to the press that sales had indeed gone up by 58%, but the fact is that no one has ever been able to reproduce his results.

The January 1991 issue of The University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter refers to "the complete lack of evidence any scientific evidence that such messages can alter human behaviour." But this hasn't stopped companies from using them.

James Hunt is a former advertising illustrator turned fine artist who has first-hand evidence that subliminal messages do exist--he used to put them there. He calls advertising a "filthy business" and says that's why he got out of it.

"I don't think the companies go out looking for subliminal advertisers the way Key does, nor do I think the subliminal ads really work, but I do know that...they do exist and I'm willing to bet that 1/8 of the ad execs out there are using them," he says.

    The following are a few examples of how subliminal messages are currently being used:

  • a videotape of a 1950s horror movie employing subliminal messages, "Terror in the Haunted House," contains recently added subliminal messages that flash "Rent Rhino's Videos"

  • subliminal "Buy/Don't Steal" music is being played in some malls and superstores

  • even some religious groups are jumping on the bandwagon, much to the chagrin of others who feel they are making light of God's Word. The W.V. Grant Evangelistic Association sells a necktie embedded with the words "Jesus Saves." The advertisement for the subliminal tie says: "When a Christian wears Eagle Neckwear he is reaching thousands, virtually everyone who looks his way, with the message 'Jesus Saves'--what a soul-winning tool!"

Recently, a guy named Bob Loblaw came across what he claims are subliminal messages embedded in the clouds of the Windows 95 start-up screen. They include a dark horse, a fornicating couple, and a likeness of Jimi Hendrix. Loblaw explains his findings in precise detail on his website

Even more recently, a bit of a hullabaloo broke out when Chuck Lorre, the executive producer of Dharma & Greg started putting up "vanity cards"--a screen of small print which flashes for a brief nanosecond--at the end of each episode, forcing those who wished to read his words of wisdom to tape the show so they could freeze-frame it. While his messages are pretty banal and couldn't do much harm even if they were registered by one's unconscious, his clever ploy will undoubtedly attract more viewers to the show, if simply for the novelty of it.

For the past several years, Nathan Holt of Athens, Georgia has been on a crusade: to warn the world about the dangers of subliminal messages, particularly the kind that can be found in some songs when they are played backwards. He believes this technique, known as "backmasking," can cause people to do things they wouldn't otherwise do, therefore endangering their personal health and safety, or at the very least, influencing them to buy things they don't really need.

Holt says he had an experience of this kind when he bought a Phil Collins album a few years ago.

"After many repeated listenings, I began to repeat words over and over again more or less randomly. At first it was only under my breath, then people began to notice. Soon after that I went grocery shopping. When I went through the check-out line, the cashier pulled a six-pack of Michelob out of the cart--I had no recollection of putting it in there--I don't even drink! These symptoms went away after I threw the album out."

While there is no evidence that Collins and Michelob were in a partnership, or that Collins had intentionally recorded any subliminal messages at all, backmasking has been used by other musicians in the past. But as with all subliminal messages, there is no scientific proof that they actually work, despite Holt's personal convictions.

In the highly-publicized case against Judas Priest, in which the band was acused of being guilty in the suicide deaths of two teenagers who had allegedly acted upon subliminal messages in their heavy-metal music, the band was found not guilty, not because they didn't record the messages, but because the evidence was so strong that subliminal messages don't work.

But Holt is convinced that he is right, and is sticking to his convictions despite endless nasty e-mails, and a "Big Weenie" award for having one of the "wurst" sites on the web, which he has proudly displayed on his website.

"I have resigned myself to the fact that people are unwilling to examine this with an open mind," Holt says. "I think of it (constant ridicule) as the price I have to pay for seeking the truth."

This is a sample of backmasking. Click here to link to a backmasking website.

Whether or not subliminal messages actually work, the public's belief in their effectiveness has spawned a $50-million industry which may be completely based on false advertising. This is the subliminal self-help tape industry which claims it can help you lose weight, improve your sex life, and cure your phobias.

In reality, if these tapes do help at all, it is more likely due to the "placebo effect," or of thinking it's going to help so it does. But even if these tapes are the greatest rip-off going, at least the consumer knows what he's subjecting himself to, as opposed to being subjected to subliminal messages without being aware of it, as is the case in advertising.

Holt says that it's the "insidious way it's done" that makes it so much worse.

"No one knows how to defend themselves against it."

Presently, there are no rules regulating the use of subliminal messages in advertising in Canada.

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