Originally posted in 2008; edited and updated for this post:
Sex! Sexploitation! Seduction! Good buzzwords, words to make anyone look twice at a book, then pick it up. Wilson Bryan Key, the author of these two 1970's paperbacks, caused quite a stir when these two books were published. On page after page he tells us the tricks of ad-men to introduce subtle sexual images into common advertising in order to seduce us into buying a product.
Well…maybe yes, maybe no. I'm not convinced, reading these books, that such techniques would actually work, manipulating artwork of a mixed drink, for instance, to simulate images of animals or human genitalia in the ice. Or in the author’s most insistent claim, that the word “sex” is woven into many photos, so even if we don’t see it consciously, our unconscious mind tells us there’s something hot there.
In 1974 after reading the book, Subliminal Seduction — and what could be more seducing than “seduction” in a title? — I went through dozens of magazines, looking at ads through a magnifying glass. The only thing I saw was in a fashion magazine where some graffiti arteest in a printing department somewhere had written the word “suck” onto the blue printing plate of a fashion ad, in letters so microscopic it took my magnifying glass to pick it out. I'm not saying stuff like the author claims didn't happen, but sometimes it’s all in the eye of the beholder, right? And if you can't see it, does it count?
Pornography and images of sex and death are so implanted in our brains that no one really needs to be subtle about inserting them into advertising. This cover — and a cover is advertising — of a 1946 detective magazine is an example of a drawing within a drawing, but it isn’t all that well hidden. I spotted it immediately, and I’ll bet you did too.
Death's heads, skulls, skeletons, are attention grabbers. Every publisher knows if you put a skeleton on a cover sales go up. It also doesn't hurt that the flower in her hair repeats vaginal images over and over. Flowers are like that, just ask Georgia O'Keeffe.
On the other hand, the cover of this old paperback book jumped off the paperback book rack and clobbered us with SEX! Buy me! Look inside! I am about SEX and WANTON WOMEN and FANTASY FULFILLMENT! There was no need to be subtle or use the subconscious. It was all spelled out for us in titillating detail.
But the cover was the sexiest part of the book. Once a reader got inside it was all pretty humdrum; it might have some references to sex, but in a way designed to get past the bluenoses of the era. The best sex is always in our heads, and we can see what we want to see, when we want to see it. Pornography notwithstanding — showing us everything in graphic, sometimes nauseating, detail — sex is everywhere in all its forms. We really don't need anyone to tell us that when selling us products, advertising is aiming at our crotches.