How I Discovered Subliminal Advertising

One day in the summer of 1979 I was coming home from a run along the Charles River when I happened to pass behind the Boston University law school building. It was about 7:20 PM and still light out, but a door was opened on the first floor and I could see what looked like a movie theater packed with college students. Intrigued, thinking I was going to see a free movie, I walked closer and stepped into the darkened room. It was actually a slide lecture. The place was packed and there was nowhere to sit since students were even sitting in the aisles and in the back, so I just stood by the back wall to observe. A slide was on the screen up front, a drawing of flowers. No one was saying anything, and I was just about to leave, thinking I had stumbled into a botany lecture. But something told me to wait. After a few seconds I could hear the speaker up front, who I could not see. He was saying, "Take a deep breath and relax. You won't see it unless you relax." A few moments later there were gasps from the front of the auditorium. Then a few students could be heard to exclaim, "Oh, my God!" Like ripples of excitement, the entire room started to see something up on that screen that was eluding me. Then the speaker turned on his red laser pointer and began to outline something in the leaves. It looked like a big letter "S." Then next to it was a letter "E" and next to that the letter "X." By the time he had outlined it everyone saw it and we were all laughing and amazed. "This is an example of how artists can embed words in the background of drawings," the speaker said. "Next we'll see whether advertisers use the technique."

William Cane

Slide after slide appeared on the screen and each one was like a new discovery. There were big glasses filled with ice cubes. But when you looked closely, where the speaker's laser pointer guided your eye, you could see sexual imagery, skulls, and embedded SEXs and other emotionally charged words. There were photographs that had been retouched so that the word SEX was drawn into faces and sexual images were present on people's faces and in their clothes. There was an ad in which a man and a woman had switched bathing suits, and in the sand a face appeared to be blowing air onto the woman's private parts. There was a Howard Johnson's place mat that contained a bunch of fried clams arranged in what looked like a haphazard design, but when you looked more closely, guided by that laser pointer, you saw men and women engaged in an orgy. One after another the slides flashed on the screen and with each one you could hear a pin drop it was so quiet, until the secret of that slide was revealed and the audience gasped and laughed and wondered out loud how such deception could be practiced in front of an unconscious nation.

That lecture changed my view of advertisements. It also sparked my curiosity. A few years later I was a student at Boston College, and I had read Wilson Bryan Key's book, Subliminal Seduction. Dr. Key had been the speaker that night at Boston University. His work had influenced me over the past two years. I had been working as an assistant publicist at the Boston Arts Group, where our publicist had taught me more about subliminal advertising. Then at B.C. I worked with Professor Dan Rohrer, who was a debate coach who was also very aware of subliminal advertising. He encouraged us to do presentations on the topic and to host public debates on the issue. We debated Harvard and had a lot of fun entertaining a crowd that was so large the auditorium couldn't hold all the students; many had to watch the debate and the slide presentation on a live video feed in an adjoining room.

As a lecturer in English at Boston College I always introduced my students to subliminal advertising since the use of subliminal techniques is highly relevant to the issue of the connotation and denotation of words. The slide presentations seemed to be the high point of the semester, and students regularly invited their friends to attend. I then started doing the lectures at other colleges. All the while I maintained a friendship with Dr. Key, who I had met after one of his other lectures at B.U. When he passed away in 2008 the world lost a bold new thinker and a terrific writer and lecturer. I still lecture on the topic of subliminal advertising and I use some of the same slides that Dr.Key used in his initial lectures. Of course I have updated the show with the latest ads as well.

While Dr. Key was a psychologist, I am by education a lawyer. I learned a lot from Dr. Key about the psychological aspects of subliminal advertising. He was a very open-minded man, a good friend, and a mentor. I hope to carry on his work, and it always pleases me when a group of students enjoys the presentation the same way that audience did back in the late 70s on that summer evening when I first heard Dr. Key regale the crowd with his amazing subliminal slides. I hope you get a chance to see the show sometime soon.