Research Sources

Academic Sources:
McConnell, J., Cutler, R., & McNeil, E. (1958). Subliminal stimulation: An overview (R. Russel, Ed.). American Psychologist, 13(5), Pp.229-242. Retrieved June 7, 2015.

O’Barr, W. M.(2013). “Subliminal” Advertising. Advertising & Society Review 13(4), Advertising Educational Foundation. Retrieved June 7, 2015, from Project MUSE database.A Test of Media Literacy Effects and Sexual Objectification in Advertising.

Reichert, Tom ; Latour, Michael S. ; Lambiase, Jacqueline J. ; Adkins, Mark.
Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising, 2007, Vol.29(1), pp.81-92 [Peer Reviewed Journal]

Author Unknown. Subliminal Advertisement. (1957). British Medical Journal, Vol. 2 (Issue No. 5050), 928-929. Retrieved June 7, 2015.

The Sexual Objectification of Women in Advertising: A contemporary Cultural Perspective. Zimmerman, Amanda ; Dahlber, John. Journal of Advertising Research, 2008, Vol.48(1), pp.71 [Peer Reviewed Journal]

Greater Implication

Although it can be entertaining to scroll through these examples and giggle as you become more aware of the sexual embeds, this type of portrayal of sexuality in media, whether subliminal or not, has shown to have negative impacts on cultural values and beliefs about norms and expectations of the sexes, gender roles, sexuality, beauty ideals, and more. Many of the ads shown in this blog function as perfect examples of theories of how sex and media relate including the male gaze, the pornagraphic gaze, heteroeroticism, male sex emphasis, male fantasies, and the objectification of bodies and body parts.  The reason these negative impacts are exacerbated by the subliminal aspect of the advertisements is because it takes away the viewer’s agency and opportunity to be critical of and to resist the internalization of the deeper meanings sold in the ads.

Zimmerman et al. (2008) in their article The Sexual Objectification of Women in Advertising: A Contemporary Cultural Perspective addressed the concerns about how media consumers are being impacted by the sexuality, particularly with regard to the sexual objectification of women. “With this steady increase in advertisements that portray women as sex objects, we must ask, what has been its effect on attitudes?… Sexually objectified portrayals of women in advertisements can affect views of sex and sexual behavior. Sex becomes commercial, recreational, and exploitational” (Zimmerman et al., 72-73).

In order to prevent these negative effects of sexual advertising, viewers must focus more awareness to their consumption of media and able to look critically at commercials and ads, questioning them and being skeptical. Because subliminal messages don’t allow the viewer to question or be skeptical, I believe that subliminal messages are extremely harmful to passive media consumers. I can only practice my proficiency in media literacy and analysis, and aim to be an active consumer as opposed toone who’s values and beliefs are easily manipulated by communication technicians who embed phallic symbols and sexual phrases into my media experience.

History of Subliminal Messages

1863 – Suslowa, an experimental psychologist in subliminal stimulation conducted experiments concerning the effect that electrical stimulation had upon subjects’ ability to make two-point threshold discriminations. His findings showed that despite the intensity of the electrical stimulation being so low that the subjects were not aware of its presence, their ability to discriminate one- from twopoint stimulation was slightly reduced (McConnell, 230).

1884 –  Peirce and Jastrow showed that “subjects could discriminate differences between weights significantly better than chance would allow, even though the differences were so small they had no confidence whatsoever in their judgments” (McConnell, 230).

1957 – The birth of the term, ‘Subliminal Advertising’. Market researcher James Vicary was the first to conduct a study on subliminal stimuli, embedding the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” into a movie in order to experiment on the impact subconscious messages had on concession sales at a New Jersey movie theater. The words appeared for a single frame of the movie, only flashing for one three-thousandths of a second, long enough for the subconscious to receive it but not long enough for the viewer to be aware of it. James V. McConnell et. al in an article for the American Psychologist, 1958 explained, “Despite the likelihood of serious methodological and technical defects (exposure time was reported as 1/3,000 sec.,  far faster than any previously reported stimulation), this demonstration has been the one which has caused the most stir in both the fields of advertising and psychology” (p 230).

1958 – “A May survey of public opinion on subliminals indicated that about 42% of the population had heard of the technique. Of course those who had, 50% said they considered subliminal advertising unethical and 50% considered it ethical. A significant majority—60%—said they would watch television programs even if they knew subliminals were used in the show” (

1972 – Author Wilson Bryan Key released a popular book called Subliminal Seduction: Ad Media’s Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America, triggering “the second wave of widespread worry over secret stimuli… the book charged that the use of hidden messages and images in print ads is widespread and causes millions of consumers to buy more, more, more” ( He went on to write four more books between 1972 and 1992 about the phenomena.

1973 – An ad for a board game, Husker Du, including the flashing of the words ‘Get It’ was removed from the air for subliminal pursuasion. This incident led to the Federal Trade Commission’s official stance against subliminal advertising. “The Commission saw these ads as deceptive and banned the practice of using subliminal ads, even though there wasn’t definitive research to prove the effects” (

1974 – The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “issued a public notice stating their official position on subliminals: “We believe that the use of subliminal perception is inconsistent with the obligations of a [broadcast] licensee, and therefore we take this occasion to make clear that broadcasts employing such techniques are contrary to the public interest. Whether effective of not, such broadcasts clearly are intended to be deceptive.” “(

1981 & 1994 – The Advertising Industry responds to the Key.

1981 – “John O’Toole, President of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and thus often called on to speak on behalf on the industry, denounced both subliminal advertising and Wilson Bryan Key in his 1981 book, The Trouble with Advertising. O’Toole, who had previously headed the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency, wrote in his book:
‘There is no such thing as subliminal advertising. I have never seen an example of it, nor have I ever heard it seriously discussed as a technique by advertising people…. It’s demeaning to assume that the human mind is so easily controlled that anyone can be made to act against his will or better judgment by peremptory commands he doesn’t realize are present. Even more absurd is the theory proposed by Wilson Bryan Key in a sleazy book entitled Subliminal Seduction. From whatever dark motivations, Key finds sexual symbolism in every ad and commercial’ ” (O’Barr, 2013).

1994 – “Jack Haberstroh, a marketing professor firmly convinced that the phenomenon of subliminal perception is real but its use by advertisers is infrequent, wrote a book entitled Ice Cube Sex: The Truth about Subliminal Advertising. He takes the advertising industry to task for saying so little about subliminal advertising” (O’Barr, 2013).

Since then companies have continued to use subliminal messages in their advertisements, citing many examples here.

Let’s Take a Closer Look…

According to Reichert et al. in A Test of Media Literacty Effects and Sexual Objectification in Advertising, (2007), “Messaris (1998) defines media literacy as ‘knowledge about how the mass media function in society,’ with a focus on media’s ‘economic foundations, organizational structures, psychological effects, social consequences,’ and ‘representational conventions’ (p. 70)” (Reichert, 82). Just as it was important in Reichert et al.’s study to teach media literacy and critical analysis and then measure it’s effect on the resulting lived attitudes, behaviors and cognitive beliefs after the intervention, it is important for me to practice this ability to make myself aware of the impact that advertising, specifically sexual advertisements and even more so with subliminal sexual ads, has on me and others in my society.

With the critical media analysis skills I’ve learned over the term, I am going to apply the practices to the following ad, and really pick it apart to understand how the sexual embeds are not a coincidence, a product of the viewer’s “mind in the gutter”, or accidental design fails, but rather decisions that advertisement producers made deliberately to imply sexual symbols and themes.

Here is a Marlboro advertisement with obvious sexual embeds. Following, I will conduct a basic analysis of the layers of meaning as well as a more in-depth analysis of the four dimensions of media literacy.

Basic Analysis of the Layers of Meaning in the Ad-

  • The Surface Meaning:
    • This ad shows an example of sexual content in the form of sexual referents with the shape and location of the letters in the brand name implying phallic imagery.
    • In the photo, a Western-dressed male stands between two doors of what looks like a barn. His left arm is leaning up against one door with a pair of working gloves bunched in his fist and his right arm hangs down, his hand adjusting the spurs on on of his cowboy boots while his left leg rests on his right knee. His head is angled down, presumably looking at what he is adjusting on his boot, with his cowboy hat hiding all of his face except for a small part of his chin and a cigarette that is held in his mouth.
    • The brand name, Marlboro is printed at a slanted angle across the man’s body.
  • The Advertiser’s Intended Meaning:
    • The words say “Come to where the flavor is”, pointing out that their brand of cigarettes have different flavors or a particularly desirable flavor to be sought after as opposed to another brand that wouldn’t necessarily be in the same place “where the flavor is”.
    • Associates the product with the cowboy narrative and the narrative that these cigarettes are good for men.
  • The Cultural or Ideological Meaning: 
    • By his dirty chaps, boots, and the fact that he is holding workers gloves, the image seems to depict a working class man, possibly one who would need to relax or decompress from his hard day of work with a cigarette.
    • More overtly noticeable is the way the “l” and “b” of “Marlboro” are adjusted so that the base of the letters starts on the man’s crotch and extend at about a 45 degree angle upward and to the right of the image, the space between the two letters creating a phallic symbol that mimics a man’s erection. Then, at the top of the letters where the “l” and “b” end, the words “come where the flavor is” are written in white, the color of semen, and formatted to look like they are ‘spraying out’ of the phallic symbol of the “l” and “b” the way that semen would be ejaculated from a penis.
    • In addition to the text being set up to picture the form of an ejaculating erection, the phrase uses the word “come” particularly for it’s reference to “cum”, a cultural slang term that means  to orgasm or ejaculate. The phrase also associates the penis and semen from the phallic imagery as being “where the flavor is”, referencing the act of oral sex.
    • The use of language portraying oral sex in this advertisement tries to sell the belief that giving a man oral sex is/ will be pleasureful because the man’s erection and/ or semen is flavorful.
    • After the Brokeback Mountain movie came out, this cowboy identity could just as easily as not, be assumed to reference homosexual encounters.

4 Dimensions of Media Analysis-

  • Production:
    • This advertisement takes place on the medium of a photograph, most likely for print advertising.
    • I would assume it was made by heterosexual producers, most likely males whose sexual interest/ fantasy is oral sex.
    • With the blur of green at the bottom of the image, it appears that the ad was produced from the point of view of someone hiding in the bushes (peeping Tom perspective), someone unknown to the subject of attention.
  • Language:
    • Sexual language in the phrase that says “come to where the flavor is”. Also through the location of the “l” and “b” on the man’s body as well as the way the brand name is turned to create a phallic shape on his crotch.
    • The color of the text and shape that the tagline is laid out in alludes to male ejaculation and is located at what would be the tip of the man’s boner with regards to the fallacy.
    • The man’s body language is cool, calm, collected as he holds a cigarette in his mouth. His casual deftness is (as I assume) meant to be a turn-on for women and a #goal for other men.
    • As previously discussed, the way the viewer takes on a perspective of someone hiding and watching from the bushes tells the narrative of a presumably female woman stalking her male love/ sex interest, OR, could be telling the narrative of another man; one who wants to be like the man pictured.
  • Representation:
    • The message of the tagline in conjunction with the ‘creeper in the bushes’ persona that the viewers of this ad take on result in the company trying to tell the truth/ send the message that if you are a male audience, “you need to come to the other side where the grass is greener and where the flavor is! You will get oral sex if you smoke these cigarettes! You will look masculine, in control, and effortlessly sexy! You won’t have to watch jealously from afar if you join us under this brand!” and if you are a female audience, “you will enjoy giving oral sex to this man and others like him if you smoke Marlboro cigarettes/ hangout with men that smoke Marlboro! You will be able to enjoy this ‘flavor’ of men!” (Flavor being his cowboy stereotype).
    • In addition to the sexual connotation of the word “come” and the tale that oral sex will be positive and enjoyable for the one giving the favor by using the word “flavor” to relate to the taste of the penis and/or semen, the word could also represent a more flavorful, spiced-up life in general. “Flavor” could be used to attract those looking for more fun and enjoyable lifestyle that supposedly comes along with smoking this brand.
    • Also, from what I can tell, this ad only shows representation of white, working-class or working-middle-class men.
    • Represents all cigarette smokers as cowboys, and all cowboys as cigarette smokers.
    • Really sticks with the stereotype of cowboy hat, riding chaps and boots with spurs.
    • Presents cigarette smoking as a positive experience for men who do it, women who do it, men who want to get women to give them oral sex, women who want to get sexy cowboys, etc.
  • Audience:
    • Could be for either a man or a woman, as I’ve described how it is targeted to entice both gender identities to buy into the “truths” about the Marlboro life. However, as mentioned above, it could be targeting gay audiences who also subscribe to the Brokeback Mountain gay cowboy fantasy.
    • Probably mostly directed toward middle-age men and women as opposed to youth and adolescents.
    • This ad, because of the singularity of the Western/ cowboy identity and the fact that not everyone can relate to that identity or lifestyle, fails to take into account its potential clients who connect better with the urban cigarette smoker.

Examples of Subliminal Messages

Sexual subliminal messages can appear in advertisements in a few different ways. In many of the following examples, the word “sex” or other sexual profanities are hidden in the image. In the other following examples, sexual imagery or phallic objects appear in the visuals of the advertisement to allude to sexual themes.

Here, you can see the word sex hidden in the image of this couple on a boat.


This Gucci ad depicts a pretty obvious use of phallic images with the way the hand grips the belt and how it is positioned in relation to where his penis would be. 

media analysis

In this interactive banner from Subway’s official website, the animated sandwich steam rises from the sub, spelling out the word “sex”.

phelpsThis one is an example of how the Sunny Delight logo is strategically formed in a phallic shape.SunnyD

In this advertisement, not only the words used (“try our hard pack”) imply sexual themes, but the hidden phallic images do as well.the-original-ad-is-on-the-left-subliminal-parts-are-highlighted-on-the-right

In this shocking Coca Cola ad, there is an image of oral sex hidden in the ice.subliminal-advertising_160276-e1374787420143

Similarly, Coke hid the implication of sex into their soda machine by modifying the ice on top of the can into the form of a woman’s curvy body. Screen shot 2010-07-19 at 3.33.57 PM

Pepsi follows suit by imbedding the word “sex” into the boy’s shorts in this advertisement. pep

In this advertisement, the ketchup is being poured onto the hot dog in a way that is meant to appear similar to the image of a tongue on a penis.ketchup

Likewise, this beer ad, which uses subtle placement of beer bottles to illustrate a woman’s behind and legs when turned upside-down. Heineken-Subliminal-Message

This advertisement is similar in that it uses common objects to reference the sexual imagery of a woman’s breasts.ddeedbb071319e6d91771c83c390b543

This image uses the phallicy of the rocket on the computer screen headed in the direction of the woman’s genitalia to imply sex in the advertisement.


This advertisement is a little more obvious in that it implies oral sex with the way the sandwich is shaped and placed directly in front of the woman’s open mouth.

burger king adtimes

Similar to the use of Heineken bottles to shape a woman’s behind, this ice cream advertisement places the chocolate bars in the shape of a woman’s back, behind, and legs. 


Going back to the theme of advertisements that use hidden letters to spell out “sex”, this Gin advertisement imbed the letters into the ice to associate the product with sex. 


This one is more a phallic example again, where the seat and emergency break in the car indicate a man’s erection.boner

This advertisement from the British yellowpages pictures a woman touching her genitalia when turned upside-down, exemplifying explicit sexual imagery in the advertisement.adtimes (24)

In this Calvin Klein advertisement, the producers used the table in the background to form an “F”, the neckline of the woman’s top to form a “U”, and the CK for their brand all in conjunction to spell out a sexual word, hidden in the image. adtimes (29)

Again, very similar to the Heineken and Magnum advertisements, this foot cream ad uses feet in order to allude to a woman’s behind.a079f0f444aadb9ed1b5a188ed2c6a59

This is a pretty clear use of inanimate objects to create phallicy in the advertisement.80715434

In this example, oranges are purposely placed in this way to create the shape of a woman’s behind in thong underwear to go along with the stereotype of Brazil to have lots of women with big assets and help to sell their brand.


Similarly, the fruit in these ads are meant to mimic sexual body forms including breasts, buttocks, rectums and vaginas. 


This advertisement is extremely comparable to the last in that the object to be sold is used to allude to the sexuality of a woman’s breast. 


This image again uses objects to mimic sexual forms, and in this case it uses certain body parts to allude to other body parts. The two fingers are meant to imply legs and the hair between them to imply pubic hair, providing another example of sexual image imbeds. 


Pepsi uses “sex” in their product again with the design on these soda cans spelling out the word when stacked one on top of the other. 


This advertisement uses phallicy once again to portray the building in the background as male genitalia, associating the company with sexual innuendos. 

1glengarry-26490100015_xlargeThis video describes how an ice cream company uses the allusion of a woman’s body in their commercial to connect their product with sex subliminally. 

Do they actually work? HOW?? Why are they used? What’s the point?

As I’ve discovered, these types of messages are, in fact, a real thing that actually work. But I still can’t wrap my head around HOW  messages can be fed into a viewer’s mind without them even knowing it, let alone how the information can actually influence behavior. Or WHY in God’s name companies use sexual subliminal messages in particular to sell their products…

After doing some research, it makes a little more sense why companies decide to use subliminal messages. The author of Subliminal Manipulation, a blog that explores some of these same ideas, explained that when information has to pass through conscious perception, the viewer has the opportunity to critically analyze what they are seeing and act as an active media consumer, using their own skepticism, judgment, questioning and evaluation to consciously decide whether they will resist or accept the information to remember and be impacted by. When information reaches a viewer subconsciously, the chance that it will be rejected is taken out of the equation and the subliminal message gets the secret fast-pass to the brain with no conscious apprehension or critique to stop it from having an effect on the viewer. That info, like all the other info that the viewer has consciously chosen to keep and allow to influence them, is stored forever in the brain and has the ability to manipulate beliefs, values, judgement, attitudes and behavior, seemingly unconsensually!

And though I do not agree that this method of message transmission is very fair for the media consumer, who, because of the subliminal aspect, has no choice in the matter of what is received and allowed to make it’s impression on them, I can at the very least understand why companies would use it as a tactic for selling their product.

As for the sexual imagery and wording in many subliminal advertisements, it comes down to more than just an association of the product with pleasure. The sexual symbols in these types of subliminal advertisements are designed to unconsciously stimulate socially taboo emotions and thoughts in the viewer such as arousal and sexual excitement. By initiating these involuntary thought processes, the advertising company can assure that the viewer will become emotionally involved with and attached to the product through a desire that has been created by the subliminal message, one that can only be satisfied by consumption of that product in particular.

What is interesting is how the concept of taboos plays a part in the influence that the message has on the audience. Since many of the sexual images in subliminal ads are seen as taboo, such as a silhouette of oral sex hidden in the pile of ice cubes surrounding a Coke bottle for example, it is automatically, and thus subconsciously, repressed so that the viewer doesn’t even realize that their brain has seen something hidden in the ad. However, the brain has taken this image in, regardless of whether or not the viewer was aware. Information in the subconscious mind can make it’s way up to consciousness, but the brain filters through this information and only emerges what is seen as socially acceptable. Support for this idea was found in the British Medical Journal in 1957 which stated,

“Recent work in this field has been reviewed by N. Jenkins. Some of this work indicates that thresholds of awareness can be raised or lowered in response to the pleasant or threatening nature of the material displayed. This evidence suggests that the “decision” to see a stimulus, like a word, must be made at a high level [of awareness] and yet without conscious awareness… K. B. Stein found that some neurotics consistently raised their threshold for aggressive material, while others lowered it” (p 929).

As this article suggests, the brain evaluates material and responds to socially unaccepted or taboo material by keeping it in the subconscious. Since the erotic thoughts and feelings of sexual desire resulting from the viewer’s exposure to the Coke ad may not be seen as socially acceptable, they stay in the subconscious and are later expressed as desires and wants for the product that those feelings and emotions stemmed from. These wants and desires are what can influence the viewer’s actions, usually by prompting them to purchase the advertised product.

So essentially, the companies that advertise this way are taking advantage of the subconscious mind and are feeding the viewer sexual content which their brain automatically represses, but then reduces to feelings of arousal that are specifically tied to the product that produced this sensual reaction. To me, this form of advertising seems a little to similar to sexual assault.

What is a subliminal message?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word ‘subliminal’ means “existing or functioning below the threshold of consciousness; inadequate to produce a perception.” So, in relative terms, something subliminal, (like a message sent in an advertisement) is just something that influences your mind in a way that you don’t notice!

The use of subliminal stimulation in advertising is an intentional process of message transmission created by communication technicians and the producers of the advertisement. Basically, the job of these technicians and producers is to construct the advertisement so that the audience of a particular ad or commercial will receive information without even being aware that their brain picked up on it. That process happens when words or images are presented in a sort of hidden way in the advertisement so that the message bypasses conscious awareness, meaning the viewer intakes the message and internalizes the information unconsciously.

Crazy right?

It’s hard to imagine that  advertisements can be designed deliberately to influence behavior on a subconscious level. But somehow, whether you like it, agree with it, or believe it to be ethical or not, this technique works! (Somehow…)