Aghast Interpretation

“AT THIS POINT, you probably should take several deep breaths in order to relax, there is much more to come, if you’ll pardon the expression,” cautions Wilson Bryan Key, in the first chapter of his 1973 pulp best-seller Subliminal Seduction. The book, which ignited one of the Cold War era’s more banal panics—that the advertising industry is a black site of veiled salacious messages—is best remembered for its analysis of an ad for Gilbey’s gin, which Key claimed contained the letters S-E-X embedded in ice cubes. But Key goes on to argue that television and magazine ads contained stronger stuff than those three special letters. In that gin glass, for example, a whole matrix of hidden imagery could be detected just beyond the threshold of perception, including two faces, three shapes that evoke female genitalia, and a glistening droplet suggestive of semen—which, taken together, signify “an orgy with five participants.”

According to Key’s four basically interchangeable books, most of mass media is an orgy if you look closely. Using a kind of horny hermeneutics of suspicion, Key rifled through the byproducts of postwar consumerism and found taboo-breaking everywhere: a Sprite ad signifies bestiality. A vulvic form in the icing of a cake-mix ad appeals to housewives’ latent homosexual fantasies. Into every Ritz cracker is baked, faintly, dozens of little SEXes—there’s a diagram. Aimed at the repressed, unperceiving consumer subject, ads derive power from their resemblance to provocative or unsettling topics, including in written copy: “whose” evokes “whore,” “tastes” looks like “testes.” Ice cubes, with their permissively abstract highlights and shadows, remain a site of great interpretive potential: in one heady five-page analysis of the ice in a whiskey ad, Key identifies a menagerie of ancient Jungian archetypes and ritual appeals to readers’ basic drives, malevolently deployed, he writes, in an alliance between the compatible projects of sex and consumption.

Gilbey's London Dry Gin advertisement, 1971.
Gilbey's London Dry Gin advertisement, 1971.

Like the paranoid émigré in Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols,” for whom “everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme,” Key seems to be projecting. His rigorously delusional analytic method reveals his own weird lewdness, but faced with the outrageous results of his own decoding, he often sounds prudishly uncomprehending. Key’s is a phobic and conservative anti-commercialism, a relic of an era when advertising operated subtly enough to invite psychosexual interpretation, distant from our moment of marketing vibrators with viral tweets.

Is there any truth to the subliminal myth? Key’s analysis is buoyed by some boilerplate Freud that’s pretty convincing—seductive, even—including a fun reading of castration anxiety evident on late-’60s Playboy covers. But there is the old project of finding the latent in the manifest, and then there is missing the forest for the trees because every tree sort of looks like a penis. Key’s books offer a cautionary tale for demystification: in attempting to articulate certain undeniable realities—that sex and its contingent fantasies can be spectacularly profitable; that advertising is a destructive financial monoculture on which the media and entertainment industries depend; that every advertisement is essentially a dare, manipulating the viewer in complex psychological ways—they veer toward the truth and blow past it.

Around the time Key published his final book in 1989, advertisers began to ironize his work, flashing “hidden” messages in commercials at totally perceptible speeds. Saturday Night Live—cultural criticism’s final resting place—introduced a character called Mr. Subliminal, a winsome advertising executive whose manipulative powers weren’t subliminal at all (he just talked really fast). The message, in this case, was perfectly discernible: capital can sublimate even its most dubious critiques.

Lisa Borst works at n+1.