Introduction to Subliminal Seduction By Wilson Bryan Key
by Marshall McLuhan,
Director, Centre for Culture and Technology
University of Toronto
Customer in antique shop: “What’s new?”
Professor Key has helped to show how the deceits of sub¬liminal advertising can be a means of revealing unexpected truth: the childlike faith of the ad agencies in four-letter words points to our obsession with infantile bathroom images as the chemical bond between commercial society and the universal archetypes.
The old journalism had aimed at objectivity by giving “both sides at once,” as it were, the pro and con, the light and shade in full perspective. The “new journalism,” on the other hand, eagerly seeks subjectivity and involvement in a resonant environment of events: Norman Mailer at the Chicago Convention, or Truman Capote writing In Cold Blood.
In the same way, the old history—as Michael Foucault ex-plains in The Archeology of Knowledge (Pantheon Books, New York, 1972)–sought to show “how a single pattern is formed and preserved, how for so many different successive minds there is a single horizon.” But now the problem of the “new history” is “no longer one of tradition, of tracing a line, but one of division, of limits. It is no longer one of lasting foundations, but one of transformations that serve as new foundations….”
The study of advertising as contemporary cultural history, of history on the hop and in the hopper, of history as process rather than as a product, such is the investigation of Pro¬fessor Key. Advertising is an environmental striptease for a world of abundance. But environments as such have a way
Viii WILSON BRYAN KEY
of being inaccessible to inspection. Environments by reason of their total character are mostly subliminal to ordinary experience. Indeed, the amount of any situation, private or social, verbal or geographic, that can be raised and held to the con¬scious level of attention is almost insignificant. Yet ads de¬mand a lot of attention in our environmental lives. Ads are focal points for the entire range of twentieth-century knowl¬edge, skills, and technologies. Psychologists and anthropolo¬gists toil for the agencies. So, Professor Key has drawn our attention to the use made in many ads of the highly developed arts of camouflage.
T.S. Eliot long ago pointed out that the camouflage function of “meaning” in a poem was like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the house-dog of the mind so that the poem could do its work. Professor Key explains that the proclaimed purpose of the ad may, at one level, be just such a decoy so that the ad may do its work at another level of consciousness.
Secrets Within Banality
Today many people feel uneasy when serious attention is paid to objects and subjects that they are accustomed to classify as “trash.” They feel that the base commercial opera¬tion of ads is beneath any claim to their awareness or analy¬sis.Such people, on the one hand, have little heeded the les¬sons of history and archaeology which reveal how the mid¬den-heaps of the ages provide the wisdom and riches of the present. And yet, on the other hand, they know how their snobbish “freeze” (or surrender) in the presence of the horrid vulgarities of commerce is exactly what is needed to render them the cooperative puppets of ad manipulation. The ad as camouflage often uses the blatant appeal to hide more subtle and powerful motivations than appear on the surface.
Shakespeare’s oft misquoted remark about “one touch of nature” that “makes the whole world kin” really concerns the eagerness of men to swallow a flattering bait. He is not suggesting that natural beauty is a social bond!
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin: That all with one consent praise new-born gawds Though they are made and moulded of things past,
And give to dust that is a little gilt More laud than gilt o’erdusted.
Men are united only in their eagerness to be deceived by appearances.
The wise gods seal our eyes;
In our own filth drop our clear judgments; make us Adore our errors; laugh at us while we strut To our confusion
Thus part of the business of the ad is to seem frank, open, hearty, and direct. The business establishment long ago founded itself on ebullient attitudes of trust and confidence which were part of the discovery that “Honesty is the best policy” and “Crime doesn’t pay.” “Policy,” of course, is the Machiavellian term for “deceit,” so immediate and overt honesty can be camouflage for ultimate exploitation, in ads as in politics. However, we live today in the first age of the electric information environment, and there is now a sense in which we are the first generation that can say, “There is nothing old under the sun.”
Since Sputnik (October 17, 1957), the planet Earth went inside a man-made environment and Nature yielded its an¬cient reign to Art and Ecology. Ecology was born with Sputnik, for in an electric information environment all events become clamorous and simultaneous. An old adage at IBM is: “Information overload equals pattern recognition.” At instant speed the hidden becomes plain to see.
Minds Are Quicker Than Eyes
Since the mind is very much faster than light (it can go to Mars and back in an instant, whereas light takes minutes), the hidden structure of many old things can now become apparent. With the new information surround, not only specialisms and monopolies of knowledge become less useful, but the world of the subliminal is greatly reduced. Whatever the practical uses and expediency of the subliminal may have been in the past, they are not as they were. Even the future is not what it used to be. For at electric speeds it is necessary to anticipate the future in order to live in the present, and vice versa.
Necessarily, the age of instant information prompts men
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to new kinds of research and development. It is, above all, an age of investigation and of espionage. For in the total information environment, man the hunter and scanner of environments returns to supervise the inner as well as the outer worlds, and nothing is now unrelated or irrelevant.
T.S. Eliot has two statements that directly concern our new simultaneous world of “auditory” or “acoustic” space in which electric man now dwells on the “wired planet.” The first passage is from his discussion of “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” explaining that “the whole of literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” It is the character of auditory space, which we make in the act of hearing, to be a sphere whose center is everywhere and whose margin is nowhere, for we hear from all directions at once.
In the magnetic city of the new electric environment we receive data from all directions simultaneously, and thus we exist in a world sphere of resonant information that is structured and which acts upon us in the auditory pattern. Eliot had regard to the role of the individual talent faced by this new kind of richness of tradition and experience. So it is not strange that our time should witness a revival of many forms of oral culture and group performance, any more than it is strange that we should see on all hands the awakening and cultivation of occult traditions, and new concern with inner life and visionary experience.
For these are resonant things hidden from the eye. The wide interest in every kind of structuralism in language and art and science is direct testimony to the new dominance of the nonvisual values of audile-tactile involvement and group participation. In fact, it could be said that there is very little in the new electric technology to sustain the visual values of civilized detachment and rational analysis.
Mr. Eliot’s second statement on the world of the simultaneous concerns the “auditory imagination”:
What I call “auditory imagination” is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word: sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the
SUBLIMINAL SEDUCTION xi
ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated, and the trite, the current, and the new and the surprising, the most ancient and the most civilized mentality.
Eliot here speaks of the mind’s ear, the subliminal depths and reach of the corporate tongue bridging countless generations and cultures in an eternal present. Eliot and Joyce accepted language as the great corporate medium that encodes and environs the countless dramas and transactions of man. Their raids on this vast inarticulate resource have made literary history on a massive scale.
Meantime the enormous new environment of advertising has sprung up as a service for the consumer who hardly knows what to think of his newly bought cars and swimming pools. It is well known to the frogmen of Madison Avenue that those who read or hear the ads are mostly those who have already bought one of the objects displayed. “Ask the man who owns one,” or “You feel better satisfied when you use a well-known brand.” The fact is that the ad world is a colossal put-on as much as the world of fashion or art or politics or entertainment. The stripper puts on her audience by taking off her clothes, and the poet puts on his public by stripping or dislocating the familiar rhythms and habits of expression.
How about the adman’s rip-off? He must move on more than one level in order to obtain the interplay that involves the public.
The poet lets us look at the world through the mask of his poem while wearing us as his mask: “hypocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere,” said Baudelaire to his reader. The adman shows us the world through the mesh or mask of his product while playfully putting on our cash and credit as his own motley. But that there may be another level of reinforcement, the ads sometimes provide a barrage of optimistic innocence along with an undercurrent of guilty joys and fears upon which the blatant, gesticulating commercial rides piggyback. It is the quest of Professor Key to unconceal this hidden ground of the ad as figure, and to reveal the conflict between them.
Scuba Diving into Hidden Backgrounds
Xii WILSON BRYAN KEY
It may be that the impulse of the admen to use the hidden ground of our lives in a furtive way in their ads is no mere surrender to base impulse and greed for power. By replayingthe hot glamorous images in a cool scatological pattern, the subliminal message becomes a dramatic irony of the superficial and conscious one.
The subliminal replay of the open appeal thus offers an offbeat jazz quality of quarter notes sourly commenting on the full notes, by way of a wry twist. It is the role Freud himself played as diver into the dirty unhygienic depth beneath the dewy Romantic sentiment. At the extreme point, Freud the diver got a signal: “Surface at once. Ship is sinking.” When he came up for air he wrote about “Civilization and its Discontents.” After a long session in the dark unconscious, Freud recognized the visual and literate world as the location of civilized values and awareness. The dark within is the world of tribal or acoustic man who resists civilization as do our dropouts. Professor Key brings out the struggle between these worlds as inherent in the very structure of the not-so-humble ads that provide the directives and the competitive taste patterns of our commerce and our entertainment.
Bugging and Sleuthing have become a universal Business, like education. The electric age is the age of the hunter. It is the age of simultaneous information. The simultaneous ends the subliminal by making it as much a structural part of consciousness as former specialism or monopoly or secrecy. The age just behind us was the opposite of the electric age. The mechanical and industrial society was the age of steam and hardware and highway and monopoly and specialism. It was a visual world.
The age of the electrical and simultaneous is the age of environmental and ecological awareness. Structurally speaking, the simultaneous is acoustic rather than visual. We hear from all directions at once, and that is why the reign of the subliminal is ending. The subliminal or the hidden can be present to the hearing when it is not accessible to the eye.
It makes much sense when N. F. Dixon writes in Suhliminal Perception that experienced psychologists of our sense lives have bypassed the subliminal and the auditory in favor of visual investigation. For the psychological, as much as for any other establishment, the commitments are to the preceding age of the visual. However, the new age is also subliminal to its predecessor. It is, therefore, easy to know that the eye may be solicited by lines it cannot see, and our judgments warped by motives that are not in consciousness nor in the habitual patterns of our nervous systems, “for
SUBLIMINAL SEDUCTION xiii
the whole environment is full of subliminal influences which experienced psychologists have systematically neglected.”
It is only fair to add that the electric environment is manmade and new, and experienced psychologists, quite as much as the rest of the population, continue to adhere to the older and familiar and visually structured world of the hardware age in which they invested all had. For the visual is the world of the continuous and the connected and the rational and the stable.
Since we have now put an electrical environment of resonant information around the old visual one, our daily adaptations and responses are at least as much to the new acoustic environment as to the old visual world. If one were to ask, “Which is the better world?” it would be necessary to explain that the values of an acoustical and musically oriented society are not those of the classically visual and civilized society.
Predictions of the Past
For good or ill, we have phased ourselves out of the older visual society by our electric technology that is as instant as light. If we want to get back into a visually ordered world, we shall have to recreate the conditions of that world. Meantime we have a new environment of instant information that upsets and “pollutes” all patterns of the old visual sequences.
Nothing is “in concatenation accordingly” in the simultaneous world of sound. Effects now easily and naturally precede causes, and we can freely predict the past.
At the speed of light our space-time coexistence tends to give us the whimsical manners of the girl in Professor Butler’s limerick:
There was a young lady named Bright Who moved with the quickness of light; She went out one day
In a relative way,
And returned the previous night.
At electric speed, the goals and objectives of the old sequential and visual world are irrelevant. Either they are attained before we start or we are out of date before we arrive. All forms of specialist training suffer especially. Engineers
X WILSON BRYAN KEYSUBLIMINAL SEDUCTION AV
and doctors cannot graduate in time to be relevant to the innovations that occur during their training period.
Change itself becomes the only constant. We seem to live in a world of deceits and fake values where, for example, those engaged in news coverage are often more numerous than those making the news. But the creation of a total field of world information returns man to the state of the hunter, the hunter of data.
To the sleuth, to Sherlock Holmes, nothing is quite what it seems. He lives, like us, in two worlds at once, having small benefit of either. Caught between visual and acoustic worlds, physicist Werner Heisenberg enunciated the “Uncertainty Principle.” You can never perform the same experiment twice. Heraclitus, living in the old acoustic world before Greek literacy, said, “You can’t step in the same river twice.” And today in the electric world we say, “You ‘can’t step in the same river,” period.
In the Renaissance, when the old acoustic world of medieval and feudal order was quickly being overlaid by the visual order of the printed word, there was an epidemic concern about deceit and imposture. Machiavelli invented a new art of lying by stressing an extrovert mask of bluff, hearty sincerity. lago tells us that he will wear his heart on his sleeve for daws to peck at. Othello demands “ocular proof” of his wife’s infidelity, and is deceived by the same “proof.” Shakespeare’s great plays are devoted to the theme of the deceits of power. Hamlet is caught out of role. He is a medieval prince adapted to the medieval world of acoustic involvement and personal loyalty. His world of ideal musical harmony collapses into one of visual distraction and mere appearance:
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh
His dilemma is stated also by Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida:
Take but degree away, untune that string
And, hark! what discord follows; each thing meets In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores, And make a sop of all this solid globe.
Other Side of the Looking Glass
The auditory man is an ecologist because he imagines everything affecting everything, because all happens at once as in a resonating sphere. The clash between the medieval ecologist and the Renaissance man of private aims and goals is playing in reverse today. The new technology is acoustic and total. The old establishment is visual and fragmentary. All this concerns Professor Key’s study of the deceits of the admen.
These admen teams operate on the frontier between the worlds of eye and ear, of old and new. They are trying to have the best of both worlds by wearing both masks. Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s great contemporary, devoted much of his work to the presentation of the deceiver and the deceived, stressing the inherent appetite of most people to wallow in deceit as a delectable diet:
Still to be neat, still to be drest,
As you were going to a feast;
Still to be powdered, stiperfumed Lady, it is to be presumed,
Though art’s hid causes are not found, All is not sweet, all is not sound.
This could be an anti-advertisement today if equal time were allowed to query the counsel of each ad. Saving the appearances mattered more and more during the Renaissance and after. Moliere’s Misanthrope and Tartuffe are built on the assumption that truth is a matching of inner state and outer behavior. The fact that truth is making not matching, process not product, can never satisfy the visual man with his mirror held up to nature.
By contrast, Walter Pater plunged his readers into the forbidden world of the unconscious when he presented them with the image of Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” He sought the truth on the other side of the looking glass:
The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all ‘the ends of the world are come,’ and the eyelids are a little weary. . . .
Set it for a moment xvi WILSON BRYAN KEY
beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed?
Pater is fascinated by his image of a sick “soul with all its maladies,” spurning the slick white Greek goddesses of rationality. Pater has flipped, fashionably, out of the visual and back into the medieval acoustic world. “All art,” he said, “constantly aspires toward the condition of music.”
It is this music that began to be heard in the Romantic depths of the starved and rationalistic psyche of the visual cultures that reached from the Renaissance to the Victorian age. Pater’s pen portrait of “Mona Lisa” continues in a plangent tone that might win the applause of any ad copywriter:
She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.
This passage is a striking descrintion of the Western subconscious with all its evocation of the occult and of delirious vices.
It is plain that the subconscious is a wicked witch’s brew of superhuman interest for all boys and girls. This Mona Lisa affair raises a major aspect of Professor Key’s study. Does the discovery of graffiti in the deodorants and aids to glamor threaten the public of consumers, or does it merely reveal the childish itch of the admen themselves? For example, the title Gentlemen Prefer Blondes may be both immoral and immortal because it links hair and gold, faces and feces. For
SUBLIMINAL SEDUCTION xvii
gold and dung have always had affinities, even as the greatest perfumes include a subtle ingredient of excrement.
There is the further fetching factor of the author’s name, Anita Loos. It doesn’t suggest the prim Puritan altogether. Since the world of dung and excrement is quite near to the daily conscious level, are we to panic when the admen put these at the bottom of the big hamper of goodies that they proffer the affluent?
Willthe graffiti hidden under the lush appeal expedite sales or merely impede the maturity quotient of the buyers? Will the graffiti lurking in the glamor crevices set up a resonant interval of revulsion against the consumer appeals, or will the confrontation of fur and feces in the ads merely sadden and deepen and mature the childish consumer world? It is a strange and tricky game to mount the sweet enticing figure on a rotten ground.
To use, on the other hand, four-letter words in the libretto of the siren’s song may prove to be a metaphysical discovery.
The poet W.B. Yeats meditated in anguish over the plight of man:
Love has pitched his mansion in The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole That has not been rent.
He, too, is desperate over the appearances.
Just how precarious a boundary Yeats provides can be noted in his nervous betrayal in the ambiguous words “pitch” and “rent.”
“Pitch” is filth and “rent” is venal. In a word, the “Love” of Yeats can no more be trusted to present a clean slate than the overeager admen with their subliminal reinforcement of glamor by graffiti. The passionately embracing young man asks his
partner, “Why speak of love at a time like this?” The remark serves as a corollary to the moan of Yeats. But it also opens up the Playboy world where girls are playmates.
The Playboy’s Plaything
Things have changed electrically since I published The Mechanical Bride in 1951. The assembly-line love goddess, abstract and austere and inhuman, has been succeeded by hula-hooping, mini-skirted, tribally anonymous jujubes. Ut-xviii WILSON BRYAN
terly embraceable, consumable, and expendable, they expect little, for they know that the fragile ego of the playboy cannot endure the threat of any strain or commitment.
Thanks to color photography, and then to color TV, the magnetic city has become a single erogenous zone. At every turn there is an immediate encounter with extremely erotic situations which exactly correspond to the media “coverage” of violence. “Bad news” has long been the hard core of the press, indispensable for the moving of the mass of “good news” which is advertising.
These forms of sex and violence are complementary and inseparable. Just what would be the fate of wars and disasters without “coverage” could be considered a meaningless question, since the coverage itself is not only an increase of the violence but an incentive to the same.
The power-starved person can easily see himself getting top coverage if he is involved in a sufficiently outrageous act of hijacking or mayhem. The older pattern of success story by achievement simply takes too long to be practical at electric speeds. Why not make the news instead of a life?
The close relation between sex and violence, between good news and bad news, helps to explain the compulsion of the admen to dunk all their products in sex by erogenizing every contour of every bottle or cigarette. Having reached this happy state where the good news is fairly popping, the admen say, as it were: “Better add a bit of the bad news now to take the hex off all that bonanza stuff.” Let’s remind them that LOVE, replayed in reverse, is EVOL—transposing into EVIL and VILE. LIVE spells backward into EVIL, while EROS reverses into SORE. And, we should never forget the SIN in SINCERE or the CON in CONFIDENCE.
Let’s tighten up the slack sentimentality of this goo with something gutsy and grim.
As Zeus said to Narcissus:
2 thoughts on ““Information overload equals pattern recognition.” Media Ad-vice: An Introduction by Marshall McLuhan”
Thanks for posting that. This little know piece by McLuhan is an important work. It shows McLuhan’s citation of Michael Foucault and Freud.