The death of Wilson Bryan Key in 2008 received very little comment, nor does Google Scholar turn up many recent discussions of his legacy; the majority of references come from the 1970s and ‘80s, falling off in frequency and substance after that. His writings are unlikely to be taught, and it seems that they destroyed his academic career. But the central Keysian thesis – that the advertising industry conceals images of sex and death in its work, the better to control the consumer – has exercised more widespread influence than most other contributions in media criticism.
His first books, Subliminal Seduction (1973) and Media Sexploitation (1976) emerged from the freewheeling courses that he taught as a professor of communications at the University of Western Ontario. Later, in The Clam-Plate Orgy (1980), Key wrote at some length about being marginalized by colleagues and the administration, and says that a lawyer retained by the university offered him $64,000 to go away. (He accepted the money, and later said that the $64,000 question was, “What is the cost of academic freedom?”) In an interview conducted a few years before he died, Key indicated that around 8.5 million copies of his books had sold, which is believable given how ubiquitous they once were at paperback stands. For a while he was in some demand as a lecturer, and I have no doubt that his theories were entertaining to hear about as he displayed large blow-up posters of commercial artwork to shore up his claims.
Key's interpretations had a wide-eyed, relentless quality -- an endless series of revelations, pursuing a logic all their own. He pointed out the obscene images you could find in the ice cubes of a liquor ad. He found covert lesbian scenarios implied by the exchange of glances in a fashion spread, and explained the real meanings of popular song lyrics, such as “Hey Jude” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (an invitation to try heroin and an appeal to commit suicide, respectively). All of this stuff worked on the public’s unconscious mind, stirring up hidden desires and channeling them in ways that benefited our corporate overlords.
Sometimes even the products themselves aimed subliminal messages at us. The makers of Ritz crackers, for example, had managed to inscribe the word “sex” a great many times on each one's crinkled, buttery surface. How the manufacturer did this was never quite explained. Nor did Key adequately account for how the message would influence the consumer. The urge to stare at a Ritz cracker is just not that common.
Marshall McLuhan wrote in his preface to Subliminal Seduction that it resembled Foucault’s book The Archeology of Knowledge. The comparison proves as baffling as anything generated by Key’s free associations, if less titillating. I spent a while trying to figure out what McLuhan might have meant, only to conclude that the time would have been better used reading a good Pop-Tart.
Charles R. Acland never says anything so florid in Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence, published by Duke University Press. It’s a sober book covering an occasionally weird stretch of cultural territory. Acland, a professor of communication studies at Concordia University, in Montreal, calls the concept of subliminal influence a form of “vernacular cultural critique.” It operates in a zone lying somewhere between social science and urban legend. And the belief is a hardy one. Over the years, public-opinion surveys in the United States have found that between 50 and 70 percent of respondents think that advertisers used subliminal techniques, with comparably high levels of belief in their effectiveness.
“On an anecdotal and personal level,” Acland writes, “teachers of media and cultural studies know that the idea of subliminal influences enjoys popularity among students, a popularity that curiously exists side by side with the view that the media have little or no impact upon an individual’s thinking.” That contradictory outlook runs throughout the amazingly large archive of material he draws on to document Swift Viewing: newspaper editorials, Congressional hearings, science fiction novels, B movies, sociological treatises, and "Saturday Night Live" skits, among others.
The familiar thumbnail history begins in 1957, when the marketing researcher James Vicary announced the results of an experiment involving more than 14,000 patrons of a New Jersey movie theater. The words “drink Coca Cola” and “eat popcorn” were flashed on the screen for 1/3000th of a second every five seconds during the projection of a feature film, with the result that Coke sales went up by more than 57 percent, and popcorn sales by more than 18 percent. This revelation happened to come just after publication of Vance Packard’s first best-selling volume of pop sociology, The Hidden Persuaders, which reported on how Madison Avenue used psychological research to designing its campaigns.
Between them, Vicary and Packard created an uproar. At least one politician warned that subliminal advertising would lead to Communism -- an unusual perspective on postwar American consumerism, to say the least. But fascination with the possibility of subliminal influence was not just another Cold War anxiety, since public interest in it ebbed and flowed over time, picking up other cultural tendencies as it did. Wilson Bryan Key’s books are quintessentially mid-1970s texts. They appealed to a suspicion, post-Watergate and post-Vietnam War, that the powers-that-be were trying to trick and manipulate the public, and they also manifested some dread at the sexual revolution. (The powers-that-be were evidently were swingers.) Then in the late 1980s and early '90s, an industry in subliminal audiotapes and videos flourished, directing messages about self-esteem and weight loss at audience willing to put up with New Age music: all the benefits of self-improvement, with none of the distractions of putting in any effort.
Belief in subliminal influence established itself so thoroughly that the lack of evidence for it did not matter. Attempts to duplicate Vicary’s results from the New Jersey movie theater failed. And for very good reason: in 1962, Vicary admitted to Ad Age that he had embellished the data. Even that seems to have been a bluff: the manager of the theater knew nothing about the alleged study. (Subsequent tests of other techniques for subliminal influence have never yielded any evidence that it exists.)
The author is curiously protective of Vicary’s reputation, such as it is. “While the veracity of his research was sometimes questionable,” Acland writes, “and he may have been a habitual liar or bad researcher, he was also an innovator of what he later referred to as ‘creative marketing research,’ for which he advocated.” (The comic value of that sentence is presumably unintended.) But there was more to Vicary than his explorations of the fine line between creativity and a con artistry. Acland notes that Vicary once worked at the Bureau of Social Research at Columbia University, run by Paul Lazarsfeld -- a seminal figure in the development of sociological research in the U.S. from World War Two on. Acland also corrects a number of errors in other scholars' accounts of Vicary, filling in the backstory on someone otherwise remembered, if at all, as hoaxster.
Stressing Vicary’s earlier career as a marketing researcher who published in the field's academic journals serves to reinforce Acland’s larger argument: the notion of subliminal influence -- however dubious its conception, however resistant to being tested in controlled conditions – is the product of ideas and innovations that had been churning around in modern culture since at least the late 19th century. It incorporates elements of Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd (1896), with its analysis of an irrational "mass" or "popular" mind, susceptible to the contagion-like spread of an influence. It also reflects the extremely wide diffusion of belief in levels of consciousness below awareness, if in less subtle forms than the theories of William James or Sigmund Freud. And Acland has a chapter on the tachistoscope, a device created to measure the speed with which research subjects could recognize an image.
The notion of subliminal influence, then, was a synthesis of these ideas, and some effort to combine them was probably a matter of time. But it happened to crystallize at a special moment, only a few years after the term “brainwashing” entered the English language – and just about the time television found its place in most American homes. Acland show that for every paranoid response to Vicary's claims, there was a sardonic or skeptical cartoon or TV skit. But either way, the reactions acknowledged the sense of being ever more intensely bombarded with messages intended to manipulate the public mind. Belief in subliminal influence could sink deep roots in the culture because there is such fertile soil to nurture it: the growing “speed, intricacy, and density of the media environment,” in Acland's formulation, as people dealt with “worries about the cost of affluence and conformity, about the boundaries of commercial culture, about media representation, and about social control.”
Discussing the preface to Subliminal Seduction, Acland says: "McLuhan wrote that new electronic technology was weakening restrictive monopolies of knowledge, opening general access to ideas and information that had been available only to a few expert eyes, a claim one hears applied to the Internet today." The usual techno-utopianism, then. But with an underside: "This weakening, according to McLuhan, created a clot of information, too abundant to systematize and study...." I'm not sure how this applies the claim that Ritz crackers are whispering lewd suggestions, but the broader implication seems clear: the supersaturated media is the subliminal message.
Full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members lack a professional identity and a sense of self-worth, according to a new paper in the journal American Behavioral Scientist. The study is based on in-depth interviews with 18 full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members in English departments. “Right now, they have become like serfs – a labor force for tenure-track faculty,” said John S. Levin, who is the Bank of America Professor of Education Leadership at the University of California at Riverside. “That needs to change. Institutions need to take responsibility for these employees.”
In my sophomore literature class, I read a passage aloud from perhaps our best-known slave narrative, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, in which Douglass characterizes the nefarious effects of slavery on his new mistress, Sophia Auld:
The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord; and that angelic face gave place to that of a demon.
But then I stopped and asked, "What does the word commenced mean?" Silence. "What about infernal?" Silence. "Accord?" Embarrassed smiles all around.
In the past I would have given my standard lecture about looking up words instead of relying on something my students call "context clues," which I take to mean anything that prevents them from stopping, briefly, to do it the old-fashioned way. They have told me that they learned about "context clues" from previous teachers. I ask them what the word "context" means. Silence.
Douglass intimates that the worst part about slavery isn't the work or the whippings or the cold or the hunger or even the literal shackles. It's neither the blood nor the rapes. No, it's the compulsory ignorance, the full force of a system that understands slavery can only exist by the deprivation of learning, the absence, as it were, of light.
So I asked them: "What’s it like to be slaves?" I wasn't referring to Douglass, and I think some of them knew it.
As a child Douglass overhears his master, Hugh Auld, tell the naively benevolent Sophia to stop teaching him to read: "A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do," Auld tells her. "Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world" and "would forever unfit him to be a slave." This is the moment of enlightenment for Douglass as he discovers through serendipity and keen discernment what he had always pondered: "to wit, the white man's power to enslave the black man." He resolves to learn to read, reasoning that compulsory ignorance is the tool that keeps him and his fellow slaves in bondage.
"It is hard to have a southern overseer," Douglass’s contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, wrote in Walden; "it is worse to have a northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself." Although Thoreau refers to physical labor that fails the test of self-enlightenment, his larger point applies to my students who, too, seem explicitly bent upon achieving their own contemporary version of metaphysical enslavement. Both Douglass and Thoreau would recognize and lament this mentality, and walk away confused by the disheartening juxtaposition of material affluence and imaginative poverty. And then they would use words to write about it.
It bears asking, though, what such students might be enslaved to, or by. Dangerous ideas? Not likely. The latest in chic outerwear for the fall season? Too late. Without sounding overly prejudicial, it is difficult to conceive of much that would fundamentally threaten their defensive sense of self-assurance, which is often no such thing. What I want to say here is that I am not always sure what I would like to free my students from — figurative slavery notwithstanding — since so many of them seem blissfully happy in their formidable selves. It's freedom to I’m concerned with.
Complicating my bewilderment is that I have no transgenerational ax to grind, knowing as I do that the cry of English professors over their students' supposed failings is pretty standard fare for well over a century at least, and anyway, the topic simply isn’t that interesting before the third beer.
So here's what I want, in part: I want my students to become interesting people — that is, more interesting than they already are. I want to be able to talk to them in 10 years about Frederick Douglass, and if they aren’t into Frederick Douglass I would wish that they have a passion about something, as I think many of them will. Most important, my foremost desire is for them to have the tools to express their passion, whatever that passion may be. One of these tools is vocabulary; the more important other is curiosity.
You have an English professor, a text, and a class. You ideally have the formula for some kind of reimagining of the self, the world, the text — even the professor. And a choice gets made not to make that transformation, not out of any inchoate philosophical positioning (echoing Bartleby the Scrivener’s "I would prefer not to"), but, well, just because. I would prefer not to. Or, more reasonably, the students choose not to out of fear, having failed in their previous attempts, or because the words themselves are another in a long list of obstacles familial, cultural, and structural.
But imagine, too, how Douglass's autobiography would look had he made the same choice not to pay attention to the signs around him. It would look like silence, the kind of silence we used to see on walls in New York City in the early and middle years of the AIDS crisis: Silence = death, a morbid equation that would touch Douglass at his very core and about which, I am certain, he and Thoreau would have much to say.
Thus his communicative power — indeed, any communicative power — is tied inextricably to literal and figurative liberation; it is liberation’s proximate and ultimate precondition. Sadly, many of my students miss the nuances of Douglass’s story because its function as literary text shuts down that act of communication. Think of it: an aesthetic and polemical text — no, a book! — a slave narrative that misses its mark because the author, himself an escaped slave with no formal education, uses words too well. The very words that helped to free Douglass are now the mark of another form of enslavement. I try to encourage my students to think of the profundity of a boy, then a man, who was everywhere unrecognized as a boy or man until his escape, and even then he remained of questionable status. His devotion to learning as a slave in fact allowed him to occupy the space of all those who kept him from such learning. He took power.
I want my students to take the same power, even if it seems significantly less is at stake. Maybe that's the problem. Maybe it only appears as if nothing other than a letter grade is on the line. If so, that’s exactly where we as educators have failed. We have to find a way to free them and ourselves. Why keep pretending? Why continue the charade? Slavery, as Douglass tells us, affects everyone, including the masters whose tyrannical assumption of power corrupts even the beneficent Sophia Auld. I want my students to free me, too. They can only do this by assuming and wielding the power I would most readily concede. Take it, I want to tell them. Kill me.
William Major is professor of English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford.
In today’s Academic Minute, Barbara Gold of Hamilton College outlines the difference in how love is experienced today and how it was expressed by the writers of ancient Rome. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.