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Expert discusses the effects of subliminal advertising

By Adam Chen

Dr. Wilson Bryan Key claimed in a lecture Wednesday that the advertising industry is using subliminal messages to manipulate the public.

Key displayed several examples of common advertisements and pointed out to the audience what he said were hidden messages. Consumers have to "look in a different way," Key said, focusing on "just the opposite" of what advertising agencies intend them to focus on.

The talk, in 26-100, was sponsored by the Lecture Series Committee.

Subliminal messages often concentrate on the taboos of society -- sex, death, incest, homosexuality, and at times, pagan icons -- according to Key. He claimed that, in one liquor advertisement, the images of a fish, screaming faces, a rat, a volcano, a lizard, and several other death symbols were embedded in ice cubes. Other examples Key showed included a man with an erection in an RJ Reynolds' Camel advertisement, a battered skull in a Bacardi drink, and the word cancer in a cigarette advertisement.

Key maintained that these messages do not appear by accident, coincidence, or as the work of an individual artist. Rather, advertising agencies spend three to five months and upwards of $50,000 to scrutinize every detail in each advertisement, he claimed.

Key reported that there are some 500 published articles on the effects of subliminal suggestion in the psychology literature. While inconclusive, the research seems to indicate that subliminal messages "affect some people under some circumstances, some of the time," he said.

When asked about death themes in the ads, Key responded that "if consciously perceived, you would probably run to the nearest [Alcoholics Anonymous]," but proprietary studies have shown the ads to "work more often than they fail."

Key acknowledged that the advertising industry disagrees with his conclusions. The Los Angeles Times reported that the industry's response is that it is hard enough to get the lighting right for an advertisement, much less to put words in the ice cubes.

The Times also pointed out that many psychologists treat Key's research in subliminal suggestion as a gimmick which cannot be disproved. Key dismissed this criticism, saying that the attitude of some psychologists is that "people will see anything they want to see in just about anything."

Key has authored four books since he became interested in the subject of subliminal advertising in the early 1970s, while he was teaching psychology and communications theory at the University of Western Ontario. After working for several international advertising agencies as a research associate, his concerns made him decide to begin exposing the industry, Key said.

Currently, Key is involved in a lawsuit against CBS Records regarding a suicide in Reno two years ago, which he alleged was the result of subliminal messages in a Judas Priest record. No legal action of this type has yet succeeded in court because of First Amendment freedom of press considerations, Key said.

Key asserted that no laws presently forbid subliminal messages in advertising. While some federal agencies, such as the Federal Trade Commission, have regulations against deceptive representation, Key said they have yet to address subliminal suggestion directly.

Key claimed that "any politician would lose his job" by going against these multi-million dollar advertising agencies. The only solution, according to Key, is education, learning to consciously pick out the hidden messages.

Although the tone of Key's lecture was entertaining, he stressed the importance of identifying subliminal messages in advertising today. Such secretive tactics has over the past 40 years had a profound impact on the American psyche, he claimed.