Cultural Revolutions

Sublimal Messages

From a black background an eerie, white sphere illuminates three ice cubes in a glass of clear liquid. At first, there is nothing special about the pallid image, except maybe the lack of color. But look again. Below the glass the bold white letters read "ABSOLUT SUBLIMINAL." Something tugs at your memory. The word "Subliminal" triggers your reaction, unlocking a latent urge inside you. The ice cubes, of course. They want me to look into the ice cubes. There, barely visible, lurks the ghostly prize, your Pavlovian reward, the words "ABSOLUT VODKA."

The ad, which made its debut on the back cover of the Atlantic Monthly last year, would seem to give itself away. But in so doing it willfully resurrects a favorite child of American folklore: the subliminal advertisement.

In large part, our preoccupation with the rival claims of cigarette and cornflake ads, and our self-conscious fears of dandruff, body odor, hairy legs, and baldness do not tell the whole story of advertising. From the carny barker to the billboard, practically anything goes when it comes to getting our attention. If bright colors and sexual come-ons are not enough, even the most suspicious and skeptical consumer cannot resist a subliminal suggestion hidden in an ad. The idea behind subliminal advertisements was simple. We were never supposed to be aware of them.

Whether or not we were ever a nation of zombies, cryptically...

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