Tiffany Kimmel - The Suggestive Symbols of Advertising

Advertising is art with ulterior motives. It is used to attract consumers' attention and make them believe that one brand is better than another or that they need something that they really do not. Advertising indirectly sets many cultural norms. It plays on many common beliefs, hoping to relate to the majority of the consumers. There are many popular methods for getting such messages across. One that I will look at is that of subliminal messaging. In this paper, I will focus on the symbolism involved in advertising.

There are several key messages in advertising to persuade viewers to buy the product. Most always, the advertisement plays on common weaknesses or insecurities. Some of these are the need for love, the desire to be beautiful, and the need for social life and to be accepted. This is very evident in ads with beautiful people and celebrities. The viewers want to emulate the people in these ads and assume that by buying the product they endorse, this will occur. The people emit certain qualities just by their appearance and surrounding. A very good example is that of the Marlboro Man. He represents all that is masculine, rugged, and free. When the cowboy looks out onto an open field, he sees an escape from the stresses of everyday life; when he is alone riding his horse, he feels a sense of independence and autonomy (Jaffe).

1967 Marlboro Ad

Advertisements commonly use sexual themes in their content. They usually play on commonly accepted sex roles. For example, the men are shown as dominant and aggressive, while the women are portrayed more objectively, as objects of lust. Women's bodies are displayed as sexual symbols rather than actual living beings. Sexually suggestive advertisements are the most common among adult audiences, because being something of a taboo, they attract the most attention.

gin ad
This brings me to the subliminal message technique used in advertising. Subliminal messages are those that are below the level of detectable, or conscious, sensation. The public first became aware of subliminal advertising in the 1950s with a movie theater experiment. Short clips of the phrases "Hungry? Eat Popcorn" and "Drink Coca-Cola" were inserted by advertiser James Vicary in the movies being shown. This supposedly boosted sales at the refreshment stands, but later it was found to be a hoax. This and other examples are first examined in 1957 in the book The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard ("Subliminal"). In modern advertising, many examples of subliminal messages take form in a sexual context. The advertisers assume that if they subconsciously hint at sex, the viewers will feel excited and associate this feeling with the product. This is especially common in alcohol and cigarette ads. Often, the word "sex" is embedded in the background, shadows, or ice cubes.

Other times, phallic symbols are suggested out of obscure shapes. This is discussed in the popular 1973 book Subliminal Seduction by Dr. Wilson Bryan Key ("Advertising industry sees hidden-message ads as fiction"). The old ads with the Joe Camel cartoon character were found to be sexually suggestive. One should pay close attention to the shapes made by the camel's nose and mouth.
camel ad

I have also included some ads with the word "sex" hidden in ice cubes and the sky. Apparently this is a common practice. Although, there is some valid evidence of subliminal messages, whether they actually boost sales has not been found. In the September 2000 election campaign, there was also a subliminal message scare. A Republican ad flashes the segment "RATS," from the word "Bureaucrats," for 1/30 of a second over a picture of the Democratic candidate. Senators Wyden and Breaux of Oregon and Louisiana complained to the FCC about this, but the Republican's ad agency denies that this was intentional ("subliminal"). Subliminal messages have also been detected in radio advertisements, several Disney movies, and popular rock and roll songs. However, the effectiveness of these messages in modifying behavior has yet to be proven.

I find these examples of symbolism in advertising to be very interesting. Successful ads are very powerful because they must attract your attention and send some sort of interesting message that the majority of consumers should understand and enjoy all through one picture. Once you are aware that most ads contain some sort of subtle suggestions as well, it becomes more obvious as to what their motives are. If the consumers could detect these symbols, would they be less gullible to the secret messages of advertising?

Works Cited

"Advertising industry sees hidden-message ads as fiction." 13 Sept. 2000. On-line. 10 Dec. 2001 <>.
Jaffe, Jessica. "The Imagery, Fantasy, and Symbolism of the Marlboro Man. On-line. 10 Dec. 2001 <>.
"Subliminal." The Skeptic's Dictionary 10 Dec. 2001 <>.

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