SEVERAL MONTHS after my first book, Subliminal Seduction , appeared as a Signet paperback, a student questioned me one day in class about the book's cover. He claimed that there was something profoundly torubling about the martini on the rocks with a twist pictured on the cover and the question printed in red letters, "Are You Being Sexually Aroused By This Picture?" He felt the martini was a little too real to be real.
I studied the cover for a moment, concluding that the drink with its ice and lemon peel was much like any other martini - only a photograph. I assured the troubled young man that there was nothing to fear in the photograph. Signet, I said, was a publisher highly respected in the trade; they certainly would not resort to subliminal trickery to sell a book which was an expose of ad-agency perceptual skullduggery.
Several days later, while relaxing with a martini on the rocks with a twist, I again thought of the cover and the student's comments. Signet had not discussed the cover with me before publication - but then authors rarely become involved in promotional activities. Still, it was curious. Why a martini? (The book pointedly the alcoholic beverage industry for its use of sublininal advertising which can hypnotically induce some individuals into an addictive syndrome.)
As I relaxed with my drink, I began to look carefully into the Signet martini. Four years later, I have still not recovered completely from the shock.
Standing in the center of the glass on top of the lemon peel is the figure of a man about half an inch high. He is wearing a hat, has his overcoat pulled back, and seems to be exposing himself. (As time passed, my students referred to him - with affectionate humor I always hoped - as Flasher.)
Above and to the left of Flasher on the ice cube appears the face of an older woman, her mouth open, finger pointing as though she were scolding someone. If your grasp on reality is steady enough to permit you to perceive a story line within a paperback martini, the ice cube portrait could be Flasher's mother, perhaps scolding her naughty little boy.
To complete the family circle, in the lower right-hand corner of the glass there is another face: bald head, mustache, eyes peering darkly out of the shadows at the bottom of the glass. Dad, perhaps, relegated to an insignificant role in family life at the bottom of the martini.
Just beneath the lemon peel, slightly to the right of Flasher appears the letter X - about a quarter of an inch high. Slightly to left of Flasher, below the peel, is another larger letter, an S - roughly three-quarters of an inch high. Distorted markings appear between the two letters S and X, which the brain will read unconsciously from four or five feet away as SEX.
One of the most common subliminal techniques in visual art is to hide various taboo (obscene) images in paintings or retouched photographs. Airbrush retouching is an ingenious technique that can make a picture more real than reality itself. Twenty years ago, airbrush artists usually retouched photographs. Today, I am told, the technique has been so refined that photographs are rarely used. The entire picture - which appears to be a photograph - is painted.
These embedded images are repressed by viewers, not consciously perceived, but register instantly at the unconscious level. Subliminally perceived information has a potential for managing both motives and behavior. The next time you look at a book jacket or paperback cover, study such design elements as clouds, water, waterfalls, ice cubes, mountains, or any portion of the work which appears diffused, unnatural or unreal. You may discover something unexpected.
There is a small mountain of experimental and theoretical studies available to support these effects and a massive amount of proprietary, unpublished research on the subject by various corporations. And subliminal embedding has been shown to have a measurable effect on such diverse functions as memory, dream content, value-system and - of course - purchasing behavior.
Book advertisements - jackets and covers - today include some of the most ingenious subliminal artwork ever created. This is art in which the consciously perceived message is often banal, but where the hidden message designed for subliminal perception is exquisite. The name of the game, of course, is sales. Mass-market paperback books are merchandized with an intensity and technical skill not at all unlike that used to sell soap, deodorants, liquor, laxatives and politicians.
Many of the top paperback art directors - James Plumeri (NAL) and Ian Summers (Ballantine) learned their craft in advertising agencies. While reviews still sell hardcover books, it is the cover that sells paperbacks. In discussing paperbacks, Jim Plumeri said, "I think of these [the books] as bright little packages of soap out there on the supermarket shelves."
Hardcover book publishers occasionally indulge in sophisticated subliminal book-jacket art, but it is rare. One example of art carrying subliminal themes appeared on Roberrt Ardrey's The Social Contract. The jacket was designed by Joseph Low for the Atheneum publishing house. Merchandizing subliminal art usually involves cocontent about the origin and the end of life: sex and death. Subliminal content is usually involves a taboo representation of these two polarities of human existence. The unconscious system in the brain appears highly sensitized to anything dealing with sex or death.
Mr. Low placed a small horse - an animal considered with much affection in American culture - in the lion's mouth. The horse is dead, of course: the predator's teeth have penetrated the horse's body. But by now the sophisticated reader may have consciously noticed the lower jaw of the lion - an erect, black, male genital - perhaps subliminally symbolizing the ethnic implication of Ardrey's thesis that man originated in central Africa. The lion's left jaw closely resembles a female genital.
On the jacket's back, Low painted numerous deer. You can easily see the large, dark male deer about to jump on the female deer. It is easy to perceive what is going on in these pictures when someone tells you about it, but this repressed content is rarely recognized at the conscious level.
The fact that subliminal art techniques are in wide use e by the book publishing industry should not surprise anyone familiar with mass merchandizing technology. What is surprising, however, is that many of these art techniques were in use as far back as the 15th century, appearing in the masterpieces of artists such as Michelangelo, Durer, Titian, Bosch, Da Vinci, and Rembrandt. A subliminal detail quite similar to those used by Joseph Low in the Social Contract jacket appeared in a Picasso painting done in the late 1920s. It is not surprising that these superb artist-craftsmen would use such techniques, but it is strange that no one apparently discovered what they were up to.
Signet, who published the paperback of my current book, Media Sexploitation, designed a cover that portrays a man and woman in a tender cigarette lighting ceremony. What this picture has to do with the book's content escapes me completely - but then the authors are never consulted on such matters.
The man is lighting both cigarettes simultaneously. Both models in the photograph have the word SEX very lightly embedded on their faces - a standard, production-line subliminal technique used to relate a product to unconscious sex drives. But there is more to this cover than a few lightly etched words. There is something insidious about the models' touching of hands, the delicate holding of the cigarettes, the finger positions, and the air-brushed hair of the blond model.
There is something perversely subliminal about the Signet cover on Media Sexploitation, but I can't quite put my finger on it. I have so far been unable to psyche out the hidden message. This is often the case when subliminal content touches upon sensitive, deeply repressed material in an individual's unconscious. For some reason, my conscious mind appears to be blocking out what is really going on in that picture.
I know, almost for sure, I am being had by the Media Sexploitation cover. But I can't figure out how, and Signet won't tell - at least they won't tell me. To this day, Signet's art director claims that all he did was put a martini on a table and take a picture of it.