Context: Research for Brainwash: The Secret History of Mind Control
Location: Phone (27th March 2005), Interviewee’s home in Nevada (30th June 2005)
Date: 27th March 2005 and 30th June 2005
Interviewee: Wilson Bryan Key
Wilson Bryan Key was the man who first popularised the notion of subliminal advertising. In a series of books starting in 1973 he explained how the advertising industry craftily inserted sexually explicit images into mainstream advertisements in order subliminally to persuade consumers to buy products they neither wanted nor needed. Over the course of his life he would sell over 8 million books. He died in 2008.
This is an amalgamation of two interviews with Key, the first conducted by telephone in March 2005, the second in person at his house in Nevada on June 30 that year. Both interviews have been heavily edited (Key made some extraordinarily slanderous claims, which I have cut ). In the interviews he runs through his ‘discovery’ of the subliminal deception, the origins of his theories about the technique and his controversial dismissal from an – apparently tenured – post at a university in Canada. He then moves onto his recruitment by US Special Forces, his role in the Judas Priest subliminal trial and the impact of subliminal advertising today.
I really liked Key: he was a formidable, personable, hospitable, intelligent man. At the same time, however, I was unable to stop myself wondering whether he had in fact slipped irreversibly into a fantasy world. You decide
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How did you get interested in subliminal advertising?
In the beginning I spent a big part of my life in the military. And I had a lot to do with reading aerial photographs. And in aerial photographs, if you look at it from a military perspective, wherever you see something that looks too normal, it should be there, it’s perfect, distrust that – because someone is putting one over on you. You begin to question everything.
I’d been a journalist and a feature writer, when I found myself writing four or five stories all over again I decided to get the hell out of it and get a PhD. And my life was half-way between business, advertising, public relations work and universities. I ran a market research business in Puerto Rico for about 6 or 7 years, and I was tied in with a political party… And then I needed a way to make a living so I went back to teaching. Ended up in Canada, University of Western Ontario. I was there 6 years.
What was your PhD in?
And your position at Western Ontario was teaching psychology?
Communications Studies. I was a tenured professor. I worked in the journalism department, sometimes in the psychology department and I even took some art classes occasionally. But my background is very un-concentrated, I wandered all over the place. I thought, when you get a tenured professorship you think, ‘Well now I’m safe. They can’t fire me any more’. Well, that’s not true.
So what happened? You discovered this subliminal business? How did that come about?
The first one was I think an illustration in Esquire Magazine, and I was lecturing to the class on this particular article, it was on one of the beatnik poets of the day. And I looked at the picture, I think it was of him, a painting of him, upside down. And there on the bookshelf behind him was an erect penis as a bookend. I walked around the table: ‘Jesus Christ! That shouldn’t be there!’ Then I started poking around and within three months I had a two foot pile of the stuff in my office. And then I got the students interested. They were delighted with this. It was almost like participating in a revolution! So I had no trouble getting material. Once I started looking for it I started, for a month or so, looking at the pages of magazines just off the edges, looking horizontally, not confronting it. I knew that they were putting something into this printing. And then I discovered the S E X business.
You see, the whole society depends so greatly on marketing, advertising, whatever you want to call it. And to assume that these people left language and pictorial communication alone? They have refined it to a degree vastly beyond what anybody suspected before. And to assume everything is the same as it is in language? Forget it! That can’t be true! They spend an enormous amount of money. These ads, some of them that I have used in these books, I was able to make a fairly good estimate of the amount that was spent: $10 million! In one of [my] books there is an advertisement featuring ice cubes in an empty glass – Johnnie Walker, I believe, and that thing was in use for at least 10 years. It’s been on the back cover of every magazine in this country and probably many others.
The advertisers know that most of it doesn’t work. But they try everything. And part of it depends on the volume of ads they put out. But when they find one that does work, demonstrably, they’ll go with it, they’ll milk it as much as they possibly can. So we tried to go in the book with these ads that were repeated immediately. And invariably when you look at these super-ads, you find subliminals.
Anything in communications studies that looks sincere, honest, straightforward, that it’s all hanging out: distrust it! Distrust it very much! Because someone is pulling your leg.
In the beginning I got a lot of help from radiologists, people who spend their lives looking at x-rays. And they again were very well-trained in being very distrustful. For example, no physician will read an x-ray of someone he is emotionally involved with, his wife, for example, or his child. Because you can’t be certain what’s there is really there: the big question is, how do you differentiate between reality and fantasy? And our society now has got to the point where it is extraordinarily difficult for us to make this differentiation.
The x-ray people were very sensitive about this because they’d have someone else read the x-ray, they wouldn’t touch it. I asked ‘Why do you do that?’ and they said it was this business of projection. It’s like looking at a Rorschach inkblot. And looking at a Rorschach inkblot, there’s nothing there. Anything you put there, you are making it up. It’s a fantasy. And that’s where a lot of my interest in this evolved.
Your suspicions were piqued by the vast amounts of money being spent on advertising by major corporations, weren’t they?
I figured at least 10 million dollars over a period of 7 years was spent printing one single advertisement. That probably cost $100,000 for one artist to do it. Now, what the hell’s going on here? They’re not playing a game. If it doesn’t work, they will know about it in 2-3 weeks. I used to work for Seagram’s. And most ads probably don’t work. At least, not dramatically. They do succeed in keeping the name out there. But if they find one that does work, that one ad for Seagram’s was used for 10 years and they spent several million dollars buying space for it. And a good ad is an ad that sells. That’s all. Nothing else matters.
I worked in advertising for a long time. And I ran a consulting firm for 10 years. Publicly, no, they can’t admit to all this. There’s a law against it! It would be dreadful!