The Tobacco Documents Library is an online database of millions of tobacco industry documents made public through court cases. Included are letters written to cigarette companies including several where the public have complained about ‘subliminal messages’ hidden in adverts.
Quite frankly, they are a joy to read, and this is my favourite among many hidden gems. It’s a letter from an organisation called Morality in Marketing to the makers of Camel cigarettes:
Dear Mr. Johnston
While at first we were enchanted with your popular new advertising campaign featuring head-shots of a “cool camel,’ in the course of an in-depth analysis by our media researchers the subliminal message inherent in your ads was cracked. Consequently, we must withdraw our agency’s support of this ad and include Camel Cigarettes on our hit-list of “Prurient Products” to boycott.
Your subtle ploy to titillate your audience with pornographic imagery of male genitalia disguised as harmless camel heads has not gone undetected. You can only imagine the extreme sense of anxiety, frustration and embarrassment I now feel when I am continually exposed to this graphic homosexual depiction of penile putrescence.
We have a bone to pick with you: where do you get off on displaying this root of all sin to hype your cigarettes? How long will you continue to promote your product by flashing gigantic sex glands on bill-boards throughout this country? As an up and coming organization dedicated to educating the American pubic about decency in advertising, we do not advocate censorship. However, while our desire is not to be too hard on you, we, as chaste Christian consumers, strongly urge you to cut off this media deluge of frontal nudity.
Additionally, could you please send to me a list of promotional materials offered to your customers and their children in conjunction with this extended marketing gimmick . We would be particularly interested, for obvious reasons, in any products which might involve oral contact (ex. mugs, glasses) or fondling (ex . stuffed replicas of the camel).
A prompt reply to this inquiry would be greatly appreciated. Thank you and God Bless You.
Firm in Our Faith,
Reverend Peter Manale
Interestingly, most of the other letters complaining about subliminal messages are a bit fixated on hidden representations of the ‘male genitalia’, probably fuelled in part by a similar urban myth.
I couldn’t find anything in the tobacco documents database to suggest that the industry was particularly interested in subliminal advertising, although there are several documents about subliminal flavours in cigarettes.
In fact, an academic paper [pdf] was written on exactly this topic, finding that the industry had done research to show that adding consciously undetectable amounts of menthol flavour to regular cigarettes caused “altered perception of tobacco smoke and its constituents via cooling, smoothing, and anesthetic effects; increased impact through stimulation of trigeminal receptors; interaction with nicotine controlling its perception, delivery, and uptake; and increased respiratory irritation and toxic effects”.
I heard a rumour that if you smoked cigarettes backwards you could hear Judas Priest songs but it never worked for me.
Link to subliminal complaints letters in tobacco docs database.