Skip to content

Advertising & Soc Doc (CMN 2173)

Subconscious Seduction
Melissa Pinto
Geneviève Séguin

1) Introduction

“Break a rule of some kind. Come up with an idea that makes you say “We can’t do that, can we?” Will somebody talk about this idea if we do it?” These are the secrets behind effective advertisement according to Luke Sullivan, bestselling author. Sexual representation is often a subject of controversy in the advertising world and especially within the cosmetic industry, sexual imagery is a recurrence. More specifically, lipstick companies are utilizing phallic signifiers to gain control of their demographic, by exploring the unconscious sexual desires of the masses. In this study, we will explore the emergence of the use of psychoanalysis in the method of advertising and how it was applied to the emblematic lipstick tube and how theses methods work. How do phallic signifiers in advertisements play a role in the sexual identity of the female society? Are there social and cultural impacts?

2) Development

2.1) Penetrating Theories: Psychology and Advertising Collide

A journal, called the Harvard Brain, from Havard University states that “In the early twentieth century, the seemingly incompatible fields of psychology and advertising collided.” Psychologists, such as John Broadus Watson and Sigmund Freud developed theories that influenced a new wave of advertising which concentrated on the unconscious.

Watson developed his behaviourist theory in 1913, which stipulates that all things that organisms do are regarded as behaviours and reactions to stimuli. He used a method in his advertisements which he called an “indirect testimonial”. Kerry W. Buckley, an author who studied Watson explains that “This method employed symbols to stimulate those responses of fear, rage, and  love which Watson held  to be the  fundamental elements of all emotional reactions.” That same journal from HU elaborates by saying “emotions are more closely linked to stimulus-response mechanisms; thus, advertising that emphasizes emotion will be more likely to elicit a response than would fact.”

Is it a coincidence that the first apparition of the very emblematic lipstick tube was in 1915, just two years after Watson’s behaviourist theory? Sure, Connecticut-based Maurice Levy invented its protective metal casing in such a cylindrical form… but was it for mass production or for phallic signification? Or both? Did he know that by giving a phallic form to his product, his sales would increase? Was he aware that this cylinder form would awaken the unconscious sexual desires in women and would make them want it even more? Probably not. However, Freud would think so.

Freud’s castration complex theory, also known as penis envy theory was developed in 1914. He says that “if a […] boy discovers the vagina in a little sister or playmate he at once tries to deny the evidence of his senses; for he cannot conceive a human being like himself without this important attribute. […] Little girls feel themselves heavily handicapped by the absence of a large visible penis and envy the boy’s possession of it […]”.

In Freud’s view, women are drawn to penises since they don’t have any. He would judge the invention of the lipstick tube as an excellent selling technique since it is drawing below the threshold of women’s awareness.

2.2) Arousing the Mind: How Phallic Signifiers Work

According to author Kathy Peiss, psychologists and other professionals insisted that cosmetics were essential to women’s mental health and a mature feminine identity. When it comes to advertisements, in the 1950s and 1960s, women’s sexuality and need to appeal physically to men was more boldly accentuated to reinforce this notion. For example, Revlon’s Fire and Ice campaign of 1952 which cast a playful yet erotic and charged aura around a medium-red lipstick. Even in the 1960s, Mary Quant’s Love Cosmetics used phallic packaging and Mod design to tie teen cosmetics to the sexual revolution.

Not only do the beliefs that cosmetics were and are essential to a women’s mental health and mature feminine identity, cosmetics advertisements now play upon the anxiety women feel as they start getting older, according to best-selling author Arthur Burger. The unfortunate truth is that women are linking the notion of getting older to no longer being youthful and thus no longer being beautiful. Cherry Clayton, professor at the University of Guelph, wrote a feminist poem stating that buying lipstick still reminds her again, that she was once seventeen. Burger believes that women are put in a no-win situation. That beauty is associated with youth, and women are made to feel that when they lose their youth, they will lose their beauty. The thought of loss of beauty can directly link to the desexualization of a women, causing her to feel inferior as she feels she can no longer compare to her youthful self. When it comes to the advertisement of cosmetics, such as lipstick, the idea is then used to appeal to their unconscious sexual desires. See for yourself.

Author and Professor, Anthony Cortese, believes that we are exposed at minimum of hundreds of advertisements everyday without even knowing it. Advertising socializes and conditions us without us even knowing it. Provocative and subliminal messages are used and are designed to influence and motivate us, the consumer to purchase particular products and services and in the case this documentary, lipstick. The applied psychology affects us below the threshold of our awareness. This is where the subconscious seduction comes in. Since advertisers know that you spend an average time of two seconds looking at an ad while flipping through a magazine, it is important for them to find an ad that stimulates a desire to register on your subconscious. According to comedian Fred Allen, “An advertising agency is eighty-five percent confusion and fifteen percent sales.” This holds true in regards to lipstick, as we can see that they use it as a phallic symbol to represent oral or anal sex – hence the confusion. Author Ron Beasley says that this tactic is called Iconicity – a common representational strategy in advertising, involving any one of the human senses. The tactile feeling associated with a visual image is known as synthesia, defined as an experience in which the stimulation of one sense elicits a perception that ordinarily would be elicited had another sense be stimulated – in this case imagination takes over the functions of perception. It is with this that the subconscious is seduced into the ad, registering underlying selfish sexual desires and attracting them to the product.


Paul Rutherford, author and professor at the University of Toronto, restates Freudian theory as the representation of the subconscious. It is the result for repression: He says that “All of the wishes, the desires, the cravings, however forbidden, remained in the unconscious, the id, forever seeking gratification.” When advertisers play upon the unconscious sell, they effectively are utilizing the unknowing desires, and in this case, sexual desires of the individual. They utilize the power of psychology and advertisement to sell things, this including lipstick. Michel Foucault, philosopher and historian, also recognized the emergence of the “revolt of the sexual body” in the 20th century. Advertisers took that and ran. By linking advertisement to psychology, cosmetic industry tycoons have been using lipstick in a phallic sense, attracting their mainly women demographic to its erotic connotations, playing on their anxieties and sexual desires.


Bales, Molly. (2009) Marketing and Minds in the Early 20th Century, How psychology enhanced advertising, The Harvard Brain.

Beasley, Ron. (2000). Signs for Sale: an Outline of Semiotic Analysis for Advertisers & Marketers, Marcel Danesi, Paul Perron, Legas, ISBN 1-894508-07-6.

Berger, Arthur Asa. (2000). Ads, Fads and Consumer Culture: Advertising’s Impact on American Character,  Oxford: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Buckley, K. W. (1982). The selling of a psychologist: John Broadus Watson and the application of behavioral techniques to advertising, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 18(3), 207-221.;2-8/pdf.

Clayton, Cherry. Lipstick: a cultural studies mini-essay for Canadian feminists, and new friends, Canadian woman studies/Les cahiers de la femme.

Cortese, Anthony Joseph Paul. (2007). Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising, Third Edition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 200 pages, ISBN 978-0742555396.

Jagger, Elizabeth. (2001). Sociology : the Journal of the British Sociological Association,  Cambridge, Vol. 35, No. 1.

Foucault, Michel. (1976). History of Sexuality: An Introduction, Translated version: 1978 by Random House Inc., 73 pages. (Originally published in Éditions Gallimard, Paris, France.)

Freud, Sigmund. (1963). A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, 1856-1939 ; Revised edition by Rivière, Joan; Preface by Ernest Jones and G. Stanley Hall, New York : Simon and Shuster, 1969, 412 p.

Pallingston, Jessica. (1998). Lipstick, A Celebration of the World’s Favorite Cosmetic,  St. Martin’s Press, 240 pages.

Peiss, Kathy. (2010). The Berg Companion to Fashion, Oxford: Berg, Valerie Steele, ed., ISBN: 978 1 84788 592 0, pg 170.

Rutherford, Paul. (2007). A world made sexy, From Freud to Madonna, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada, 362 pages.

Sullivan, Luke. (2008). Hey Whipple, Squeeze This: A guide to Creating Great Advertising, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey, 329 pages.

Watson, John B. (1913). Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it, Classics in the History of Psychology,  (original: Psychological Review, 20, 158-177), York University, Toronto, Ontario.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: