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Hidden messages, branding, a word from our sponsors, propaganda; art is subverted throughout history to sell to us and scare us. Peter Hall explores the history of selling out.



With all the miraculous powers of an omnipotent deity at his (or her) disposal, you might think it curious that the Almighty should so frequently choose toast as a promotional medium. Can the face of Christ on a slice of Mother’s Pride ever be as persuasive as a grand gesture such as a plague of locusts or a global flood?

Perhaps so. It may seem counterintuitive, but half-hidden messages are often the most effective means of communication, if only because they side-step immediate, conscious resistance. Indeed, they actually have an inherent appeal. The everlasting popularity of visual and intellectual puzzles (not to mention conspiracy theories and an infinite variety of faith-based belief systems) is proof that the human brain is hard-wired to seek out patterns and meanings, even on a subconscious level.

The human face, the first pattern we ever understand, is seen everywhere, and the human form has been the dominant subject of visual representation for millennia. Naturally, we have a biological preference for certain characteristics, from facial symmetry to smiles and the large eyes of a baby, and any artist, designer or advertiser who understands such biological impulses can exploit them to communicate on a subconscious level, whether by attracting or repelling the viewer or by conjoining different ideas.


Among the very earliest representations of a distinctively individual human being are those of the pharaoh Akhenaten, who ruled Egypt fourteen centuries before Christ. As the founder, promoter and representative of a revolutionary, monotheistic religion based on the worship of a sun-god, Aten, the pharaoh was depicted with strikingly feminine features such as wide hips and a round belly, thereby advertising the theological notion of Aten as both mother and father of creation.

Indeed, the more recognisable the subject of a portrait, the more important it becomes to present the subject in a favourable light, whether that is defined by their own self-image or ambition, or driven by the artist’s need to flatter their paymaster. Since the Middle Ages, European art has been littered with portraits of patrons representing saints with implied connotations of virtue, and even portraits without overtly religious themes have often included a host of hidden messages in the form of allegorical details.

One of the most ambitious examples is the gigantic ‘Feast of Herod with the Beheading of St John the Baptist’, painted between 1630-43 by German-Silesian artist Bartholomeus Strobel the Younger, which now hangs in Madrid’s Prado museum. As a refugee from the Thirty Years War, Strobel had fled his home city of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), whose coat of arms featured the head of John the Baptist. As the painting includes numerous portraits of Europe’s contemporary political and military elite, it surely represents an appeal to them to save Silesia from the devastating effects of war, a message reinforced by the fact that nobody in the painting seems at all troubled by the appearance at dinner of a severed head on a plate, other than the despicable Herod.


Of course Strobel’s painting cannot fully be understood today without some assistance in identifying the individuals involved, for allegorical images require suitably educated viewers. Relatively few people today remember that pearls may symbolise chastity, or that a serpent may represent wisdom, so might miss these messages in the so-called Rainbow Portrait of Elizabeth I, for example. Nevertheless, the Queen’s apparent youth (given that she was in her late sixties at the time), and the eyes and ears adorning her cloak, are more easily understood on a visceral level.

For a message to be universally understood it must rely on universal human emotions. Thus, it is impossible to misinterpret a film that intercuts groups of people with teeming rats, as was presented to audiences in Nazi Germany. Attempting a similar association in words, as when Daily Mail columnist Katy Hopkins recently likened migrants to cockroaches, is more likely to trigger intellectual opposition, but visual images reach the subconscious, and leave a shadow there, before they can be processed by the intellect.

Today, when we are incessantly bombarded by images in the media and advertising (which are increasingly the same thing), it is more important than ever to be conscious of hidden messages and visual manipulation, because what we perceive as ‘normal’ influences the way we think and behave. Much has been written about the ubiquitous use of unrealistically attractive or skinny models in advertising, for example, and although this might not represent a conspiratorial message as such, it nevertheless exerts a powerful and self-perpetuating influence on the mind of the viewer and thus on society at large.


Many readers would be appalled to know how rigidly newspapers and magazines apply what is sometimes referred to as the ‘NOBUP’ rule (No Old Blokes or Ugly People) in their visual content. Whilst this might be a cynical and commercially logical exploitation of the biological preference for youth and beauty, it also creates a space for more sinister messages. If the media departs from the NOBUP rule, whether in so-called ‘reality’ shows, criminal mugshots, political cartoons or propaganda films, it usually does so very deliberately and for a specific reason, namely to provoke dislike, mistrust or fear of the subject. It is not simply the image of the victim that is manipulated, but the mind of the viewer.

Ironically, although no less accomplished in the black (or rather grey) art of manipulation, the hidden messages contained in commercial advertising and graphic design may be less immediately dangerous. Of course it exploits countless human fears in order to promote the supposed alternative of health, wealth and happiness, and the overall influence of consumerism might actually be catastrophically damaging to all three. However, other than household germs, advertising rarely presents anything in a negative light, because its mission is to positively encourage a purchase.

Also ironically, although commercial art, design and advertising has produced some exquisitely clever and sophisticated messages, the very best do not advertise themselves. Just as a whisper may draw more attention than a shout, the most persuasive images are almost invisible.

“A convulsion follows their attempt to work upon the minds of the people.”

Dead Guest Editor, Charles, 2nd Earl Grey


Physically impressive representations of gods or kings project an unmistakable message of superhuman power rather than common mortality. The earliest recognisably individual portraits are the statues and carvings of Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (husband of Nefertiti and father of Tutankhamun) in the 14th century BC. As the founder of a revolutionary, monotheistic form of sun worship, Akhenaten had good reason to promote his own identity, albeit a stylised one. Whilst analysis of related mummies suggests that Akhenaten’s androgynous features reflected his true appearance, other scholars assert that they emphasise the creative nature of the Aten deity, both mother and father of all there is.

It might only be made of plastic, but the colour of a ‘gold’ or ‘platinum’ credit card carries a subtle connotation of value, lending credibility to the corporate logo in the corner. But what of the branding on the small change in your pocket? Rulers have been promoting themselves on coins since the 5th century BC, for whoever controls the currency controls the state. In this respect the royal portrait on British coinage is now little more than a paid celebrity endorsement for a financial services product. Would you trust a coin bearing the image of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, let alone a faceless banker?

There is no doubt that the so-called Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, which still hangs in Hatfield House, is a fabulous work of visual propaganda. Attributed to Isaac Oliver, this flattering image was painted in about 1660, when Elizabeth was almost 70 years old. Yet among numerous allegorical details, significant only to the well educated, the most striking feature of the painting is the eyes and ears that adorn the Queen’s cloak. As the portrait was commissioned by spymaster Robert Cecil, its message is as clear today as it was then. You are being watched.

Faces may be remembered, but their significance is often obscured by the mists of time. The unconvincing connection between head and body suggests two models posed for Francisco de Goya’s Naked Maja (1797-1800) but their identities have been lost. As the work was probably commissioned by Spanish Prime Minister Manuel de Godoy, from whom it was seized by the Inquisition for indecency, one candidate is his young mistress, Pepita Tudo. Another is the super-wealthy Maria del Pilar, Duchess of Alba, with whom Goya is said to have had an affair and certainly painted several times. Either way, it suggests photoshopped ‘celebrity nude’ pictures are nothing new.

The human brain adores patterns, so it’s easy to perceive significant shapes within random phenomena such as tealeaves, clouds and wood fires; the latter in particular is sometimes referred to as ‘mediaeval television’. However, just as conspiracy theorists attempt to find order in coincidental events, the interpretation of accidental images is all in the mind. According to the author of, van Gogh concealed all manner of religious images within his paintings. The most puzzling aspect of this fantastic theory is that in so doing the great artist appears to have lost all his ability to draw.

One of the greatest films of all time, Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 ‘Battleship Potemkin’, famously dramatises a massacre of civilians during a Russian naval mutiny in 1905, including an unforgettably heart-wrenching sequence in which a baby in a pram careers down the Odessa Steps to disaster. In fact, although many demonstrators were indeed shot in 1905, the tragedy on the steps was invented, as a dramatic indictment of the Tsarist government. The enduring power of such propaganda was acknowledged by US film critic Roger Ebert, who wrote, “It is ironic that [Eisenstein] did it so well that today the bloodshed on the Odessa Steps is often referred to as if it really happened.”

As masters of image manipulation and popular entertainment, it’s perhaps no surprise that the creative minds at Disney have enjoyed placing their unofficial logo (the simple yet instantly recognisable silhouette of Mickey Mouse) in a variety of unexpected places, such that spotting ‘Hidden Mickeys’ has become something of a sport. Being slightly darker than other Disney fare, the Pirates of the Caribbean films were prime candidates for this subliminal branding; fans have spotted Mickey in cannon smoke, chest and cabinet locks, maps, coins, tattoos and much else besides, not least the Dead Man’s Chest movie poster.

The very best graphic design communicates a message instantly on a subconscious level. The name of the FedEx delivery service is familiar to millions, yet how many have consciously registered the arrow formed by the negative space between the last two letters? Thus two short words, meaningless out of context, are transformed by brilliantly subtle typography into a visual representation of speed and movement. A similar trick is evident in the logo of universal online retailer Amazon, where a curving arrow connects A to Z with something like a smile, although hard-pressed high street shopkeepers might detect a less than friendly expression.

Sex sells. In capitalist societies, alluring images are everywhere, altering the perception of normal (or at least desirable) human physique and behaviour, and the word itself is commonly used to draw consumers’ attention; it is hardly surprising that sci-fi magazine SFX frequently obscures the lower half of its title with a pretty face, for example. But if you start looking for those three magic letters, like the author of, you can find them everywhere. Did a Farrah Fawcett poster of the 1970s really owe its popularity to subliminal graphics within her blonde curls, or to good old-fashioned celebrity?

There is nothing new in using distorted images to diminish or dehumanise an opponent or victim in the mind of the viewer, from the supine depiction of subjugated peoples in ancient carvings to the grotesque ethnic caricatures deployed in the infamous Nazi propaganda film ‘The Eternal Jew’. Recognising such tricks for what they are, and aware of their effectiveness, we may now abhor them and even prohibit their display. Yet exactly the same uglification techniques are still in widespread use in the media today, and there is no reason to suppose they are any less influential.


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