The Symbolism of Popular Culture: Sexy Ice Cubes And The Evolution Of An Idea

In 1959, a social scientist named Vance Packard theorized that magazine ads of ice cubes in glasses of liquor suggested parts of a woman's anatomy.

from Insights, Mid-November 1998

In 1959, a social scientist named Vance Packard theorized that magazine ads of ice cubes in glasses of liquor suggested parts of a woman's anatomy. This theory, among other things, led to greater interest in liquor ads and may have even caused some "spikes" in sales for liquor during this period.

It also led to a best-selling book at the time called The Hidden Persuaders. Basically, Packard's book argued that the advertising industry used a lot of "ice cubes" throughout their ads to "subliminally" influence our actions by "hidden persuaders." The result was that we bought products for unknown, unconscious and subliminal reasons (giving a "tip of the hat" with the word "subliminal" to the dominating Freudian psychology of the times.)

We bought the liquor in those "ice cube" ads because we thought of sex when we saw the ad. And perhaps in thinking of sex we ourselves became more sexy. The taste of the liquor advertised in the ad became a minor thing when something big like sex was involved.

And, like liquor, we bought cigarettes because we saw ourselves pictured as that Eastwoodesque cowboy in the ads - alone in the west with just a good gun and trusty horse. Cigarettes somehow connected us up with that distinctly American mythology of the barren frontier, the big open western space and the lonesome cowboy.

Packard's Hidden Persuaders was only a slim little volume, never possessing the academic credentials of a book like David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd. Yet, even so, it didn't need to be very long for the book itself was really a symbol.

Ice Cubes And The Cold War

It wasn't a symbol of sex, though, but rather of the overall context of the "subliminal" threat of communism during the height of the Cold War. These years were a lingering period of the old McCarthyism when forces which worked to overthrow the American way of life might be everywhere, yet "hidden" from immediate view. Around this time, as if brought in from "somewhere" to emphasize this point for us (drum roll) the film genre of science fiction began its rise to prominence in films like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Here were people who looked like us and were in fact our friends. But, there was some evil "alieness" hidden in our "friends."

In this manner, the threat from without really became a threat from within. The evil forces had already landed on our shores and infiltrated our cities. Perhaps even us. (Who really could say what power those little ice cubes had over us?) America was no longer that provincial wilderness of innocence that Thoreau and Whitman sung praises to, that Fitzgerald lamented at the end of The Great Gatsby. It was beginning to emerge from the "trance" of mass culture and TV shows like Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver.

Yes, sex was in those ice cubes. But also in them was communism as well as a new emerging symbol of America. The ancient beliefs of symbolism had come onto the radar screen of modern American culture. No longer were they confined to the twilight consulting rooms of Freudian psychology or Jungian dream analysis. Symbolism was finally "getting a life" in the modern world.

The Symbolism of Media

Interestingly enough, the true message of symbolism was carried forth through the 60s not by another book from Packard, more liquor ads or science fiction films but rather from the unlikely position of a Canadian classics scholar named Marshall McLuhan.

Maybe I realized this "subliminally" somehow when I carried McLuhan's Understanding Media around with me through high school. The "word" then was "media" and how McLuhan showed us a new way of viewing media. But looking back on it now, with the perspective of a "Monday morning quarterback," I realize that McLuhan was really talking about symbolism, and the key to symbolism in context.

The famous McLuhan phrase "medium is the message" was really another way of saying "message is in context rather than content." In effect, the "message" of those liquor ads with the ice cubes was in fact not the ice cubes, or even sex, but rather the context of an American culture searching for, and believing in, "hidden persuaders." This was the medium.

The hidden aspects of the world was not all that jumped out at us from the content we focused our attention on but rather all that enveloped us when we directed our search at content. It wasn't necessarily the dream images Americans told their therapists about but rather the context of the consulting room where the therapy went on and their overall relationship with the therapist. This was the "medium," this was the "context," this was the "message."

From Media to Film

I carried these ideas with me, on the "back burner" so to speak, through college, law school and five years with one of the world's largest corporations in San Francisco.

When I left the big corporation I started a marketing consulting firm. It was at this time that the ideas of symbolism came off the old "back burner" and made their way to the front burner.

In the mid-80s, we had an office in the Zaentz Film Center in Berkeley, California. We were surrounded by independent film makers, small record labels, musicians and a slew of only-in-California "consultant" types. Over the hectic comings and goings of all these independent "ice cubes" in the Zaentz cocktail, the production of a film called Mosquito Coast from the Zaentz Company moved forward.

How we changed from a more-or-less general marketing consulting firm to the Bay Area's largest "incubator" for screen plays down to Los Angeles is a story in itself but it probably has a lot to do with my life-long interest in film. I had grown up in Los Angeles in the 50s and friends of my parents were film stars like Charlie Ruggles, Joe E. Brown and Clarence Brown, the great MGM director who directed Elizabeth Taylor in her first movies such as National Velvet and The Yearling. I can still remember the Friday nights in our living room when my father would rent a movie and everyone would come over to watch it.

The Symbolism of Film

Ideas are strange critters. You sit through classes, sift through books, BS through nights with friends. In the end, it is difficult to see those particular "break through" moments where connections are suddenly made and light bulbs go on.

We had a first generation Macintosh computer in the office at Zaentz and I tinkered around with it, filling its small little byte memory with a lot of my film ideas mixed with concepts from the film books in our growing film library. Some type of brew was beginning to ferment inside the little machine.

The breakthrough came with the realization that a film essentially consisted of "content" and "context." Off hand, this may not sound like something warranting a display of fireworks but it really made all the difference.

In effect, I saw that films were divided between action and the context (or setting) for action. The hero, actors, action, objects (props) and dialogue created film content. The time, place, space of the film created film context. In this scenario, film content was the "ice cubes" in Vance Packard's book Hidden Persuaders. And, the glass holding the mix (as well as the table where the glass sat and the room the table was in) was the context of the film.

Time, place and space. The province of the relatively unimportant film set designer and art director on a film. Yet their craft was powerfully connected to the overall purpose of the film director and the emotional journey of the film hero.

I came to see a film like a type of magic show where the actions are on stage within view of the audience but where the real "magic" takes place offstage. Magic, I came to understand, has a lot to do with distraction. Its not that things are made invisible but rather that we don't see visible things because we are distracted from looking at them.

This was how a film worked. While we gaze at all of the actions in the scenes of the film, the real magic is the overall context of the scene itself. Whether it is inside or outside. During the day or night. High up in a mountain or in some valley.

I came to see that the most effective and powerful films possessed a type of vertical alignment between context and content. The hero's emotional state, in other words, was communicated "subliminally" by context far greater than the content of objects, actions or words. And I also came to see that the greatest dramatic movement involved the greatest movement between dualities of context at the beginning and the end of a film. For example, there was some drama in a movement from a context dominated by the color black at the beginning of a film to a context dominated by the color gray at the end. However, there was much greater drama in a movement from a context of black to one of white at the end.

The ideas were helped along by an amazing book called No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (Oxford University Press, 1985) and a friendship with its author Joshua Meyrowitz. While NSP won a number of accolades in the mid-80s and eventually went on to establish an international reputation for Meyrowitz, the overall importance of this book has yet to be discovered by the larger culture out there. (I'm not holding my breath, though).

From Film to Products

"Excuse me Mr. Budweiser. May I have please have your autograph?"

A lot of this was written on some of those early, archaic Mac software programs. But most of it was put into a green notebook ... the "Green" book. Rather than made ready for publication and a whirlwind tour of talk radio shows around the nation, the "Green" book didn't seem too intent on a lot of publicity and fame. Rather it simply sat out in the garage after my move back to Ohio to work in marketing for a family business. It didn't seem interested in going out and mingling or networking or much of anything really. It just seemed to want to sit in the garage.

But it didn't take long until the ideas were flowing again. This time, making extensions outward from the symbolism of film to that of advertising.

Here, the metaphor went something like the following. If the hero of a film might be Packard's old subliminal ice cubes, then what about a product in an advertisement. Isn't a product in an advertisement similar to the hero in a film?

Once this metaphor was made ideas again started connecting up. The ideas were helped by the synchronicitous appearance of some incredible ideas on advertising and consumer culture in the form of books like Captain's of Consciousness by Stuart Ewen, Advertising the American Dream by Roland Marchand and Fables of Abundance by Jackson Lears. (Thanks boys!) And it wasn't too long before there was a first draft of the manuscript Symbolism of Place: The Hidden Context of Communication.

It circulated to a number of publishers garnering some great letters back but making most of them shaky about publishing. It was hard for them to peg it and see where it might fit in the various sections of a bookstore. This of course wasn't surprising to me. There was a lot of McLuhan in it as well as Jung as well as Conrad, Joyce and David Ogilvy. The book seemed a lot like a cocktail party created by a number of hosts all with radically different guest lists. I could almost hear the various chapters arguing with other chapters. "Who the hell invited you to the party?" Editor-in-Chief of Farrar, Straus & Giroux Jonathan Gallasi put his finger on this when he wrote that while the book was "unique and intelligent" there was something that made him "nervous" about it in the way it "moved back and forth from broad cultural a sort of how-to guide."

Among the letters and comments on the manuscript, a few had far greater importance than the rest and really made the entire process worthwhile just with their comments. One was from Nelson Thall, former assistant to Marshall McLuhan, Director of the Center for Media Studies at the University of Toronto and President of the Marshall McLuhan Center for Global Communications. Nelson was one of the few to really see the real "context" of the manuscript when he noted that what I detailed in an academic fashion "Hollywood became aware of in the late 40s or earlier when they closed down their studios and realized they must turn the whole country into their studio. A studio without walls."

Another comment came one day via a phone call with a bad connection from a man out in Los Angeles. He really loved the book and saw much application for it. His name was Lew Hunter and he was the chairman of the UCLA screenwriting department and author of Screenwriting 434, the premiere screenwriting course at UCLA.

But when all of the dust settled and the stampede moved on, Symbolism of Place was placed next to the "Green" book in the basement.

Popular Culture as a Film

A lot of people have hobbies back here in Ohio. There are only so many Buckeye football games you can go to and the Reds and Bengals have become embarrassments. Then there are the long winter months with ice and snow on the ground when going to the mall finally becomes boring.

In 1995, I pursued a hobby and formed a publishing company called The GreatHouse Company. We published a manuscript I had written on John Coltrane in the early 80s called Spirit Catcher. The book was tremendously received and ended up winning the 1997 Small Press Award.

Around this time, I also started thinking that maybe Symbolism of Place should be published by GreatHouse. But the ideas were flowing again into new extensions to Symbolism of Place. Again, to greatly shorten the process up, the reasoning went something like this: while a product may be a type of film hero, might the greatest products have a relationship to the greatest heroes or box office stars of the day?

Perhaps the leading products of popular culture were really the leading modern symbols. Those vague, hazy, dreamlike archetypes that Jung had tried to hunt down. Symbolism might be all around us every day rather than in dream images from the night.

I wrote an article called "The Symbolism of Successful Products" which suggested that the leading products of popular culture (top films, TV shows, books, toys, etc.) were really like film stars. And soon, the article had expanded into another manuscript called The Symbolism of Popular Culture: Dynamics of Leading Brands, Products and Entertainment Genres. (Yeah I know and I'm working on shortening the name and until one's invented lets just call the manuscript SPC) In the Introduction I write:

The nexus of this investigation started with a relatively simple question about modern products. We wondered why a relative few garner enormous success while the vast majority of others are relegated to the growing heap of product failures...When a successful product appears, the marketing influenced tendency is to isolate it and show how it has 'carved a niche' for itself in the marketplace by being unique...But might the real success behind 'hits' and 'blockbusters' and 'bestsellers' be connection rather than separation or differentiation?

These types of questions led into other areas, back to McLuhan and Jung, forward towards new connections.

"Questions like the above led us to speculate if there might be other factors at work outside of the conscious efforts of sophisticated Madison Avenue advertising firms to make products different from the rest. Might the most successful products be so not because they stood out but rather because they fit into the times."

At the risk of oversimplifying while at the same time aware of space limits here, you might say that SPC posits that popular culture (mostly that 15% of personal consumption expenditures going for entertainment) possesses the structure and symbolism of a film which keeps cycling over and over with different stars and dominant genres.

The Paradox of the Cross -Alignment, Duality and Sequence

Many (probably most in fact) believe that a cross represents one of the key religious symbols. Seen this way, though, the cross is more "sign" than a "symbol."

The true symbolism of the cross exists in the paradox between the linear and the non-linear, between the horizontal (linear) line of the cross and the vertical (non-linear) line of the cross.

Extending this to film symbolism, one can say that the action of a film happens in linear time and moves from the left to the right along a horizontal line. Within this action, there is a change called "drama." And, within the duality of the beginning and the end of the film there is a particular sequence of action called Act I, Act II and Act III.

The vertical symbolism of the film is the alignment between the context of setting and the content of the action. The greatest films possess the greatest alignment. It is similar things happening at the same time. It is the ancient law of symbolism known as the Theory of Correspondences. And in fact it is also Jung's late concept of synchronicity. (Perhaps it is this vertical alignment that Jung was really getting at rather than those relatively few, isolated weird instances of ESP?)

But beyond this, one can say that the true symbolism of the cross represents the great paradox of life: the fear of life and the fear of death. No one expressed this paradox better than Otto Rank in his book Will Therapy when he said:

The fear in birth, which we have designated as fear of life, seems to me actually the fear of having to live as an isolated individual, and not the reverse, the fear of loss of individuality (death fear). That would mean, however, that primary fear corresponds to a fear of separation from the whole, therefore a fear of individuation, on account of which I would like to call it fear of life, although it may appear later as fear of the loss of this dearly bought individuality as fear of death, of being dissolved again into the whole. Between these two fear possibilities, these poles of fear, the individual is thrown back and forth all his life....

These two anxieties are represented in the vertical and horizontal lines of the cross. The vertical represents the life and the individual while the horizontal represents the death and the collective. As Robert Kramer notes, "Sometimes it is 'fear of life' — the fear of becoming and being oneself, separate and different from everyone else — that has the upper hand. At other times, it is 'fear of death' — the fear of merging into the other, into the collective, and losing one's 'dearly bought individuality' — that predominates. The eternal conflict between the wish for and fear of separation, and the wish for and fear of union, has no final solution. It must be solved and re-solved continuously throughout life, at every developmental stage."

It is the journey of the hero in literature that Joseph Campbell talks about in Hero With A Thousand Faces. It is the journey of the hero in films. It is the duality between mass culture and segmented culture, between equality (democracy) and freedom that has served as the key paradox of American culture.

Differentiation Versus Alignment

Modern capitalism and business theory is based on the concept of competition and differentiation. In this sense, business theory is a horizontal, linear strategy where "content" hits heads against other "content" like a bunch of Dogem cars at a carnival.

Yet the theory of symbolism is not based on differentiation and competition but rather on similarity (correspondence) and alignment. It's overriding metaphor is a vertical, non-linear paradigm where "content" is not sent against other "content" but rather attempts to align with an overriding dominant "context" of the time. This dominant context has gone under various guises and names throughout history but a good one is zeitgeist. In a large sense, in modern times the zeitgeist is very close to dominant entertainment genres.

In this manner, one can say that leading products, businesses and even industries, are similar the leading stars of Hollywood. Their success is not based on horizontal competitive factors with other industries as much as on vertical alignment factors. The leading brands and products of culture are so not because they stand out as much as because they are ways of expressing the dominant context. In fact, they might even be considered "mediums" of expressing this zeitgeist (and at that, less the McLuhan type of "medium" and more the Madame Blavatsky type of medium).

For an example, lets take Packard's sexy ice cubes from the 50s. Today, the big push of differentiation is to show how different my brand of liquor is from your brand. My ice cubes are more sexy than your ice cubes.

From a symbolic perspective, though, it is not the various brands of liquor that are important but the relationship and similarities between the various categories of brands. The question is not about individual battles within brand categories but rather the direction of the overall war which contains the context of all the smaller battles. Taking things back to the 50s and Packard's ice cubes again, the leading type of drink becomes a lot more important (and symbolic) than the leading brand of whiskey. And besides, martinis, rather than whiskey, was more popular in the 50s.

An interesting little study was published in a 1997 issue of Style magazine showing Hollywood fads by decades. It was meant to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek but when you're talking about Hollywood fads, you're in the big league of popular culture.

1950s - Drink (Martini); Car (T-Bird); Sports (Croquet)
1960s - Drink (Mai Tai); Car (Rolls); Sports (Surfing)
1970s - Drink (Tequila); Car (Mercedes); Sports (Running)
1980s - Drink (Wine); Car (Porsche); Sports (Aerobics)
1990s - Drink (Water);Car (Range Rover); Sports (Golf)


The important thing is not to laugh at the categories (they were the categories for much of America) but to see some of the relationships of "context" between the categories. In this sense, spring water and Russell Terriers of the 90s could never have been the dominant drinks and dogs during a zeitgeist period of hidden, subliminal cold war conspiracies.

The Beat (Cycle) Goes On

So far, research on SPC has produced over six hundred pages, three hundred and fifty references, fifty charts and a database of the top products of popular culture each year from 1950 through 1995. It has also branched out over the internet to make contact with other researchers. As we have said before, the greatest researchers in the area of symbolism don't necessarily realize they are doing research in symbolism and one of our purposes has been to help them see that they are.

The ideas began with Packard's ice cubes, the "Green" book and The Symbolism of Place have evolved into a hypothesis that the constellation of popular products move through sequences between dualities and that these dualities start all over again and create cycles. Here it is encouraging to see that there is a renewed interest in cycles and their relationship outside the initial Kondratieff economic cycles. Interested readers are referred to the groundbreaking work on cycles in American history documented in the books The Fourth Turning and Rocking the Ages. (It is even more encouraging that the well-known research firm of Yankelovich & Partners is behind the second book. We're not alone out there.)

Like any movie, there are a number of villains throughout the plot, trying to sabotage our efforts. In our modern world of increasing segmentation and differentiation, where branding is king, products fight in a Dawinian battle to survive by being different. These products are not simply bottles of Coke and Pepsi but management theories expounded by business schools, consulting firms and "think" tanks and entire academic disciplines. Everyone battles to get a place on Ophra, to be that radio call-in guest, to shout louder than the next product. The relative noise level rises.

It is all the noise that gets our attention. Just like Packard's sexy ice cubes got our attention in those ads almost fifty years ago. Yet while our attention is focused in one direction, the real "director" of the big "movie" is out of the limelight, off screen, directing the action. Like the magician's tricks.

The magic of the scene escapes us just as the experience of being in water escapes a fish. Interestingly enough, one of Jung's late books Aion talked about the movement from the sign of Pisces into the sign of Aquarius. Pisces is symbolized by a fish while Aquarius a water carrier. Will the fish finally come to realize the context of water which surrounds it? Are we moving into a period where we might be able to break free of all the Dogem battles of content and see the context which surrounds us? Will McLuhan's words that the "medium is the message" gain a new type of understanding in the coming years?

The Old Ship And Crew

In some ways I'm beginning to think that it is better that Symbolism of Place and Symbolism of Popular Culture never become books. Perhaps it is best they remain "anchored" in a bay off the "coast" like two big old battleships while small "boats" (this article) make random assaults on the beachhead. There is that image of the ship from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness firing meager shots at shore, no more than mere "pops" from the ships little guns against the massive "darkness" of the great sleeping continent.

But also, there is another symbol of Conrad's that comes to mind. This one much stronger for me than the first one. It is contained in the Author's Note to his little known novel The Rescue. In 1918, Conrad returned to work on this book after leaving it for twenty years. He observes that although he left it, he never abandoned it. "The truth is that when The Rescue was laid aside it was not laid aside in despair." As Conrad recalls:

The years passed and the pages grew in number, and the long reveries of which they were the outcome stretched wide between me and the deserted Rescue like the smooth hazy spaces of a dreamy sea. Yet I never actually lost sight of that dark speck in the misty distance. It had grown very small but it asserted itself with the appeal of old associations. It seemed to me that it would be a base thing for me to slip out of the world leaving it out there all alone, waiting for its fate-that would never come...As I moved slowly towards the abandoned body of the tale it loomed up big amongst the glittering shallows of the coast, lonely but not forbidding. There was nothing about it of a grim derelict. It had the air of expectant life. One after another I made out the familiar faces watching my approach with faint smiles of amused recognition. They had known well enough that I was bound to come back to them. But their eyes met mine seriously as was only to be expected since I, myself, felt very serious as I stood amongst them again after years of absence.

And so it is for me and the thousands of other artists and researchers around the world who hammer away at their ideas deep into the nights yet abandon them to the conscious rationality of daytime careers. Only to return back to them days, weeks, years, even decades later.

The ideas wait patiently, though, for our return. Wait in mildewed boxes stored in garages, in forgotten computer files on hard drives, in seldom used "bookmarks" from internet address books.

As with Conrad, there seems little animosity when I make the trip back to them. The old ship and crew, the deserted manuscript. I'm accepted back and we immediately go to work on the task at hand. "At once, without wasting words," Conrad notes, "we went to work together on our renewed life, and every moment I felt more strongly that They Who had Waited bore no grudge to the man who however widely he may have wandered at times had played truant only once in his life."

Yes, its a crazy mixture of people on the old ship. But they are always waiting for me when I return from all my wanderings. Then its party time once again. I bring the ice cubes and they supply the drinks.

"Say mate, that's some provocative looking ice cubes you've got there in your whiskey glass."

© 1998 - John Fraim