From a black background an eerie, white sphere illuminates three ice cubes in a glass of clear liquid. At first, there is nothing special about the pallid image, except maybe the lack of color. But look again. Below the glass the bold white letters read “ABSOLUT SUBLIMINAL.” Something tugs at your memory. The word “Subliminal” triggers your reaction, unlocking a latent urge inside you. The ice cubes, of course. They want me to look into the ice cubes. There, barely visible, lurks the ghostly prize, your Pavlovian reward, the words “ABSOLUT VODKA.”

The ad, which made its debut on the back cover of the Atlantic Monthly last year, would seem to give itself away. But in so doing it willfully resurrects a favorite child of American folklore: the subliminal advertisement.

In large part, our preoccupation with the rival claims of cigarette and cornflake ads, and our self-conscious fears of dandruff, body odor, hairy legs, and baldness do not tell the whole story of advertising. From the carny barker to the billboard, practically anything goes when it comes to getting our attention. If bright colors and sexual come-ons are not enough, even the most suspicious and skeptical consumer cannot resist a subliminal suggestion hidden in an ad. The idea behind subliminal advertisements was simple. We were never supposed to be aware of them.

Whether or not we were ever a nation of zombies, cryptically manipulated by Madison Avenue, is open to debate. What we are is a culture of ads. America’s churning myth-factory makes or breaks our common parlance. The most effective advertising campaigns are ultimately the ones we talk about. The key to selling a product is, often making it a conversation piece, especially among kids, and what better way than to throw the savvy consumer a spitball, an ad campaign just tricky enough to pique our interest, to make the product a household word. If nothing else the myth of subliminal ads did just that: it caught our attention. Hypnotic suggestions may have been ineffective, but the Zeitgeist of subliminal ads, like that of UFO’s, caught fire. Ads were no longer simply thought of as one-way streets of seduction that hit you on the head with pleading oneliners. They became curiosities. Who knew what evil lurked in the details, what sinister command we were being slipped.

So we talked. The idea behind subconscious suggestion—that if it was there we could not possibly see it—was forgotten. Our skeptical eye freely turned on the ads, attempting to ferret out any indication of foul play. The byways of the American grapevine lit up with countless stories of manipulation. Unleashed, the unfettered lore of subliminalism flourished. S-E-X spelled out on a model’s back and skulls in ice cubes are the stuff of legend. Who was not initiated to the Big Screen without a warning about encoded messages that drove mass audiences to the candy counter? There is the now-infamous pack of Camel unfiltered cigarettes. You either see a sexually aroused man or a voluptuous nude woman painted into the camel’s leg.

The “Absolut” ad revels in America’s advertising Zeitgeist. It is a tribute to the myth of subliminal ads. The shock-value of sex, violence, and mysticism may be gone, but their mystique remains. The bold letters spelling out “ABSOLUT SUBLIMINAL” at the bottom of the ad beg us to question the content of the ice cubes overhead. But we have been tricked. Where we expected to find the taboo of a death image we find instead a corporate logo.

In fact, “ABSOLUT SUBLIMINAL” could easily be rewritten “ABSOLUT-LY OBVIOUS.” The ad encourages a symbolic reading over the original idea behind subliminalism, for it is not covertly selling to our primary emotions of fear, anger, and desire. Its target is our national mythfactory. For all its emblematic allusion to consumer engineering, the ad takes the guise of a clever joke, distilling subliminal advertising into nothing more than a pop-culture phenomenon.