Subliminal Messages—Enjoy your breakfast

(1977, age 30)

When I decided to get my MBA in 1976, one of my first courses was an Introduction to Marketing course from the University of Colorado, Denver. I remember sitting in class that first night. I hadn’t been in a classroom in years and here I was, going back to school again. Many of us were already in our careers. Most of us were twenty-somethings looking to take that next career move, typically to management.

The teacher hadn’t arrived and the students were starting to get nervous. Are we in the right place? Was it really tonight? About that time another student walked in from the door at the back of the room who was also twenty-something. She looked interesting and not only because she wore a miniskirt and clearly no bra. That was the fashion at the time and it looked good on her. As I watched her walk through the class, I remember thinking “I hope she sits near me.”

But she didn’t. She wasn’t a student after all. She was the teacher and she proceeded to the front of the classroom to begin class. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember how impressed I was at her teaching. At this point in my career, all I knew was engineering. The idea of marketing seemed far from what I cared about. But she made it interesting.

She really hooked me when we started the segment on subliminal suggestions in advertising. A subliminal message is designed to pass below the normal limits of perception. It’s usually unnoticed consciously but perceived unconsciously. She brought in many examples of subliminal messages in advertising and challenged us to look for our own examples to bring in.

Not long after that, I was on a research trip to West Virginia and I ordered breakfast at McDonalds. Underneath my breakfast sandwich was a tray liner made of paper featuring McDonald’s breakfast items. I noticed my tray liner had what might be interpreted as subliminal messages.

tray liner steam

Here is the first thing I noticed. That seemed like an unusual shape for steam coming off an Egg McMuffin.

So I started to look closer to see if any other airbrushing might have been done. Did you notice that the steam image is upside down? I did. So I turned the tray liner over to look for other hidden messages. I imagined a man and a woman eating at McDonald’s sitting across from each other. To him, her tray liner appears upside down. What does he see? That’s how I started examining the liner.

Unfortunately I had spilled orange juice on part of the liner when I spun it around. Still, I found the word “SEX” apparently airbrushed in two places not covered in orange juice.

tray liner steam

One was in the hash brown as shown in the image to the left. It may be hard to spot the word in the image on this site. It is readily apparent to me when viewing the original tray liner that I still have.

tray liner steam

A little harder to spot, but I believe it’s there: “SEX” airbrushed in again as part of the depiction of the meat pattie in this image. The letter “S” is rotated clockwise about 45 degrees.

I went back to that McDonald’s the next morning for breakfast. I also wanted to get a new paper tray liner because I had spilled orange juice on part of the one I kept from the day before. That next morning I found that these tray liners had been replaced with completely white, plain paper liners. Perhaps someone at the restaraunt had noticed the creative airbrushing I had discovered and decided to pull them. Or they may simply have run out of tray liners. Either way, the “look for the messages” eye my Marketing teacher had given me had found some surprises on a tray liner that morning in McDonald’s.


  1. Around 2007, the TV show “Inside Edition” ran a story about what appeared to be a subliminal message from McDonald’s, a Food Network sponsor, inserted into an episode of “Iron Chef America”. It is a single frame, 1/30th of a second, of the McDonald’s logo with the words “i’m lovin’ it” in bold yellow letters. Show producers claim it was an editing error. The Inside Edition report includes a statement from McDonald’s that “We don’t do subliminal advertising.”

  2. “McDonald’s” and “Egg McMuffin” are registered trademarks of McDonald’s Corporation.