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There's been a lot of talk in the last few years about subliminal advertising, sexual words and phalluses in Disney movies, etc. Another rumor I keep hearing is that a part of the male anatomy was pictured unintentionally in a Sears catalog underwear ad in 1975. Let me put it this way: a penis is peeking out under somebody's boxers. Naysayers claim that advertising photographers scrutinize their work and would never let something like that get by, that it could be just a drawstring. But wouldn't they have noticed something like a drawstring, too? Could it be an intentional joke on the part of a wacky or disgruntled photographer or editor, to make a job taking pictures of undies for Sears more interesting? More importantly, where can I get a copy of this picture?

--Jill Gatwood, Albuquerque, New Mexico

You think getting a picture of a penis is difficult? I get X-rated E-mail spam offering shots of just about every part of the human anatomy you'd care to see, and many you wouldn't. (I haven't actually seen a Web site for appendectomy scar fetishists, but I expect one any day.) Naturally, we at the Straight Dope feel we have to post saucy photos ourselves, just so we can . . . well, when I first started working on this I wrote, "hold our own." But when the topic is the male organ you definitely have to watch what you say.

Anyway, you'll find the infamous Sears page on our Web site at www.straightdope.com. We've also posted a computer-enhanced 200-percent enlargement for those who can't see anything in the original. Warning: if you can't see anything either, it's not necessarily a sign of an underpowered libido; it may just be your crummy monitor. There's definitely something there.

The object in question appeared in the Sears catalog for fall/winter 1975 in a photo of two guys modeling underwear. It's extremely faint; Sears clearly had a lot of customers who scrutinized those underwear ads. (Probably the same people you'd see in the Craftsman section looking at the big tools. Sorry, couldn't help myself.) Once you do see it, you don't have much trouble believing it's a penis. A circumcised penis. This last detail is pointed out by Jill, with whom I've communicated via the magic of cyberspace. Jill obviously scrutinizes underwear ads too.

The photo created an uproar at the time, though contrary to popular belief the catalog was not recalled. Sears has consistently denied that you're seeing what you think you're seeing. One explanation for many years was that it's a drawstring, but Sears says not so. Rather, says spokesperson Jan Drummond, it's a blemish that was introduced during the reproduction process. (Cecil's copy editor notes here, "Isn't that how many women would describe a penis?" Everybody wants to get into the act.) Drummond's explanation is easy to believe. No disrespect to Sears, but what with all the bleed-through from adjacent pages, I've seen better printing jobs done with a stamp pad and a potato. Ms. Drummond, though, says the whatsit was introduced at an earlier stage--it's visible on the film used to make the printing plate. She described it as a "hickey," the term used in printing to describe a certain type of defect--honest. Having spent some time in print shops, I don't think that's what it is. But it may well be a water stain.

Of course one can never entirely rule out the possibility of sabotage. But let's get one thing straight (sorry--you try writing a column like this): it's probably not a penis. Ms. Drummond says the same photo ran in the preceding catalog (spring/summer); no penis is visible. She denied my request to visit the Sears archive and inspect this earlier catalog--sometimes in this business one longs for subpoena power. But she says she's personally inspected it and is certain there's nothing there.

I'm confident she's telling the truth, in part because I had the following unworthy thought: it can't be what it looks like because (a) the model's member would have to be at least eight inches long in its detumescent state, and (b) the guy ain't Secretariat. If you've had a chance to look at the photo, don't tell me you didn't think the same thing.

Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611; E-mail him at cecil@chireader.com; or visit the Straight Dope area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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