Michael Horowitz and Lisa Rein tell the fascinating tale of McLuhan and Leary’s friendship, and present an unpublished letter from the Leary Archives. Few people know how much of an impact Marshall McLuhan — media theorist and coiner of the phrase “The Medium is the Message” — would have on Timothy Leary’s whole approach to promoting LSD and psychedelic culture:
They had lunch at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan in the spring of 1966, following Tim’s appearance at the U.S. Senate Hearings on the psychedelic drug “crisis,” and shortly before he gave a talk on “The Molecular Revolution” at the first non-academic LSD conference in San Francisco. Leary commented that there was no need to turn on McLuhan to LSD since the professor got high on the yoga of his art form: talk. “He talks in circles, and spirals, and flower forms and mandala forms,” Leary said.
McLuhan urged Leary to promote LSD the way advertisers promoted a product: “The new and improved accelerated brain.” He advised him to “associate LSD with all that the brain can produce—beauty, fun, philosophic wonder, religious revelation, increased intelligence, mystical romance.” But above all, he should stress the religious aspect. “Find the god within.” He encouraged Leary to come up with a winning jingle or catch-phrase along the lines of: “Lysergic Acid hits the spot/Forty billion neurons, that’s a lot.”
McLuhan told Tim to “always smile” and radiate confidence, never appear angry. He predicted that while Leary would “lose some major battles on the way,” he would eventually win the war. “Drugs that accelerate the brain won’t be accepted until the population is geared to computers.”
Leary wrote: “The conversation with Marshall McLuhan got me thinking [that] the successful philosophers were also advertisers who could sell their new models to large numbers of others, thus converting thought to action, mind to matter.”
Inspired by McLuhan, Leary took LSD and devoted several days to creating a slogan. He claims he was in the shower when he came up with “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.” By the end of the summer he was also telling readers of Playboy that “LSD is the greatest aphrodisiac ever discovered.”