Monday, January 01, 2007

Does Subliminal Advertising Exist?

Starting a new blog—and especially since the paperback edition of my book defending advertising has just been published—I suppose I should begin with a post about advertising. So let me deal with a question that frequently arises: “What about subliminal advertising?,” to which I typically respond, “What about it? It doesn’t exist!”

That’s the short answer. Some elaboration is required.

The term “subliminal” means beneath the threshold of perception. Many things are subliminal, such as the circulation of our blood, which we normally do not feel, experience, or perceive moving throughout our bodies. And it is possible to have our skin touched in such a way that we do not notice the touch. Subliminal advertising, however, is supposedly the power to motivate action based on something that no one can perceive, such as a message flashed on a movie or television screen at 1/3000th of a second or the word “sex” unrecognizably embedded in ice cubes in a liquor print ad. James Vicary and Wilson Bryan Key, respectively, are the two proponents of these claims. See this brief recap of their roles in the history of subliminal advertising. Marketing professor Stuart Rogers argues that Vicary’s movie theater “experiment” was a hoax. (A probably unauthorized copy of Prof. Rogers’ article is available here.)

The notion of subliminal perception is a self-contradiction because it is not possible to perceive something that is beneath one’s threshold of perception. Add to this the fact that advertisers exert great effort to make their messages blatantly explicit—innuendo, sexual or otherwise, is intended to be noticed—and you have no grounds for the subliminal advertising complaint. Critics are never satisfied, though, so they now talk about “semi-subliminal” advertising and “secondary imagery” that is often missed on an initial look. The latter is just a variation on the subliminal-embed theme of Wilson Key. The former is what Ayn Rand would call an “anti-concept.” Either something is above the threshold of perception or it is not; it cannot be half-way between. There are, of course, levels of perception, once above the threshold, but the lower the level, the less likely we are to be influenced by the message.

Repetitiveness is then thrown into the mix with the argument that we are manipulated by a constant repetition of ads that makes us change our desires without being aware of the process. Hmm. There are quite a few influencers in our lives who use repetition to get us to change our minds (or to reinforce a value or view we already hold): parents in relation to their children, teachers in relation to their students, journalists in relation to their audiences, and, oh yes, politicians—who have been known to use many different communication techniques to win votes—in relation to their constituencies. As I say in my book, when it comes to ethics and taste in communication, advertisers can hold their own against any of these four groups of influencers. Advertising just happens to be a convenient fall guy.

Then there is the flap last winter over Kentucky Fried Chicken’s alleged subliminal advertising (1, 2). A code word was inserted in one frame of a thirty-second commercial. When taken to KFC’s web site, the code word would produce a coupon for a Buffalo Snacker sandwich. ABC thought it was subliminal advertising and only ran the commercial minus the frame containing the code word—despite KFC’s wide publicizing of the stunt and their obvious desire for everyone to go looking for the code word. That the commercial had to be recorded and played slowly enough to view each individual frame speaks volumes about the people who still want to believe in subliminal advertising. Their motivation, as I demonstrate in my book, runs deep and is rooted in hostility toward capitalism, egoism, and, ultimately, reason.

Failure to understand the nature and causes of one’s emotions and, more generally, ignorance of the influence of the subconscious on one’s conscious perceptions are the sources of belief in subliminal communication. A commercial showing a sizzling T-bone steak, for example, at 5PM may trigger salivation in some, perhaps many. Why? Because of the viewers’ stored evaluations of steak as deliciously satisfying when hungry. A person who has just eaten, however, will not react that way. And a vegetarian may react with indifference or even indignation. The contents of our subconscious minds can indeed be triggered by conscious (not subliminal) perceptions, but the material in the subconscious is a conclusion that was drawn—an evaluation made—some time earlier. Hmm. All this hostility toward advertising, capitalism, egoism, and reason must be triggered by “subliminal” communication from the parents, teachers, journalists, and politicians who repetitiously harp about those institutions’ alleged flaws and evils!



Patrik said...

The Hoax - 50 Years of Subliminal Advertising!

In addition to what Jerry has written I would like to add a few things. However I'll start from the very beginning with Mr Vicary's infamous fabrications.

There are few stories in the area of marketing that have come to be as widespread and well known as the "Coca Cola - Subliminal Advertising" story. Here you can read a brief summary of the story and the blatant lies behind it. The story goes like:

"This advertising specialist, Mr Vicary, comes up with a brilliant idea and inserts a brief advertising message into a movie but the message is so short that it will not be perceived consciously. The message "Drink Coke" and "Eat popcorn" constitutes a subliminal advertising message and is received by the audience at a sub-treshold level. In the pause, the sales of Coke and popcorn increased dramatically." End of Story.

This story is every now and then surfacing in media or among the general public, it can be heard from students, marketing researchers, advertisers and sadly enough, by many professors and professional researchers. What few know is that the "Jim Vicary Hoax" might as well be dubbed the No. 1 Myth in Marketing. It is by far the most well known phenomenon related to marketing that people in general knows about. And that they think is true. Nonetheless, the concept of "Subliminal advertising" is unsubstantiated. (See references below)

Jim Vicary whose firm, at the time, was not doing very well came up with the "experiment" and claimed that he had succeeded in advertising Coke and popcorn in an ingenious way. However, later when he was challenged and could not replicate or even produce the results, Vicary admitted that the results of the initial study had been fabricated (Weir, 1984). Furthermore, later studies have never produced any scientific evidence of the phenomenon, on the contrary (Moore, 1982, Rogers & Seiler, 1994, Percy & Elliot, 2005).

Then, what is this so called "Subliminal advertising" all about? "Subliminal advertising" is defined as advertising that employs stimuli operating below the threshold of consciousness. It is supposed to influence the recipient's behaviour without him/her being aware of any communication taking place. However, fact is that since the message is communicated below the treshold then this is equivalent to no input at all. The human attention system is not constructed in such a way that it can receive and make sense out of messages that has such a short time span.

Those talking about the Subliminal effect are mixing things up! It is worth to notice that one should not, like many do, confuse the term subliminal with unawareness. Unawareness of the impact of an advertisment is something completely different than the "Subliminal"-concept. For instance, a person may read an article in a newspaper and next to the text is an advertisement for a product. Now, in this case the reader will be exposed to the advertisement perhaps even for minutes and the peripheral vision will capture parts of what is advertised as the eyes of the reader is being scanned back and forth over the text for a long period of time and also covering the ad at times. Clearly this does not have anything to do with the claimed "subliminal effect" but when studying the advocates of "Subliminal advertising" some are confusing Subliminal with unconscious. Another example frequently used is the small ice cube lady in a glass of whishy or any other drink. In this case some are arguing that it is "Subliminal advertising". A notion that is somewhat difficult to understand. In cases like this the small pinup girl wearing bikini in the glass is clearly visible if you take the time and look. So in what sense is that "Subliminal advertising"? And what do the advocates of "Subliminal advertising" expect to happen? That the customer runs and buys a bikini?

So why has "Subliminal advertising" gotten so much attention then? To understand that, things has to be put into context. There may actually be some answers.
a) The book "The hidden persuaders" by Vance Packard from the end of the fifties was successful in stirring up peoples feelings. In his book he is sketching how consumers are manipulated, with advertising, into a consumption prison to the benefit of the companies.
b) During this era, 50s - 60s, when the cold war was raging and senator McCarthy was at his peak some people and some organizations were very concerned about whether methods like "Subliminal advertising" and the like could be used for political propaganda as a hidden weapon.
c) During the 60s, 70s and up to the mid 80s the concept of hypnosis and subconscious effects were widely popular. Perhaps you may even remember TV-shows from this time where psychologists or "magicians" were hypnothising people live making them do funny things. "Subliminal advertising" fit very well into this time.
d) "Subliminal advertising" is interesting because it tickles our imagination! The very concept of "Subliminal advertising" challenges our free will. It is manipulating us and worst of all, it is obscured or hidden so we do not know if or even when we have been subjected to it... and that may perhaps be the number one reason why this marketing myth is still alive and continuous drawing attention to itself.

This year (2007) it is 50 years since Jim Vicary conducted his infamous "experiment". Today Vicary's story has unfortunately developed into folklore. But what is worse is that the general public as a consequence of this has a serious misperception of marketing and advertising.


© Copyright 2007: Stics. This article may not be re-produced (in full or part) in any format/media off-line or Internet based, without prior permission from Stockholm Institute of Communication Science.

Find more on this topic in the following references:

Sheri J. Broyles, (2006), "Subliminal Advertising and the Perpetual Popularity of Playing to People’s Paranoia." Journal of Consumer Affairs, Vol. 40 Issue 2, p392-406

Dichter, Ernst (2007), "It was rubbish then, it's rubbish now" Advertising Age; 9/10/2007, Vol. 78 Issue 36

Moore, Timothy E. (1982). Subliminal Advertising: What You See Is What You Get. Journal of Marketing. 38-47.

Rogers, Martha; Seiler, Christine A. (1994), "The answer is no: A national survey of advertising industry practitioners and their clients about whether they use subliminal advertising", Journal of Advertising Research, Mar/Apr, Vol. 34 Issue 2

Weir, Walter (1984), "Another Look at Subliminal 'Facts'.", Advertising Age.

Marc Sheffner said...

"The notion of subliminal perception is a self-contradiction because it is not possible to perceive something that is beneath one’s threshold of perception."
OK, so "subliminal perception" is an oxymoron. But surely the point made by these critics is not that something is perceived but that a message is being transmitted which is not picked up consciously, and yet which has an effect, rather like the hypnosis that commenter Patrik mentioned. You dismiss this possibility by saying "There are, of course, levels of perception, once above the threshold, but the lower the level, the less likely we are to be influenced by the message." Really? I'm genuinely curious, because, if this is true, it basically refutes the "subliminal advertising" accusation. Any evidence? I'm no expert, but I recall reading about the effects of music, and of colours in packaging, for instance. Yes, "advertisers exert great effort to make their messages blatantly explicit", but they also spend a great deal of money on choosing colours and designs for packaging, and supermarkets (and bars and shops of many kinds) carefully choose their background music.
This is a good point, tho: "Failure to understand the nature and causes of one’s emotions and, more generally, ignorance of the influence of the subconscious on one’s conscious perceptions are the sources of belief in subliminal communication."
And Patrik's distinction between "subliminal" and "unawareness" is very helpful.