September 6, 2008

It’s Subliminal Communications Month!

According to Live Journal, it’s “Subliminal Communications Month” and in the spirit of the occasion (which, from my Googling isn’t actually an occasion), I thought I’d put this article back up on my site, which I originally wrote sometime in…god, I don’t even know. Between 2001-2003, anyway. (Because back then, I, y’know, actually wrote articles on stuff. Especially advertising.)

Anyway, here we go:

There is NO SUCH THING as Subliminal Advertising…
(and I’m not going to say it again)

I frequent a lot of internet forums and it seems that every few months, the same thread pops up about how the ad industry is evil and the #1 reason why it’s evil is always the scary phenomenon of SUBLIMINAL ADVERTISING. Since this topic comes up with such frequency, I’ve decided to put the facts here so I can just link it and kill the argument, rather than start Googling and hauling out textbooks every single time.

The arguments are pretty standard. Someone questions whether or not it exists, then someone says they’ve seen boobs in ice cubes on Coke ads, then someone else has a “friend of a friend” taking an ad course where they’re learning about it and then someone else brings up an experiment done in a movie theatre where Coke & popcorn sales went up due to a subliminal advertising experiment.

Here are the facts:

1. If you can give me an example of subliminal advertising, then it is NOT subliminal advertising.

sub·lim·i·nal ( P ) Pronunciation Key (sb-lm-nl)
adj. Psychology
1. Below the threshold of conscious perception. Used of stimuli.

By definition, any example you could give me where you’ve seen, heard or smelled “subliminal” advertising, would be false. It’s below conscious perception, so if it truly were subliminal, you wouldn’t be able to point it out as such.

2. Hidden images within ads are not subliminal advertising.

Most often when things are seen in movies or images, such as the “phallic symbol” on Renuzit air freshner, the word “sex” showing up on Pepsi cans or a naked man on Joe Camel’s leg, it’s all a matter of people having overactive imaginations or art directors being overworked. (Admittedly, knowing some art directors, I won’t discount that from time to time, things may be snuck in to giggle at around the office – but if that joke made it to the final edit, there’s a good chance you’d be fired.)

There HAVE been times where tiny images, called embeds, have been placed inside an ad, but it’s still not subliminal advertising. An image like this placed inside an ad is not going to have an effect on your subconscious, any more than if the image was 100 feet tall. The reason these images are placed in ads is to create a buzz, if you think there’s a subliminal message in an ad, you’re going to show it to people and talk about it and the advertiser has created a word-of-mouth campaign.

Sure, sex sells, but something as subtle as a pair of boobs hidden in a glass of ice isn’t going to have much effect consciously or subconsciously – unless someone puts it in another person’s ear that it might be…*GaSp*…subliminal.

Again, if you can see it, it’s not subliminal.

3. There is no proven method of delivering a mass subliminal message.

Oh there’s research going on as to how to do this and we know that subliminal messages can be delivered to individuals, but it’s unlikely on a mass scale. Hell, in a lot of countries mass subliminal messages are actually illegal, even though they don’t exist, on the premise that one day they might.

“On the other hand, subtle acoustical messages such as “I am honest. I won’t steal. Stealing is dishonest.” are broadcast in more than 100 stores in the United States to prevent shoplifting. Unlike subliminal perception, though, these measures are played at a (barely) audible level, using a technique known as threshold messaging. After a nine-month test period, theft losses in the one six-store chain declined almost 40 percent, saving the company $600,000. Some evidence indicates, however, that these messages are effective only on individuals whose value systems make them predisposed to suggestion. For example, someone who might be thinking about taking something on a dare but who feels guilty about it might be susceptible to these messages, but they will not sway a professional thief.”
(Source: Consumer Psychology, Buying, Having and Being by Michael R. Solomon et al)

See what I mean about the impossibly of subliminal advertising by the average definition? Why would advertisers pour billions of dollars into something that “might” only work on a small percentage of their target market when traditional advertising methods can produce a much better result?

You CAN implant an idea into someone’s head subliminally, that’s been proven, but the conditions in which this is possible are very specific. The message has to be tailored to the individual as the liminal threshold is widely varied from person to person. Advertisers have no control of a person’s environment. If a subliminal ad was to be broadcast in homes, only a few people would be in the exact spot to make an effect, then they’d also have to have the required liminal threshold AND they’d have to be predisposed to suggestion of the message itself. Also the consumer has to be paying absolute attention to the ad and even more to the point:

“Even if the desired effect is induced, it operates only at a very general level. For example, a message might increase a person’s thirst, but not necessarily for a specific drink. Because basic drives are affected, marketers could find that, after all the bother and expense of creating a subliminal message, demand for competitors’ products increases as well!”
(Source: Consumer Psychology, Buying, Having and Being by Michael R. Solomon et al)

There’s no money to be made in subliminal advertising and the whole point of advertising at all is to make money!

3. The “test” performed at a NJ movie theatre in 1957 where a subliminal message was played, designed to increase people’s desire for Coke and popcorn, really did happen. (Though even that is debated by critics.) However, the results of that demonstration are nothing more than urban legend.

It’s true. Look it up.

“The term subliminal message was popularized in a 1957 book entitled The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard. This book detailed a study of movie theaters that supposedly used subliminal commands to increase the sales of popcorn and Coca-Cola at their concession stands. However, the study was fabricated, as the author of the study James Vicary later admitted.”
(Source: Wikipedia)

“You see, Vicary lied about the results of his experiment. When he was challenged to repeat the test by the president of the Psychological Corporation, Dr. Henry Link, Vicary’s duplication of his original experiment produced no significant increase in popcorn or Coca-Cola sales. Eventually Vicary confessed that he had falsified the data from his first experiments, and some critics have since expressed doubts that he actually conducted his infamous Ft. Lee experiment at all.”
(Source: Snopes)

4. People want to believe that subliminal advertising exists.

Why wouldn’t they? Everyone wants to believe that they’re a unique and beautiful snowflake with original ideas all their own. That’s a nice image, but the truth of the matter is, I don’t care who you are, if advertisers are appealing to your demographic and your psychographic, there’s a VERY good chance it’ll work. Whenever someone tells me “advertising doesn’t work on me”, I have to fight pretty hard to resist the urge to point to everything they’re wearing or everything in their surroundings that suggest otherwise.

  • If you find value in any brand, advertising has worked on you.
  • If you own a single “luxury item” (as in, non-essential), advertising has worked on you.
  • If you’ve purchased anything with a logo on it, advertising has worked on you.
  • If you follow trends in any way, shape or form, advertising has worked on you.
  • If you go see a movie in a theatre, advertising has worked on you.
  • If you buy a magazine based on its cover, advertising has worked on you.
  • If you describe an action in terms of a product (“I’m photoshopping something,” “What kind of Coke do you want?”), advertising has worked on you.
  • If you recall a single jingle or tagline (or “slogan”, as they used to say), advertising has worked on you.
  • If you’ve ever clicked on a link, advertising has worked on you.

Hell, if you VOTE, advertising has worked on you.

The only possible way for the statement “Advertising doesn’t work on me” can be true is if you live in the middle of nowhere with zero access to TV, radio, print or internet media, which can’t be possible since you’re reading this. At some time or another, advertising HAS worked on you and if that method worked, whatever it may be, it’ll work again, I don’t care who you are.

Even a person who makes the most informed decisions is susceptible to advertising. If you’re put in a target market of “informed decision makers”, advertisers will learn everything they can about you and create advertising that’ll produce results.

You cannot escape your own humanity. You cannot escape the way your brain works. You cannot escape the fact that you are a consumer in one way or another. You cannot escape the fact that you are indeed a part of society and because of that, you are susceptible to archetypes and well-defined psychological profiles.

You may not like it, but you are all of these things no matter how you perceive yourself.

It IS true, however, that advertising can’t make you buy something you don’t want. If you live in an apartment, there’s not a chance in hell I’m going to be able to sell you a swimming pool, but if you live in a house that doesn’t already have one, there’s a chance that I can. If you live in a house and you’re already thinking about installing a pool, there’s an extremely good chance that I can sell you a specific one, the one I want you to buy, using traditional advertising methods.

People claim that advertising doesn’t work on them because being “fooled” or “tricked” is a sign of a naive or unintelligent person and we all want to be seen as intelligent. As I said, there are a rare few who are less likely to be influenced by advertising, but to make the claim that advertising doesn’t work on you at all would be ludicrous.

Advertisers don’t spend billions of dollars per year on advertising for the benefit of their health. They spend that money because it works.

Posted at 5:59 pm in: Advertising