Part 1 of Banner Heading.Part 2 of Banner HeadingPart 3 of Banner Heading.
Correspondence with the AAAA

If this is the first page you have visited on this site, please click here for important information that will help you in appreciating the contents of the almost 400 pages of the subliminalworld web site and make use of the various navigation options. Returning viewers and those who have read the introductory material should, of course, simply carry on viewing/reading.


Author's request for information from the AAAA

The essence of the author's requests to the AAAA were the same as those to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA). The specific focus was not on subliminal advertising per se but the form of advertising known to the public as subliminal advertising i.e. the type of advertising containing embedded or secondary images illustrated on the Subliminal World web site. In each case, as can be verified, the answers from the professional associations are muddled. Occasionally they confabulate truly subliminal imagery ( advertising ),as defined by psychologists and others with an interest in subliminal perception, with ads containing secondary imagery. More often, the replies from the associations tend to focus on truly subliminal advertising - if such a phenomenon exists. They thus ignore issues associated with other forms of unethical advertising i.e. ads containing secondary imagery. Or they may present definitions reliant on studies of subliminal perception and then discuss a few historical and limited examples. Only by default do the defensive and dismissive reply of the ASA/IPA, address the issue of whether any of these organizations has a policy regarding secondary imagery in advertising. Bearing in mind that such advertising shares the same characteristics as subliminal advertising, most members of the public would deem such ads unethical. If they were found to be effective at influencing individuals without their conscious appreciation then the would be found totally unacceptable. The AAAA statement does declare such ads unethical. However, because the statement confuses the truly subliminal (the definition offered) and examples of ads containing secondary imagery, it is not clear whether their statement refers to the former, the latter, or both forms of advertising.

This inability to reply effectively and accurately is most likely because the individuals concerned are themselves confused by the issues that have been raised, rather than any conspiracy to mislead. They may themselves never have been involved with secondary imagery in ads or subliminal advertising and would not themselves recognize examples if they saw them. In this respect, it would be interesting to know if O. Burch Drake recognized the 'faces' in the AAAA ad with the caption 'People have been trying to find the breasts in these ice cubes since 1957'.

Despite 'put downs' and constant denials of unethical behavior by advertising professionals, the examples on this site make clear that there are numerous examples of clear and consistent abuses of advertising techniques that possess many of the characteristics of subliminal advertising ( see the Frequently Asked Questions page for clarification of definitions ).

Subliminal advertising is admitted to be unethical by Charles F. Adams, in his address to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1981. Since the 1980's, the position on the AAAA has seemingly not changed. However, the ability of some AAAA members to skirt close to this totally unacceptable form of advertising seemingly has. As the relevant companies and their advertising agencies, in many instances, promote products that are potentially hazardous for consumers, such abuse is an issue that needs to be addressed. Whether such ads are effective at influencing consumers needs to be determined, on the basis of sales figures related to relevant advertising campaigns directed towards millions of consumers. At present no such evidence exists in the public domain. Laboratory experiments into subliminal perception, involving perhaps dozens of psychology students, provide only indirect evidence into whether some consumers can be influenced 'against their will or better judgment'.

Once you are reasonably sure of your understanding of the issues involved it will pay to give some consideration to the correspondence noted below and the corresondence with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA).


Link to top of page

hline.jpg (2424 bytes)

In the following letter and extracts the author's comments are entered in Red.

Text of a letter from Marsha Appel, Senior Vice President, AAAA

Dear Mr. Hagart,

In response to your e-mail to Burtch Drake [O.B. Drake is the author of the paper referred to on the page discussing a number of Ads from the Archives, including two from the AAAA.] of February 23, 2001, the AAAA does not have a formal policy regarding subliminal advertising. You can review the AAAA Standards of Practice and Creative Code at the "About Us" section of our web site: [Letter amended to offer direct link to AAAA site.]

The closest thing we have to a formal statement on the subject of subliminal advertising is the testimony given by Charles F. Adams [see the next section], the former head of our Washington office, at a hearing before the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1981. I have enclosed a copy for your information, as it expresses our position on the topic. I am also enclosing an excerpt on the topic from former AAAA president John O'Toole's book, The Trouble with Advertising.

As you may know, subliminal advertising is not illegal in this country, but the Federal Communications Commission has said that knowingly airing it is against the public interest. While we cannot prove that subliminal advertising doesn't exist, we have never seen any evidence that it is used by mainstream advertisers [ Check out the examples on the rest of this site - many of which come from the largest companies in the United States of America] and we would be skeptical of any claims that it is effective [ If it is not commercially effective, the obvious question is why do such successful companies make use of this type of technique?]. We refer you to the enclosed article, "The Answer is No: A National Survey of Advertising," by Martha Rogers and Christine A. Seiler, which appeared in the March/April 1991 issue of the Journal of Advertising.

The alleged experiment that started all the speculation about subliminal advertising (James Vicary's claim of increasing sales of Coca-Cola and popcorn at a movie theater in New Jersey in 1957 after flashing subliminal messages on the screen) has been soundly discredited in the enclosed Public Relations Quarterly article by Stuart Rogers.

I hope you will find this information helpful.



Marsha Appel,

Senior Vice President.


Note that the most pertinent information is not in the letter received from Marsha Appel, Senior Vice President of the AAA, but in the extracts from supplementary information on the topic. These were offprints of articles and an extract from a book and are presented in a readable format in later sections of this page.

The attachments principally offer the somewhat dated views of the AAAA, circa 1981. There has been no additional AAAA policy statement on the subject of subliminal advertising and related material since then. The journal articles reiterate the standard view that subliminal advertising ( which would seemingly incorporate ads containing secondary imagery as such ads form the basis of the original case presented by Wilson Key ) does not exist - and if it does, it is not effective.


Link to top of page

hline.jpg (2424 bytes)


The text of a formal statement, giving the AAAA's position on subliminal advertising, to the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in 1981

Testimony of Charles F. Adams for the American Association of Advertising Agencies before the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on its proposed regulations for the Advertising of Alcohol Beverages, with Specific Reference to Subliminal Advertising.

I would like, first of all, to thank the Chairman for giving me time to testify this morning on the subject of the proposed BATF rules on the advertising of alcoholic beverages.

Naturally, it is a subject of great interest to the American Association of Advertising Agencies. We have 530 member advertising agencies in almost every state of the nation. Our members place more than 80% of all national advertising in America - and at least that percentage of alcoholic beverage advertising on both a national and regional basis.[Would that happen to include agencies developing ads for Jim Beam, Jack Daniels, Budweiser and others noted on this site?]

We have already submitted a somewhat lengthy document on some of the particulars of your proposed regulations. I would like to confine my remarks this morning to one aspect of that proposal - that is, the section that deals with "subliminal advertising".

Let me quote from the proposed regulations.

"Due to increased consumer concern over the use of subliminal techniques in advertising, the Bureau believes that it should state its position on these techniques. Five commenters expressed concern over subliminals and desire a prohibition against their use in alcoholic beverage advertisements.

Subliminal techniques can take many and varied forms in advertisement. These include placing a frame in a film which appears at such a speed that the observer cannot consciously perceive its presence, but subconsciously, the word or scene is registered and can have an effect on purchases, or whatever the advertiser wishes to convey to the observer A more prevalent form of subliminals is the insertion of words or body forms, by use of shadows or shading, or the substitution of form and shapes generally associated with the human body."[ It is this latter type of advertising that is the principal concern of the present web site.]

The proposal then goes on to "propose regulations prohibiting advertisements using any device or technique that conveys a message by placing in advertisements images or sounds that cannot be heard at levels of normal awareness."

We would assume from this that there exists on the part of the BATF a fear that advertisers in this category and their advertising agencies are now or might someday use some form of "subliminal advertising". This deserves a response from the advertising community. It also warrants an analysis of what that kind of advertising is, what the possibility is of its use and, if ever used, what the likelihood might be of its success.

There are several things in the BATF statement that upset us. The first is the assumption that such techniques are in regular use in advertising. [They probably are not that common but that does not diminish the requirement for advertising agencies to behave in an ethical manner and for self regulating bodies such as the ASA in the UK to ensure that they prevent such techniques being used.] The second is the implication that restrictions already in existence both inside and outside the advertising industry are not adequate to prohibit the possible use of any subliminals. [ If they were (are) why have they not prevented the abuse of advertising privileges by the likes of tobacco and soft drinks companies?] All, in all, the statement by the BATF harms the image and the public understanding of advertising by incorrect assumptions and implications.

Let's take a closer look at what subliminal messages really are - and examine their history in advertising.

Subliminal means, simply, "below the threshold of consciousness." Anything that is perceived below the threshold of conscious awareness is "subliminal perception". A "subliminal stimulus" implies a reaction as a result of that "subliminal perception", a reaction that does not involve conscious behavior.

A "subliminal stimulus" could be a word, or an image or a sound that is too brief or too small or too disguised to be perceived by the conscious mind, but is perceived by the subconscious.[Disguised is probably the operative word here since that would reflect the concerns related to ads containing embedded elements as discussed on this web site and the subject of Rogers and Seiler's article reported on the next page.]

There is no doubt that the subconscious exists. The concept has been recognized for more than 200 years. Freud wrote about it extensively and brought it into popular usage. [ Meet Freud and his theories by clicking here.] And two decades ago Wilder Penfield proved its existence during brain surgery when he used electric shock to bring forth memories from the subconscious mind that the conscious mind could not recall.

And that brings us to subliminal advertising. Does it exist? Have there been hidden messages in advertising? Yes, there have been. [ It is nice to have someone in the advertising profession acknowledge this to be the case - but as the next sentence indicates, such acknowledgment is but a prerequisite for attempts to devalue critics.] But the known attempts at subliminal advertising have been both trivial and transitory. [To bring the story up to date, would you consider attempts to manipulate the decision making of drinkers and smokers, purchasers of cars and food, trivial? And, if such attempts had been running for years would you consider them transitory? Whatever the truth value of Adams comments in 1981, they are no longer true today.]

In 1957 we have the first recorded instance of subliminal advertising when a research executive names [spelling error in original] James Vicary used a tachistoscope, an extremely fast shutter device, and flashed a message at 1/300th of a second on a movie screen. His messages were "eat popcorn" and "drink Coca-Cola". According to Vicary, it increased popcorn sales by 57% and Coke sales by 18%. [See the article by Rogers on the next section of this page.] This would lead us to believe that it is easier to make people hungry than thirsty. But Vicary was never able to duplicate his results under controlled, supervised conditions - and he soon disappeared from the scene. Whether he was involved in a hoax or not has never been proven.

Shortly thereafter, a motion picture producer proudly proclaimed that he was using subliminal projection in his movie "My World Dies Screaming", flashing the word "Blood" on the screen to heighten emotion. That film was little noted nor long remembered. [See the Flickers page for additional commentary. Note that TV commercials can also be subject to manipulative intervention. At present these are not dealt with on the Subliminal World web site as examples are relatively rare compared to print ads. In additiona, they are time consuming to both find and then to convert into a multi-media format for presentation on the WWW. However, some examples are likely to be presented on this site in 2003. ]

A television station in Los Angeles experimented with subliminal messages by flashing "Drive Safely" on the screen during news shows. The accident rate in Los Angeles continued without any noticeable let up. And in Wichita, Kansas, a local television station attempted to convince a killer who was at large with subliminal messages that he should give himself up. It was not successful.

In England, a BBC science panel show flashed a subliminal four word news item during a show and asked viewers to identify it. Of 430 replies, 150 claimed to have perceived it, but only 20 got it right.

The only known attempt at subliminal advertising by an advertiser occurred some years ago when the Premium Corporation of America inserted the subliminal words "Get It" in a television commercial for a game called "Husker-Du". The company claimed that it was inserted by an exuberant (but misguided) young man from a production house in Minneapolis. The commercial was removed from the air and history records that the marketplace was not kind to "Husker-Du".

But most of the existing fear of subliminal advertising has been raised by a journalism professor at the University of Western Ontario named Wilson Key (typing error - Kay - hand corrected ) who wrote a book called "Subliminal Seduction". The book became voguish and is read in many university courses on psychology and marketing. [It still is widely read. Is this because it strikes a chord with people who are to some extent aware that a proportion of ads make use of secondary imagery?] It created concern about mind manipulation and it inspired considerable paranoia about subliminal advertising.

Mr. Kay (spelling error in original) sees sex in everything. A glass of ice turns into a sexual fantasy. [ See the discussion of Key and his views regarding one such ad on the Classic Key page.] A wine bottle is a phallic symbol. The Howard Johnson's placemat shows clams that are actually human bodies engaged in a wanton sex orgy. An ice cube in a liquor ad reveals the letters S-E-X in the shadows, an incredible photographic achievement since a professional examination of the original photograph and the engraving plates reveal no retouching.

I do not wish to belabor Mr. Kay (again misspelled) further. But I suggest that we should not take too seriously anyone who can sense an insinuation in every advertising statement, and for whom a phallic symbol is anything longer than it is wide. [ While Key seemingly overemphasised the extent of such ads and their likely impact he nevertheless did draw attention to a phenomenon that seems to be spreading across the globe. I say 'seemingly' here because I do not have access to a large sample of ads from the time period that Key writes about. Samples of ads going back into the 1980's do not seem to contain a large proportion of ads containg secondary images. ]

Now let's conclude with some basic questions about subliminal advertising.

Has it ever been used? The answer is hardly ever. The only recorded instance of its use in a paid advertisement was the act of a single individual acting without his company's authority - it was withdrawn by the advertiser and it was not successful. Every other known use has been either in test circumstances or for specific purposes under controlled conditions. [This is no longer the case, if it ever was.]

Does it currently exist? We are quite sure that it does not. [ As the examples presented on this site indicate, the author is certain that it has existed, at least throughout the 1990's and into the years 2000 and 2001. Will it disappear of its own accord? I doubt it.. Such ads still appear in late 2002, though the longer running campaigns associated with tobacco and distilling companies seem to have 'dried up'. Perhaps because they were not particularly effective - but see the experimental reports on the site - or because attention has been drawn to their actions. ] As far as we know, it has never been used by any of our 530 member agencies over the some thirty years since it became a publicized phenomenon. In my own career in the advertising agency business, I have worked personally with hundreds of advertisers on thousands of advertising campaigns. In not one instance have I ever heard a suggestion - either from an advertiser or an agency person - that any subliminal technique be used. And I have checked this experience with many of my colleagues in the agency business - all of whom agree. Our clients always wanted their advertising to be as "liminal" as possible.

Is it legal? Well, to begin with, it is certainly not ethical.[ I strongly agree at this point with Adams.] It is in strict violation of the advertising code of the National Association of Broadcasters. The FCC has made it clear that any station permitting the use of subliminals will lose its license, stating that the "use of subliminal perception is inconsistent with the obligations of the licensee . . . and broadcasts employing such techniques are contrary to the public interest". Also, there is no doubt that the Federal Trade Commission will not tolerate subliminals, being charged with the responsibility for eliminating deception in advertising.

Would it work if it were used? Probably not. There is no convincing evidence of the effectiveness of subliminals. Psychologists are not agreed that subliminal stimulation can initiate subsequent action and certainly not commercially or politically significant action.[But psychologists only carry out a limited set of experiments into subliminal perception, not advertising..Twenty years on from Adams' statement it seems reasonable to note that commercial organizations are much more pragmatic and have millions of customers on whom to test their ads. Psychological studies, additionally, do report that subliminal stimuli change attitudes but not behaviour. Is this really all that different from advertising stimuli. Most ads do not influence behaviour and their influence can only be determined by comparing the behaviour of groups of individuals exposed to ads with those who do not see them. In each group only a small proportion of individuals are likely to make decisions influencing purchasing behaviour - and this over a period of time. Sales data reflect such influences. Psychologists cannot obtain such data so comparisons between real life ads and experimental stimuli are thus not truly comparable. However, one should ask, 'Would companies waste their time, money and effort in the use of 'subliminal' techniques that they did not evaluate and if they were not commercially effective?] And there is nothing in psychological testing to suggest that actions could be produced against a subject's will [except, in some circumstances, when under hypnosis.] or more effectively than through normal recognized messages.[They do not need to be more effective, simply cost effective. Additionally, when one is considering subliminal or secondary imagery conscious decision making has been 'bypassed'. There is thus no will power involved in countering the manipulative influences.]

Is it worth worrying about? Hardly. We are convinced that there is no subliminal advertising in America today. [This statement would definitely not be true if made in the year 2001 rather than 1981 and an adequate definition of subliminal advertising were provided. Such a definition need not incorporate ads containing secondary imagery. But if secondary imagery were excluded from such a definition then professional associations would have to address the very similar issues with regard to secondary imagery. At present they do not, tending to rely upon blanket denounciations of subliminal advertising..] Those who continue to eagerly pursue the search for it are clearly on a witch hunt, and their endeavors have produced no respectable evidence that it does exist. [Try this web site out for size. It probably fits the latter part of the preceding sentence. Whether it is a witch hunt, viewers can draw their own conclusions..] Surely there are better and ;more profitable pursuits for concerned consumerists.

Should it be included in these BATF regulations? We think not. We believe that it is simply not necessary, and that its inclusion creates an incorrect impression of advertising's non-use of this non-technique.

But if this regulation is put into effect by the BATF, we hope that you will do so with a full awareness that you are taking another gratuitous swipe at the "straw man" of advertising - and that you are making illegal what is illogical - and that you are ruling against what advertising has already ruled out - and that you are issuing your warning to the already unwilling.

Thank you for your time. I hope that the 4 A's sentiments on this subject have not been left with you too subliminally. For advertising people learned long ago that the best way to say a thing is to say it - up front, on top and above board, where it belongs.[But unethical companies will seemingly use any means at their disposal to stay ahead of their competitors. Additionally, the statement is clearly out of date as most ads in the beginning of the 21st century are not up front. Ads now reflect lifestyle issues and make very few claims for products or services. In other words, ads rely upon imagery, both covert and overt, together with verbal and non-verbal forms of communication, to influence viewers. ]

Now I'll be happy to answer any questions. Out Loud. [O.K. Question: What is the purpose lying behind the application of embedded elements in many of the Marlboro ads produced for Philip Morris? Stock Answer: If these ads do exist then they are not effective. But, if they are not effective, could Philip Morris tell us why were they produced over a period of at least 5 or 6 years, perhaps longer?]


Link to top of page

hline.jpg (2424 bytes)

Clicking on the link below will take to you reproductions of the original photocopied

letters and statements on which the above text is based.





Link to previous pageLink to top of pageLink to Alternative Site  Menu offering some additional information about each page and its contents.


hline.jpg (2424 bytes)

Commentary and information about any of the ads or requests on this Web site can be sent by e-mail to the Webmaster

To the best of the author's knowledge none of the illustrations, in the format used on this site, are subject to copyright. If copyright has been inadvertently breached please contact the author in order to rectify the matter. All brands and logos referred to or illustrated on this site are the property of the relevant companies and copyright holders. However, commentary and other information produced by the author can be freely copied and distributed. Similarly, illustrations of ads, so long as they are accompanied by commentary or are presented in the form of parody, can also be copied and distributed but please acknowledge as the source. Translation of tobacco company ads and relevant commentary into languages other than English will be particularly welcomed.

Last Revised: 20th September, 2001


Utility animation