Dear Mr Ballinger,
Semi-subliminal advertising in the U.K.
I was rather concerned to note in your
letter of 16th March, 1999 in response to my letter of the
10th March that the ASA has no policy regarding the type
of marginally perceptible or semi-subliminal advertising
that I was enquiring about.
Although advertising including such semi-subliminal
elements does not breach any of your key criteria of Honesty,
Legality, Decency and Truthfulness, except perhaps with
regard to decency in some cases, public awareness of the
use of such advertising would undoubtedly bring the profession
into disrepute. In addition a variety of other factors seem
relevant to the use of techniques that aim to exploit fears,
insecurities, uncertainty and lack of sophistication, particularly
on the part of younger viewers. Their use is in breach of
the general principles underlying ASA guidelines and disapproved
of by the public in general. Public reactions over the years
against such advertising has also influenced legislation
in a variety of countries and various extracts from ASA
guidelines regarding cigarette and tobacco advertising would
also appear to be relevant e.g.
a) advertisements should not play on the
susceptibilities of the immature or vulnerable
b) advertisements should not exploit the
immature, the young, the socially insecure, or those with
physical, mental or social incapacity.
Any form of semi-subliminal advertising
would therefore seem to be a form of advertising that ought
to be actively discouraged by the ASA.
It is possible that the ASA's current position
on this issue has arisen because of the extensive but inconclusive,
not to say obfuscating, debates about subliminal advertising
in the past. These have rarely shed light on any aspect
of subliminal advertising and certainly distracted from
those unethical aspects of ads that are not truly subliminal.
However, here I am clearly addressing phenomena that, although
often included under the rubric of subliminal advertising,
are actually perceptible - as are all the examples that
have ever been offered of so-called subliminal advertising.
Their use is clearly unethical. The semi-subliminal elements
within these adverts are on the borderline of perceptual
ability by virtue of being disguised or embedded in other
material and observers do not consciously notice anything
unusual about them. Observers only consciously perceive
these elements when their attention is drawn to them. An
indication of this lack of conscious awareness is undoubtedly
the fact that the ASA has never had any complaints about
As those claiming professional expertise
within the ASA have failed to attend to such issues, and
lay members of the public do not have the interest or expertise
to detect such advertising, it seemingly takes a professional
observer such as myself to bring this unethical practice
to the attention of the ASA. The presentation of the Impulse
Ico ad in the attached Appendix is therefore the basis for
a formal complaint about the use of semi-subliminal techniques
intended to influence consumers without their having the
ability to appreciate or respond to certain types of messages
incorporated, implied, connotated or alluded to by the semi-subliminal
features of the ad.
The semi-subliminal elements within the
Impulse Ico ad are, in retrospect, relatively obvious and
open to various interpretations. But note that I use the
term obvious with reference only to retrospective appreciation
of the ad. If you ask individuals to scrutinise an original
copy of the Impulse Ico ad (this has been in print in young
women's magazines for the past 2-3 months) before they are
acquainted with the contents of the Appendix you will see
what I mean. Most observers in fact, I would go so far
as to say virtually all observers - do not notice anything
usual. Even those who may feel distressed/intrigued/irritated
by something that they cannot quite 'pin down' are unable
to identify the cause of their response.
As the ASA cannot deal adequately with
past breaches of the guidelines, either stated or implied,
there is little point in my raising complaints about ads
no longer in circulation. However, I think it is only fair
to indicate that I am writing a book about the subject and
have virtually finished preparing a set of web pages - the
Impulse Ico Appendix is a modified version of one such page.
I can assure you that the Impulse Ico ad is not an isolated
example and many more examples will be placed in the public
domain within the next year. This may offer sufficient incentive
to your colleagues to 'place their house in order' and do
more than simply address the matter of the Impulse Ico ad
whatever the outcome of your deliberations on this matter.
I would suggest, therefore, that the ASA
has a problem on its hands. In the interests of the ASA
and the public at large, this complaint should not simply
be treated as a complaint about a specific ad but rather
as an trigger to consider a more general practice that needs
to be stamped out. My research would indicate that many
major advertising companies and their clients make use of
such techniques and, of course, I am not in a position to
scrutinise all the ads that are produced annually. Additionally,
many of these companies have made use of semi-subliminal
techniques for many years, possibly indicating - despite
contradictory claims by researchers tending to focus on
subliminal advertising rather than semi-subliminal material
- that such ads are effective in influencing some consumers.
Given the relatively widespread use of
semi-subliminal techniques in British advertising it should
not be difficult to find individuals who are knowledgeable
about these techniques. However, should ASA members be surprisingly
naïve, unaware or unwilling to acknowledge the use of semi-subliminal
techniques, I will be only to willing to provide comprehensive
information at professional consultancy rates plus expenses.
I look forward to your response.
Jim Hagart, C. Psychol.