Exactly! Does it matter, whether subliminal techniques originated in the world of art , the psychology laboratory, or are some hybrid combining material from the arts and social sciences? All one needs to do is throw in a touch of unethical professional behaviour, some creativity and stir well. The result is subliminal or semi-subliminal advertising.
If advertising agencies produce ads such as those discussed below does it matter whether the outcome is defined as subliminal advertising or semi-subliminal advertising? When one focusses on unethical behaviour then it is, in some respects, immaterial what the outcome is called. In other respects, however, the origins and terminology does matter. For example, one needs to use different terms for different factors if one is to classify data accurately and develop relevant critiques. The issue of terminology is picked up later in this section but meanwhile the focal concern in this section of Beginnings is Who funds such ads?
Presented below are a number of thumbnail examples, presented in alphabetical order by product name or company/association. Most of these thumbnails do not provide sufficient information for viewers to detect the elements that have been 'doctored'. To view larger versions of the ads simply click on the hyperlink.
It is unlikely to go unnoticed by viewers that all of these examples come from major companies. Most of them are also rather recent. The Ads of the Month page illustrates even more contemporary ads. Semi-subliminal advertising is clearly 'alive and well' in some sectors of the advertising industry. It is not simply a historical phenomenon that died out decades ago.
If the arguments put forward over the past few decades were true - that 'subliminal advertising' is a waste of time - one might reasonably ask why these techniques are still being used by the largest, wealthiest and most powerful companies around? Companies, moreover, who draw upon the creative resources of the largest, most influential, advertising agencies in existence. This is a question worth obtaining an answer to.
These ads - and many others of their ilk - have the potential to influence consumers over time. Yet their impact is not generally appreciated by members of the public. This is because the motivating element/message/image is contained within these ads but is presented in a form which places them at the boundary of perceptual ability.
Such semi-subliminal messages/images clearly represent a failure of advertising agencies to work within the restrictions common to almost all professional advertising associations. These guidelines are intended to prevent the use of subliminal advertising, generally defined as advertising that falls with that area of visual perception that can influence individuals but is not noticeable.
The definition of what constitutes subliminal material (outside the psychological laboratory) is vague and could easily encompass material within ads that are simply not noticed because of lack of attention. However, the distinguishing characteristic of semi-subliminal aspects of advertising are that they are incorporated into ads intentionally and they are not intended to be perceived consciously. Even if viewers paid close attention to them, they would, in many cases, not notice the manipulative elements unless attention was drawn to them.
The elements of concern within these ads are not truly subliminal i.e. they can be perceived, although some effort and practice is required if one is to detect them consistently. I would prefer therefore to refer to such ads as semi-subliminal ads. This is a somewhat more accurate term than the current tendency to label them as subliminal ads. A more detailed case for this point is presented on the Theory page.
A clear distinction that can be drawn between subliminal advertising and the majority of semi-subliminal ads. It is therefore possible that the current (ambiguous) guidelines were drawn up specifically to exclude detailed consideration of semi-subliminal ads. A vague definition, one that focuses on information and images that cannot be perceived, is extremely beneficial to members of the advertising profession. Advertising professionals are then free to argue, disingenuously, that they do not indulge in subliminal advertising. The ads in question are, of course, not subliminal. They are merely semi-subliminal.
Restrictions, either voluntary or because of legislation, apply to the use of subliminal advertising in a number of countries. Unfortunately, there seems to have been little effort devoted to applying the spirit of the voluntary advertising guidelines either in the UK or the USA. The guidelines are not underpinned by legislation and they are not enforceable. Can the consumer therefore be expected to have much faith in the bodies responsible for implementing such guidelines?
It is possibly worth noting that the bodies responsible for the implementation of the guidelines almost inevitably contain or are likely to be responsive to influential members and companies who are in breach of the guidelines. See the page devoted to an ad campaign produced by theAmerican Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) for some justification for an extremely cynical viewpoint regarding the ability of professional advertising bodies to police their own activities. Correspondence with the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK (see the ASA pages) also does not lead one to have a great deal of faith in such organizations.
For advertising guidelines to be enforced in the interests of the consumer i.e. to inform and offer information and not to manipulate, would seemingly require that such bodies as the ASA be independent of the parent organization (the Institute of Advertising Practitioners) and, if necessary, be backed by effective legislation.
A long time ago, at an Open University Summer School, I was pondering over what topic I should present as an evening lecture. The lectures were intended to give students an insight into the application of psychology and help sustain their interest in the subject. My research at the time was into drinking and driving, a topic that did not exactly grip the attention of most students after a hard days work on research projects. They wanted something more stimulating (and less closely related to their recreational time in the Univesity bar). I happened to come across a newspaper article referring to statements attributed to Winston Fletcher, currently Chairman of Delany Fletcher Bozell and a former president of the Advertising Association. He stated that "Sex, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder". Prior to these he had rambled through various issues concerning advertising and complaints about advertising, in the process managing to confabulate 'subliminal' advertising with socially acceptable advertising. Primarily he followed the 'party line' and dismissed Wilson Keys views (see ClassKey).
Some years previously I had read Wilson Key's book Subliminal Seduction and subsequently noted, in passing, a few examples of 'subliminal' advertising in UK publications. I felt that Fletcher had grossly misrepresented the potential for an appreciation of the relationship between unacceptable, sexually oriented, advertising and public complaints about overt sexuality in advertising, especially as his touchstone was the number of complaints submitted to the various authorities concerned with advertising and TV commercials.
Public complaints can only arise if the public are aware of the topic that they are complaining about. Where semi-subliminal (and subliminal) advertising is concerned there is little or no possibility of complaints arising. I therefore took issue with his comments and wrote a brief article raising the relevant issue with the paper which had published Fletcher's comments. They did not reply. Neither did any of the other major newspapers that I wrote to.
In retrospect I had probably jumped the gun. Even though I presented a reasonable argument, my evidence was simply based on a number of individual ads. And these, of course, are open to interpretation in a number of different ways. Had I been able to assemble a number of examples from the same companies or for related products then the outcome might have been different and my article published. Had publication occurred then my interest in the subject would probably have terminated as I, like most other individuals, had no idea of the extent to which this form of manipulative advertising permeated certain sectors of the advertising industry.
Winston Fletcher is still promoting Advertising in all its glory - but he never acknowledged its warts. Possibly because his bread is buttered on the side of advertising, rather than the consumer. It may also simply be that he, like virtually all members of the lay public, is unaware of the actions of unethical members of his profession. Despite producing the numerous ads reproduced on this site, they are not in breach of any of the criteria laid down by the A.S.A. Nevertheless their actions are manipulative rather than adhering to any of the normal standards of advertising, essentially to be persuasive, educational, interesting, informative, etc. or any combination of these characteristics.
The semi-subliminal content of the ads these companies produce is not in accordance with the A.S.A. standards. The caption appended to the black and white picture of Fletcher appearing in Campaign magazine on the 6th June, 1997 indicates Fletchers 'mind-set'. It states, in effect that "You will not have seen an advert that breaks the rules". This is not surprising, since the rules do not encompass subliminal or semi-subliminal advertising. Semi-subliminal aspects of ads fall through the loopholes in the A.S.A. guidelines and have the sole aim of 'brainwashing' individuals by attempting to manipulate emotions and influence attitudes and thought as contributory steps towards influencing behaviour.
The degree of attention one might wish to pay to Fletcher's statements or anyone else speaking for the Advertising Industry can be judged by the nature of the arguments that they put forward in a video tape as proxy representatives for the Tobacco Industry. See the various pages devoted to Marlboro, Silk Cut, Benson and Hedges, Camel and other cigarette brands for additional evidence and views on the topics raised in the article illustrated in the thumbnail print. The full article can be read by clicking on the thumbnail.
To cut a long story short, I began to collect examples of subliminal advertising. As my collection grew it became evident that the techniques were used systematically in conjunction with various product relevant themes. My terminology also changed as I more readily acknowledged the semi-subliminal (or marginally perceptible nature) of the ads I was viewing. I also noted the problems caused by the use of reliance upon the term subliminal to cover a whole host of disparate forms of advertising and promotional activities. En route I discovered a sexy tennis ball.
I noted that this ad had a pair of sticking plasters rather than the single plaster one would normally use. I was also intrigued as to why I was drawn to have a second look at this ad ( a full page spread in a daily newspaper ). My attention was drawn to a dark shape on the top left hand side. When viewed full on it is simply that - a dark smudge. However, when viewed in isolation from the rest of the ad as the page is turning the image is compressed. It can be considered to offer a shape remarkably like the male testicles and an erect penis.
Why should such a sexually oriented thought strike when all that is evident is a dark smudge. It is not simply the result of a fevered imagination. Look again and you will note that there are a number of cues in the ad that lead ones thoughts in this direction. Foremost amongst these is the X formed by the sticking plaster. Above this is an S formed by the flattend portion of the band that runs around a tennis ball. S and X, of course are pretty close to SeX. The unconscious 'labelling' of the dark smudge to bring it 'into line' with other thought processes triggered by association with SX (sex) is therefore not unexpected.
There may also be numerous embedded letters in this ad which further facilitated my conclusion. However, these could simply be the result of projection. My judgement of the sexy tennis ball may also be in error as I have not come across any other ads for the same product. However, even if the interpretation of this ad is completely erroneous, it deserves a place in the author's personal history. This was the first semi-subliminal ad I analysed in more than superficial terms. The inability to present a conclusive argument on the basis of isolated ads also helped provide the basis for the need to take a longitudinal approach and collect series of ads.
As you progress through this site, you will not that in many instances every attempt has been made to demonstrate that the use of semi-subliminal techniques occurs systematically. Series of ads are presented whenever possible.
Once may be chance. Twice could be coincidence. But three or more uses for the same product or by the same company indicates an intentional, manipulative, human hand lies behind the ads. Further research into this topic by individuals familiar with the intricate and interlaced world of advertising will undoubtedly discover that many of the ads were produced by the same ad agencies and even the same individuals.
This page has multiple parts: click to continue
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Last Revised: 20th September, 2001