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Detecting semi-subliminal advertising

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Benson and Hedges Benson and Hedges thumbnail Jim Beam Jim Beam thumbnail Stella Artois Stella Artois thumbnail Camel Camel cigarette pack thumbnail

Maidwell Cheese Maidwell Cheese thumbnail Maidwell thumbnail.Disarrono Disarro thumbnail            


A plug for Benson and Hedges

Intro Note: If you have not already looked at the following ads under Brainteasers, look carefully at each one and you will see that they are not natural photographs. If you have any doubts about this you can compare them with the photographs in nature.htm . If you have looked at the Brain Teaser page and do not wish to read additional material about the ads featured on that page then skip ahead to the Maidwell ad.

Click for a larger, floating, image. Benson and Hedges plug ad with the wires twisted to form representations of the letters s e and x.Most ads containing semi-subliminal* elements have been artistically retouched to include elements that would have been difficult or impossible to include naturally. The Benson and Hedges ad appears to be a photograph of a plug with the wires twisted into as close a representation of the word s e x as one can get. It is much more likely that the ad was carefully crafted by an artist.

Dick Ward, in his book Illustration for Advertising, discusses and illustrates some of the many techniques that were used to produce adverts prior to the development of computer based artwork. Super-realistic images are the result.  And, as they are drawings or paintings they do not need to conform to real world imagery.   They can contain features that would never appear in an untouched photograph.

In ads containing one reasonably clear, but nevertheless semi-subliminal element, such as the twisted wires evident in this ad, one can also expect to find other related elements.   Usually these are closer to the boundary of perceptual ability and less noticeable but nevertheless they seem to be used to complement the initial message or else as a means of preconsciously* biasing judgements in favour of the principal semi-subliminal message.

Ads for Marlboro cigarettes, for example, offer excellent examples of this multi-layered technique. And for an excellent example of multiple imagery see the Impulse Ico ad on the The Ads of the Month Page page.

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A belly full of laughs

Click for a larger, floating, image. Jim Beam ad with electric flashes in the groin area forming the letters s e and x. Unlike the Benson and Hedges ad noted above, there is no need to look closely at this Jim Beam ad to discern that it is not a natural photograph. Whatever the basis of the robot, the 'electric' flashes across the groin and body of the robot have had to be artistically added.

Look carefully at the crotch and you'll notice that the word s e x is incorporated into the centre of the lightning flashes. The e is reversed but bear in mind that all of us, when we were kids couldn't tell the difference between correctly presented and reversed lettering.  We still have the ability to recognize such reversed lettering, especially when there is some additional information to direct attention.   In this respect the caption on the ad draws the viewers attention to the correct focal area.  It states 'I wish I had the guts to drink a Jim Beam.' This may seem counterproductive but one has to bear in mind that viewers of ads and other scenes tend to perceive the 'whole picture' and not the contributory elements. The caption is intended to direct attention but not sufficient to encourage the viewer to reflect consciously on the contents of the relevant part of the ad.  The recognition of the sexual message would arise from either previous experience with Jim Beam ads and/or the sexual content of the magazine the ad was incorporated in or simply from the preoccupation's of the age group the ad was directed to.

A similar device, where the caption cues in attention to an aspect of the ad, is evident in the Marlboro ad noted above and others.

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If the price is right

Click for a larger, floating, image. Stella Artois ad with sex in the condensation at the foot of the glass.To detect the semi-subliminal message in this ad simply turn the Stella Lager ad upside down and look at the puddles 'underneath' the glass. Again they present the letters s e x, this time with S and X in upper case letters and the e in lower case. S e and x, in various configurations and at varying levels of perceptibility, can be found in many ads. Usually the lettering is much smaller than this and it is not possible to present them in a form that is discernible on a computer screen.  To perceive Rollover image of Stella glass with s e x in condensation.such lettering view the original copies of the ads noted in these pages and you will find these letters are often embedded in the background or at salient points (near brand names/logos). However, when attempting to detect embedded lettering presented at low levels of perceptibility it is essential to try and avoid projecting images onto the ads i.e. confounding what one is thinking with what is actually printed on the page.

There are some means one can use to rule out projection. First, do the letters you perceive seem to be recognizable from almost any angle. If so, then you are probably projectively 'reading' elements into the ad.  They probably do not exist in reality.

The most common letters embedded in ads are, of course, s e and x but you might find approximations to other words such as skin, cancer and other words.  As sex is the commonest word It is rather unfortunate that when viewed upside down both s and the x present exactly the same configuration, unlike less asymmetrical letters such as B and J.  They are also easy to disguise in textured backgrounds because of their similarity to scratches and swirls.    Note also that skilled practitioners do not neatly align lettering, nor spell 'words' neatly - you will find numerous combinations of shapes suggesting S's and X's and fewer E's.

As embedded 'lettering' only attempts to influence thoughts and moods, not give instructions, the embedded lettering can afford to be ambiguous. Resolution of the ambiguity will rely upon what is of interest to the viewer and what he or she has been presented with recently. S e x, for example, may be more readily recognized after reading magazine headlines or articles devoted to sexual activities or interests e.g. magazines for young males and females such as Cosmopolitan, Maxim, Gear, Details, etc..

A second test is to note whether the letters that you perceive are limited to specific areas of the ad or to specific types of ads. If so then you probably have developed the Stella Artois extract with 'Thank you' message in reverse (mirror) lettering.ability to detect semi-subliminal lettering and imagery.   Projection would probably have you perceiving the letters s e and x in every ad you looked at.

Click for a larger, floating, image. Another of the pricey Stella ads with a cheap message. Practice, and the accumulation of a body of knowledge from observing a large body of adverts whilst seeking confirmatory evidence from other sources or consistency of theme, is ultimately the only means of helping ensure that you do not superimpose* your own 'thoughts' on an advert. You might then appreciate the message in the extract from the Stella Artois ad that followed the condensed sex ad.

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Camel Tracks

Click for a larger, floating, image. The classic Camel cigarette pack.The Camel cigarette package and associated ads are famous, or notorious, depending upon how you consider the matter, for incorporating a masculine figure complete with genitalia in the foreleg of the camel logo. Make tracks for the Camel ad page.   The most recent ad campaigns featuring Joe Camel were a self parody of the original Camel ad and were ostensibly intended to deflect criticism - they seemingly backfired in some respects as Joe appealed too blatantly to young children and aroused the ire of critics. However he has presumably done his job rather well and helped another cohort of young individuals become addicted to cigarettes.

The techniques used in Camel ads are extremely varied and change in some respects according to the nature of the marketing campaign.  At the heart of the secondary imagery in Camel ads is the manikin embedded in the camel logo. Camel campaigns are essentially based on imagery rather than embedded lettering. A number of examples are discussed on the page devoted to Camel ads. The images are primarily sexual or allude to sexuality but Camel ads overtly and covertly also bring in imagery likely to trigger anxiety and insecurity e.g. guns, baton wielding police officers, aggressive behaviour, masturbation, alien abduction and so on.

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How's Dis for a laugh?

Click for a larger, floating, image. A promotional display for Disaronno featuring a 'face' in the ice cubes composed of smaller 'faces'. If you think all semi-subliminal adverts focus on the topic of sex you would be wrong. Look at the Disaronno ad. The Disaronno glass contains a number of deathly, depressing faces, and each face is constructed from a number of smaller faces, each also as miserable as sin. Such imagery is relatively common in spirits ads. As noted in the Ads from the Archive page, ice cubes traditionally do not and have not consistently contained the letters s e and x, although this is the impression that the advertising industry would like the public to believe.

The logic of the advertising profession case is simple. If people accept their claim that'Faces' in the 'face' in the Disaronno display. ice cubes contain the letters sex, then interested viewers will look for s e and x in ice cubes.  They will almost inevitably fail to find them, and thus dismiss arguments about 'subliminal' advertising as a whole.  If, on the other hand, consumers had been primed to detect distressing images in ice cubes then they would have relatively little difficulty in doing so, especially if they chose adverts for certain product ranges e.g. Gordon's Gin and Bell's Whisky.  This distraction technique is simply a variation on a well tried them.  It works.    


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The Maid is unwell 

Maidwell cheese ad with 'dead body' in the clouds..Death imagery is relatively common where spirit and cigarette products are concerned. However, it is unusual to find them associated with cheese. Note that on the side of this Maidwell ad, depicted in the clouds, there is an image of an elderly, grey, individual (her head is to the right). This can be perceived as someone who is a deathly colour - either dead or dying. The ad also contains a negative play upon the brand name - Maidwell. In this case the deathly image would seem to indicate that the maid is far from well. However, one can note that whilst fear and anxiety about death and dying may sell spirits it seems to bear little relationship to the consumption of cheese - one does not normally drown ones anxieties by consuming dairy products, nor does one tend to associate getting well with the consumption of cheese.

In this case the ad agency and their clients seem to have got their research base wrong - or else some disgruntled employee of the ad agency had a last fling before leaving the company.  A few weeks after its launch the product was being heavily discounted in the clearance section of the author's local supermarket.   Farewell, sweet maid. Another ad in this series and additional commentary can be found on the Ads of the Month page.

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No ads today, only Death in the Country

animated scrollIn essence secondary imagery takes two forms: images and letters. Both forms can range from the relatively obvious to the very difficult to perceive, even when one is looking for them. In addition, although one can often feel that there is something odd about an ad it may take a number of viewing sessions before one can recognize what has 'struck' ones interest. Sometimes, as Wilson Key noted, the feeling engendered by viewing an ad with semi-subliminal artwork can be very negative, powerful, especially imagery focussing upon subjects related to death.

Regardless of how powerful the emotive responses to an ad containing semi-subliminal material are, as indicated above, only practice can help one accurately detect the imagery. One criterion to help you detect relevant ads is this: whenever you find an ad that appeals to you, or you find distasteful, or an ad that is intriguing but you cannot discern the reason why, then this is when you are most likely to have an example of an ad containing semi-subliminal artwork.

Time and time again, this simple suggestion to the author's students has led them to bring adverts into their consumer psychology class and classes on perception. On the surface the ads they bring in seem innocuous but they have, in many cases, contained semi-subliminal artwork. The Pirelli ad featuring Carl Lewis, the Benson and Hedges deckchair ad and some of the Marlboro ads are all examples brought to the author's attention by students who recognized that there was an aberration within the ad but they could not pin down what it was.  The Marlboro Country ads and various spirits ads take their thematic elements to the extreme.   In addition to sexual and oral elements, Marlboro ads often incorporate death masks and other emotive imagery in calculated attempts to trigger anxiety and smoking in unsuspecting viewers. 

This ability to recognize but not know is not as odd as it might seem - bear in mind our ability to detect reversed lettering. This ability is often demonstrated in simple experiments.  For example, the glass in the Stella Artois ad noted above is often described as sexy. In essence, the message in the ad has 'got through' to the viewer.  But, despite the 'obviousness' of the 'lettering' once it is pointed out, very few people notice or comment upon this feature of the ad when the ad is first viewed. Viewers tend to perceive the whole of an ad or scene but it seems that specific elements influence judgement even although they do not register in conscious awareness.  The subsequent 'mental set' that develops hinders subsequent recognition of the contributory elements.

See the pages devoted to a summary of some relevant psychological theory and the Frequently Asked Questions for a more extensive discussion of some aspects of this topic.

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Secret Affairs

animated scrollNote that a number of the ads discussed above are not simply idiosyncratic, one-off, affairs. Nor are they the chance outcome of artists having fun with Freudian theories, producing ambiguous figures, or whatever. They are part of a consistent policy to influence the thoughts and feelings of consumers using techniques that consumers have little or no defence against.    Whether such ads are influential is a moot point so far as psychologists are concerned.   However, one should note that Benson and Hedges (UK) incorporated semi-subliminal elements within their adverts for over a decade - and may still be doing so.   R.J.Reynolds and Philip Morris, with their ads for Camel and Marlboro cigarettes, have also been using the same techniques for many years and continue to do so. 

The longer the period that such techniques have been used, the greater the degree of sophistication in their use. If the companies responsible are setting the trend for large brewing, tobacco and food conglomerates - and they have evidence to back up the effectiveness of these practices - then consumers need to become much more familiar and sceptical about the advertising and promotional activities of the companies whose brands are clearly associated with the use of semi-subliminal content.

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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: 3rd January, 2003


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