The question on the left might be quite an appropriate one to ask of some of the articles cited on this page. For example, this article by O. Burtch Drake states, unequivocally that there is 'NO S-E-X IN THESE ICE CUBES. He is right, where the specific ad that he is referring to is concerned. However, if you have had a look at the Ads from the Archives Page, you will have noted something odd. Although there is no sex present in the ice cubes Drake refers to, there is another form of covert message in this ad. It is the type of message that is much more in tune with ads for spirits. The illustration contains a mood inducing/drink inducing embedded image.
The reference to SEX in ice cubes does, of course, hark back to the work of Wilson Key and his analysis of a Gilbey's Gin ad. The subject of sex in ice cubes also became quite salient for Jack Haberstroh. As noted in part of a discussion of ads from theAmerican Association of Advertising Agencies, Ice Cube Sex became part of a title of Haberstroh's book on the subject of 'subliminal' advertising. But where O.B. Drake's article is concerned it is simply a distractor from the principle embedded imagery. Rather than being a criticism of embedded or subliminal ads this ad from the AAAA actually contains a covert endorsement that many members of the AAAA probably did not notice. See the AAAA pages for some correspondence on this subject.
The subject of 'subliminal' advertising has a history that precedes the writings of Key and Haberstroh. The first article to focus on this topic is generally attributed to James Vicary. The response from professionals has been, if the title on the left is to be believed, to shake with laughter. Who in his right mind would believe that intelligent people can be influenced by aspects of ads they could not even see? Well, as this web site indicates, some individuals only seem to laugh in public. In private they produce ads for the largest, most influential, companies on the planet. As a mere consumer on the receiving end of their promotional and advertising campaigns I only hope they are not effective.
More typical of academic articles from researchers interested in subliminal advertising, but apparently having little insight into the true nature of the subject matter, is this paper by Martha Rogers and Kirk Smith. They produced a scholarly review of the literature and drew the unsurprising conclusion that practitioners should not disregard the publics perceptions regarding this form of advertising - even though it 'does not exist' in reality.
Another article by Martha Rogers and Christine Seiler reported on a survey of advertising practitioners. The title of the article is self explanatory. Rather naively they expected unethical practitioners to implicate themselves and report unethical and socially unacceptable practices. The conclusions to this study are therefore unsurprising. - based on a very poor response rate - that subliminal advertising is not used, that practitioners are unclear about what subliminal advertising is, etc. Nowhere is consideration given to the fact that those who might use the technique appreciate that it is unethical, won't be troubled to complete survey questionnaires, etc..
It is noteworthy, in the light of the problems with terminology discussed elsewhere on this site, that the respondents in Roger's and Seiler's study were uncertain as to what constituted subliminal advertising. Such uncertainty would tend to indicate that answers given by their subjects were likely to be innacurate and confused. However, if one takes a cynical viewpoint, one might presume that practitioners using unethical techniques might be tempted to produce 'spoilers' and provide erroneous replies. This would be one means of influencing the conclusions of surveys on subjects that one finds threatening. Misleading data can be expected to influence the conclusions of the researchers in the direction one desires. In this case, a desirable conclusion from the point of view of unethical advertisers would be that subliminal advertising does not exist and is not used. Such a conclusion was reached by Rogers and Seiler but this flies in the face of the evidence presented on this web site, irrespective of what one wishes to label this type of advertising.
One of the few reported studies in the public domain (there are probably many more in the archives of commercial enterprises) that tried to make use of advertising was that of Myron Gable and his colleagues. Although they reported that subliminal elements did not influence the subjects in their experiments using simulated adverts, one should bear in mind the context in which the study was carried out. The study did not use real adverts, nor were the subjects exposed to the adverts for an extended period of time. It is therefore unsurprising that strong influences were not noted. One should also note that the conclusions of Gable and his colleagues were rather guarded and seem to have been influenced by editorial requests to moderate what initially might have been more straightforward language. Some of Gable et al's results and commentary did in fact show some influence but this was downplayed in the final conclusion.
Another study that used the medium of TV to present a subliminal message was reported in the magazine Nature. The intro to that article is reproduced below. The conclusion indicated that the message had no effect. This type of result, along with other negative results, has been extrapolated to cover all advertising, including printed media. This extrapolation does not seem justified given the major differences between electronic and printed media and the manner in which viewers make use of their sources of information.
Another typical article is that illustrated below, by Jack Haberstroh but, in this instance, although his book is grossly flawed, in this article he gets one key issue right: advertising, communication, media and psychology students DO find the topic of subliminal advertising interesting. This is not surprising. What is surprising is that professionals such as Haberstroh find it difficult to appreciate the subject, except at an intellectual distance i.e. with little regard for actual advertising. As is noted on the Ads from the Archives page, Haberstroh finds it difficult to recognize subliminal advertising. His work for Seagram's Distillers also makes one suspect possible bias in his writing. However, a more accurate conclusion, based on a reading of his book Ice Cube Sex, is that Haberstroh is the type of individuals predisposed towards clear-cut judgements and categorization of imagery. He would be unlikely to do well on psychological tests such as the embedded imagery test.
Yet another commentator on the subject of subliminal advertising was Martin Gardner in an article in the Skeptical Enquirer (but note that this was not one of the articles referred to at the head of this page). Despite his self acknowledged eyesight problems he seemingly has no reservations about commenting upon a subject where examples can only be perceived with difficulty. His judgement is seemingly based only on a reading of published literature and not on an appraisal of actual advertising.
Gardner points out, quite reasonably, that it is possible to perceive almost any feature in textures surfaces if one looks long enough. Artists have long been recommended to use this technique to train their 'mind's eye'. However, the fact the people have no difficulty in perceiving a man's face on the surface of the moon does not mean that the perception of a similar face in an advert is based on equivalent cues. The cues for the perception of the Man in the Moon were laid down by nature over many millennium and are simply chance arrangements of physical features (see the entry under Pareidolia in the Glossary) In contrast, when one views any of the 'faces' embedded in ads and pointed out by the author of this site the likelihood is that most, if not all, of these 'faces' were produced with mischievious if not manipulative intention in mind. They are not the outcome of randomly placed features as is the Man in the Moon and the 'face' on Mars, etc. Their 'recognition' is based on cues provided in carefully crafted artwork. See for example the manipulation which took place to the features of the moon's surface to present a more 'meaningful' image of a 'man on the moon' in a Marlboro Ultra cigarette ad from Germany.
It requires very few basic features to recognize a face as is indicated on the Faces page. Nor does it require a great many features to introduce the word Sex or any of the other images noted on this site. People are remarkably good at identifying objects on the basis of limited cues. And we learn to make the most of limited information. Artists, cartoonists and others are acknowledged as experts at providing viewers with the necessary cues. In most cases such presentations are overt and one can but wonder at the skill of the cartoonist or caricaturist in conveying meaningful representations using a few lines. In adverts, however, artists create images that are often on the borderline of perceptual ability. In such cases, one can only wonder at the depth to which some commercial organizations sink in their search for profitability.
One area of truly subliminal research has involved the testing of people over a period of time. This has focused on the use of audio tapes. Here the results are unequivocal. The use of subliminal audio tapes to bring about change in any aspect of behaviour is a waste of time and money. Any change in behaviour that is attributed to the use of such tapes can usually be explained by the placebo effect. In effect, the beliefs of the person listening to the tape influence their judgement and they falsely attribute any changes to their listening to the tapes. However, many carefully controlled studies, indicate that people cannot detect subliminal audio messages. More impotantly, swapping tapes makes no difference to the outcomes. An individual, for example, can believe that they are listening to messages to encourage weight loss (and lose weight) when in fact there is no message or a message about some other topic. Nevertheless, the belief that the message is about weight loss is sufficient in itself to help the listener bring about change in themself. Of course, they attribute their success to listening to the tapes. See the Judas Priest page for additional information on this subject. And also check out this link to another site offering information on many different asepcts of subliminal communications, including audio messages.
A few additional commentators present reasoned summaries of research into subliminal advertising in some of the current textbook on Consumer Behavior. Solomon, for example, provides a quite accurate summary but as his writing is based on the existing literature and not original research or analysis it cannot be expected to produce earth-shattering conclusions.
Shimp, is another textbook author who takes a similar line. He again offers an accurate summary but still overlooks the fact that ads do not function in the same manner as experimental material. And finally, another textbook author, Wilkie. He offers a more rounded appraisal.
'Calling Philip Morris!' was a famous advertising slogan used by Philip Morris many years ago. Then for many decades the call fom scientists working for the tobacco companies was for more (acceptable) scientific evidence to support claims that cigarette smoking was harmful. Nowadays, despite the many examples shown on this web site, it is not employees of the tobacco companies calling for more (acceptable) evidence as they rebutt claims that they use 'subliminal' techniques. Rather surprisingly, it is psychologists and other non-involved individuals who are more accustomed to calling for scientific evidence to support claims that 'subliminal' advertising exists. They often claim that there is no such evidence, whilst discounting the only evidence that has ever been produced i.e. the examples presented by Wilson Key. In other words, instead of looking at advertising, in order to support arguments about the existance and influence of 'subliminal advertising', reliance has been placed on extrapolation from experimental studies. No social scientist who comments on the subject has ever taken the trouble, so far as the present author knows, to collect a set of printed ads and analyse what is in use and how this may influence viewers.
The most appropriate means of establishing with a degree of scientific validity that 'subliminal' ads do exist would be to carry out a content analysis of relevant ads, provided an acceptable definition of 'subliminal' advertising was agreed upon.
As the general consensus of opinion is that such ads do not exist, the present web pages are intended to help change this erroneous viewpoint. The ultimate aim is to encourage social scientists, linguists, art critics, and others to focus on advertising rather than experimental studies. Once there is acceptance that 'semi-subliminal advertising' exists and a body of evidence is publicly available then more systematic studies can be undertaken using the common experimental, observational and analytical tools of the social sciences. These studies could establish who produces these ads, why they do so, what psychological processes might be involved and who might be affected.
There is still a considerable way to go towards acceptance by professional bodies that semi-subliminal advertising exists and identifying who the 'major players' in this field are. As the introduction indicated, this set of web pages can only present a simplified version of the book Sexy, Subliminal and Deadly?: The psychology of manipulative advertising (in preparation). The ads presented may not be sexy, they are certainly not subliminal and they may not be deadly. But without appropriate evidence the first and third of these propositions cannot be asserted with confidence.
The authors whose conclusions are commented upon above have not studied PRINTED ADVERTISING and yet they, like most professionals, presume that printed ads operate in exactly the same way as the material used in isolated experimental studies, on TV and on audio tapes. Printed advertising does not, in fact, impact on people in this fashion and viewers often require repeated exposure to the same ads or variations on the same theme before any effect is found. An understanding of what is commercially effective may be much more relevant to an understanding of 'subliminal' advertising than experimental conclusions drawn on the basis of studies that have little ecological validity. If experimenters wish to ensure their pronouncements are valid they need to produce evidence equivalent to the commercial evidence held by Philip Morris, R.J.Reynolds, BAT and others.
Calling Philip Morris! Your evidence is wanted! Open your relevant archives.
Quick Links to other sites referred to in the discussion material on this page.
SCICOPS : article on Subliminal Persuasion
Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003