The Manipulative Family Tree
Simple Starter Model
A more detailed classification system is provided below.
A More Sophisticated Classification System for Manipulative Ads
At one end of the continuum there are Categories I and II ( Unattended Information and Product Placement). The relevant stimuli or elements in ads are not normally noticed. But once attention is directed towards them they are blatantly obvious. An example of this would be the vertical alignment of the letters SEX in this ad for FCUK. Had this been a serious attempt at 'subliminal' advertising one would have expected embedded lettering on the model's sweater.
This type of ad often contains wording or images that is ultimately expected to attract attention. When this is the case such ads are not manipulative nor semi-subliminal in nature. These ads with unattended components overlap with the next category of ads. These can be very similar in content and the key distinction is that no attention will be drawn to the unattended elements in the latter ads. One can reasonably describe these as manipulative in intent. It is, however, usually a low level of manipulation. With this type of ad, members of the public are likely to complain if the 'hidden' element is found distressing.
Next there are a set of ad phenomenon that are also manipulative in intent but not so easy to notice (Category III). Even directing attention to them may not, initially, lead to identification. These could be text based or visually based or contain a combination of both. Examples of word based manipulation would include Marlboro's Rush Hour or Blown Away ads.
Manipulative advertising is a very appropriate term for such ads but the term is not exclusive to this set of ads as all semi-subliminal and subliminal ads are also manipulative. Can you suggest a more appropriate and discrete term that could apply to this category alone?
Further along the continuum one comes to Semi-subliminal content (Category IV). These ads incorporate small, camouflaged or embedded components. By definition, if they can be perceived consistently, even with difficulty, then they must be semi-subliminal and not subliminal. This sub-set of ads are also manipulative but their key identifying characteristic is that they are semi-subliminal. Many Marlboro ads, including the Fast Food ad, provide examples of such contents.
Right on the borderline of visual perception lies the area where stimuli can be perceived some 50% of the time and overlooked the other 50% (Category V). This is another manipulative area of advertising.
Ads falling into this category could only be defined on the basis of statistical test results. It is the visual equivalent of guessing heads and tails and getting half right. But where adverts are concerned there would be no certainty that one had actually got that 50% correct. Appropriate terms for these ads could be marginally perceptible or borderline subliminal. One criteria for placing images into this category would be that, even when presented to viewers, there was extreme difficulty in perceiving them as meaningful entities.
Category V can actually be divided into two sub-categories based on the type of artistic elements used. The primary type identified by individuals such as the author who are familiar with the type of ads produced by various companies contain embedded images. The second sub-category is much more difficult to identify and is fraught with problems associated with projection [see Glossary.htm]. This is because the 'meaningful' element is almost an integral aspect of the main imagery and/or is comprised of minor variations in the texture/grain of the artwork. A typical - but far from extreme - example can be found in the Dec 2000 ad for Marlboro lights. The edging of the frosted box contains variation in the texture and the letters SX only stand out if one can focus attention on the gaps between the frosting.
Any advertising containing embedded material at this level of perceptual difficulty would be extremely difficult to identify. And it is here that the problem of projection would become most pronounced. It would also be extremely difficult to ensure that projection of ones thoughts did not influence recognition. Identifying an example that fits this category can only truly be the outcome of professional judgement based on years of experience. But one must also acknowledge that the same experience can lead to bias in identification. Examples in this range can be found throughout this web site e.g. the extracts from the ad on the right analysed on the What is Subliminal advertising pages.
Beyond the 50/50 borderline there can only be truly subliminal material (Category VI). If used in advertising, this could never be recognized by viewers nor even by academics interested in the subject. Therefore no examples are provided. Without a shadow of doubt if any company used such advertising it would have to be declared manipulative. Although such advertising may be exceedingly rare, if any anyone knows of instances where truly subliminal advertising has been attempted, the author would be pleased to hear from them.
Of these six categories of visual information, only the first four can be investigated without special experimental procedures. And of these four, only the first and second categories (Unattended/Product Placement) are likely to produce thoroughly convincing evidence. The third category (Manipulative) will produce fairly discrete examples. However, differences of opinion will mean that identification of any specific ad content and associated meaning will be contentious. The degree of contention will increase markedly with the fourth category (Semi-subliminal) and the fifth category (50/50, Marginally Perceptible or Borderline).
Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003