Frequently asked questions
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Questions 'n' Answers
Subliminal advertising is the term that has been used for the past three or four decades for the type of advertising illustrated on this site. However, it is an inaccurate term. Subliminal actually means 'below the level of'. When used in conjunction with advertising i.e. subliminal advertising, it ought literally to refer to advertising that is presented below the level at which the visual, olfactory or auditory senses can detect sensory input and lead to conscious recognition of the stimuli. To use the term subliminal to refer to the type of advertising in the books of Wilson Key and the present web site is therefore misleading - all of the secondary images/messages in the ads can be perceived and thus must, by definition, be above the sensory threshold.
Numerous other meanings have been given to the term subliminal over the years e.g. beyond attention, information that is unconsciously attended to, etc. But, in essence, the core meaning is still largely associated with the type of advertising illustrated on this site. For an example of the type of debate that took place some decades ago see the page that includes some classic (and misleading) AAAA and Seagram's ads. They disparage individuals who criticize advertising agencies and their clients for producing subliminal ads but hypocritically can be seen to have used exactly the same techniques
One can, of course, draw a distinction between ads presented in print and those viewed using electronic media such as film, video, DVD and CD, or the Internet. Experiments involving what might be best considered as truly subliminal messages or images have almost invariably been carried out using tachistoscopes or, more recently, computers. In each case these devices present images or messages very faintly or for a very brief period of time. A simple example can be found in the banner heading for the pages on this site. Embedded in the centre of the banner, 'hidden' among the repeated presentations of the word 'semi', can be found a brief presentation of the word 'almost'. Although this example is perceptible, tachistocopic presentations of stimuli can be truly subliminal, as the images can be presented at levels of illumination well below the limits of visual perception or for extremely short periods of time, again too short for visual perception to occur. Ads in print, such as those illustrated on this site, do not have the same characteristics. The imagery is visible, although perceived with difficulty, and can be viewed for a considerable period of time - as long as a viewer wishes to look, in fact. They are not subliminal.
[ For a link to a site offering further information about tachistoscope usage in research click here When viewing this page note that the comments regarding subliminal advertising take the 'party line' and do not reflect 'subliminal' advertising practice. ]
The nature of the visual stimuli presented in printed media and in electronic media is markedly different from tachistoscope and computer presentations because of the temporal element. In addition, there are other differences involving context. Experimental presentations using electronic devices almost invariably use single images or short messages with little bearing on everyday life. Yet it is conclusions based on such one-off studies that dominate the professional literature today. In contrast, printed ads present semi-subliminal images or marginally perceptible messages within a complex of meaningful imagery. Because of its complexity, the ad, overall i.e. principle imagery plus embedded material, is likely to be related to emotions and meaningful activities even if the 'subliminal' material embedded within the ad is not.
Ads on film, TV, and other mass media can attempt to make use of the subliminal presentation techniques used in experiments. However, although they can attempt to implement the techniques, they cannot present truly subliminal images/messages. This is because each form of electronic media has a built in technical limitation e.g. the number of frames presented each second. These prevent the presentation of images dropping below the visual threshold. This means any attentive viewer can note the insertion of such images. Recent cases of note include the insertion of frames into a French presidential political broadcast and various TV commercials. The most recent report involves the campaigning of one of the U.S. presidential candidates in Sept., 2000.
The emphasis in the Subliminal Worldsite is on the type of print ads first discussed by Wilson Key in his books on the subject. His illustrations and those ads illustrated on this site all contain images that can be seen - thought sometime with difficulty. But, so long as the manipulative elements of these ads can be perceived at more than chance level i.e. 50% of the time, they cannot be considered subliminal. It is more appropriate to call them semi-subliminal ads or, if you wish to be more technical, marginally perceptible images.
Athough semi-subliminal ads contain images that can be seen, the crucial aspects of the ads are still often difficult to perceive (see below for the difference between perception and seeing). A more appropriate term would, in fact, be the technical term just noted i.e. marginally perceptible. However this is a rather heavyweight technical term. In the interests of plain speaking and ease of understanding the term semi-subliminal will be used throughout this site to refer to such ads.
*Truly subliminal advertising may exist. But if it does, only those who produce it will know. Although unlikely to be in use at present (see below*) it is possible that the use of truly subliminal advertising may develop in future as technology develops. NASA, for example, has reported the development of computer programmes that send computer users subliminal messages to keep them alert. Other less acceptable goals involving goods and services can easily be envisaged.
The reason the author thinks it unlikely that subliminal advertising is widely used by commercial concerns at present is as follows. Those companies most likely to make use of any means at their disposal to promote their products, whether ethical or not, whether in breach of legislation or not, are the major US and International tobacco companies. They already make assiduous use of semi-subliminal advertising. If truly subliminal advertising served their aims equally as well as semi-subliminal advertising, or was more effective, then one could bet they would not trouble to use semi-subliminal advertising because of the potential problems to their image when some researcher, such as the author, raises public awareness of the issue.
Are there any ex-employees or curent employees of Philip Morris, R.J.Reynolds, BAT or their advertising agencies out there who can shed some light on this issue? Add you comments on the guest pages or contact the author by any of the other means offered on this site.
Semi-subliminal advertising is the most easily remembered term that can be applied to the type of advertising that has previously and erroneously been labelled as subliminal advertising. See the Answer to question number one (above) for a more extensive answer.
In short, semi-subliminal advertising can be perceived (though sometimes with some difficulty). By definition, one should not be able to perceive subliminal messages. The only exception would be when images are barely perceptible and presented at the borderline of perceptual ability. One might then expect to perceive such messages 50% of the time (but again with difficulty).
Thus, the ads discussed on this site are semi-subliminal and not subliminal in nature.
This is a difficult question to give an answer to. No-one has ever carried out a systematic study of semi-subliminal advertising. To produce an accurate figure would require a study of a vast amount of advertising over a set period of time such as a year. Even reducing the amount of work involved by selecting best selling magazines would still create difficulties due to the variability in the ability of individuals to recognize secondary imagery. Observers would need to be trained to adhere to rigid and consistent standards with a high level of agreement between observers. This is difficult to achieve but not impossible. To datel, however, no-one has carried out such a survey. Additionally, very few individuals have taken the trouble to catalogue examples of semi-subliminal ads. This site, and that at poleshift.org are the only ones that the author is aware of, that offer a range of examples.
Wilson Key and various other American observers claim widespread use of semi-subliminal advertising (remember, they called it subliminal advertising). However these are simply subjective judgements that are most likely wrong, since they draw upon experiences that have been strongly influenced by attempts to recognize unethical advertising. The author's work involved collecting back issues of magainzes covering a period of ten years. Examination of full page ads and double page spreads would seem to indicate that only a relatively small percentage of such ads in the UK contain semi-subliminal images or messages. At best (or worst, depending upon one's viewpoint), only one or two such ads can be found per hundred ads - but this is probably an overestimate. However, with adverts for products such as cigarettes and alcoholic drinks, toiletries and certain other types of goods, secondary imagery is much more common. With some products one in two ads contain secondary imagery/messages and with certain cigarette brands perhaps every single ad in recent years has contained some semi-subliminal message. The author cannot claim to be able to detect every instance, even when viewing ads for products that are consistently advertised using semi-subliminal content.
The products associated with the greatest use of secondary imagery tend to share one key characteristic. They can usually only be distinguished one from the other by brand names. The products, in other words, contain essentially the same ingredients and fulfil the same functions. Companies and their advertising agencies seem willing to use every technique possible in attempts to differentiate these otherwise indistinguishable and often inessential products - including unethical techniques.
The ads illustrated on this site have been selected to provide variety and interest. They thus draw upon a wide range of subjects rather than represent the distribution of usage of semi-subliminal content. If the ads had been selected on a proportional basis, with the number of ads illustrated related to the number devoted to specific products, then these web pages would have been markedly different and less visually interesting. Focusing on specific product ranges requires the type of analysis in detail and commentary that is best presented in book form. The author has a number of books in preparation and interested viewers will find additional information on the page Sexy, Subliminal and Deadly?: The Psychology of Manipulative Advertising when it is published.
At one time or another many agencies and companies have made use of semi-subliminal techniques. However, it is notable that the most consistent use - and presumably also the most effective use - is associated with large, multinational, companies and corporations. They use the techniques to promote products that are either addictive, inessential and/or indistinguishable from those of their competitors, except in terms of branding and advertising.
This pattern of use would seem to indicate two possibilities, neither of which is incompatible with the other. Either it is costly to make use of semi-subliminal techniques or, if they are to be effective, such ads must be used consistently over long periods of time. Given that it is now relatively easy to produce secondary imagery using computer graphics it would seem as though the second factor is most important. It thus seems reasonable to conclude that semi-subliminal techniques prove cost effective to the companies concerned.
However, consumers can sleep easily in their beds knowing that such techniques will never suffice to persuade or influence them to purchase goods, except possibly as a factor influencing impulse decision making when no particular preference exists. Taking a long term view, it would seem as though, in most circumstances, semi-subliminal techniques may provide the additional 'grain of sand' that could tip the balance when consumers are uncertain about which of two products to choose.
However, where young children are concerned, exposure to ads containing semi-subliminal images may also be a factor that reinforces peer group pressure where heavily advertised products such as cigarettes are concerned.
Viewers should consider such issues after viewing the various ads illustrated on these pages, those concerning cigarette ads in particular. They should then consider whether they wish to take any action such as complaints to the ASA, IPA, AAAA or other bodies or asking their elected representatives to address the matter.
5. Where can I find more information about the psychology of visual perception and cognitive decision making?
To underpin an understanding of secondary imagery as used in advertising and art requires an understanding of psychological processes. The most important are those concerning perception but other areas of research including attention, memory, emotions and attributions are also relevant. Virtually any standard psychology textbook will contain basic introductory information on visual perception, and cognitive decision making. Attitudes and attributions are addressed in Social Psychology textbooks whilst emotions tend to be addressed by psychologists from a number of specialisms. The section of the Bibliography devoted to psychology lists a selection of recent titles in these subjects. The Psychology pages offer examples of visual illusions and other topics relevant to an apprectiation of semi-subliminal advertising.
Very few of the psychology textbooks and other books listed in the bibliography focus specifically on imagery in advertising. Conversely, books devoted to Consumer Behaviour (Consumer Behavior, if you are American) and/or Advertising contain very little information on the subject of visual perception and cognitive psychology. As a result, when authors from either discipline refer to the subject of Subliminal Advertising they mostly regurgitate simplistic if not erroneous statements on the topic. Some of these are discussed on the page devoted to The Experts.
To obtain the type of information that focuses on the interface between visual perception and advertising one needs to read a number of reasonably specialized books. The Bibliography ultimately will be useful to help the non-specialist viewer identify books of interest as they are organized by topic and annotations will be added at a later date.
There is nothing quite like education to insulate one from attempts at persuasion. Even if you cannot resist the influence of the ads you can at least argue against the use of the technique and avoid using the products of the companies who use it.
Inform yourself about the types of techniques used, the types of products that make use of semi-subliminal techniques and the companies who use semi-subliminal techniques. These web pages provide viewers with a valuable set of resources that can be used to inform oneself and other interested parties about this unethical means of influence.
To take this process a stage further, in order to root out the use of this and other unethical and manipulative advertising practices, one can raise these issues with the companies concerned. One can also encourage advertising associations to enforce their guidelines on ethical advertising more rigorously. And, of course, one can obtain the assistance of political representatives in putting pressure on those who initiate and make use of semi-subliminal techniques in advertising. The page devoted to Links to other sites provides some links to associated Web Sites and organizations.
The author has to confess this, at present, is an unanswerable question. Whilst there are numerousf examples of semi-subliminal advertising, as these Web Pages demonstrate, there is no evidence in the public domain to indicate that such advertising is effective (but see the end of this section and the answer to Question 20).
At best, one can extrapolate from psychological experiments. These experiments show clear evidence that 'subliminal' material around the borderline of visual perceptual ability i.e. images and messages that can sometimes be perceived or noticed, does manage to influence thoughts, dreams, written reports, experimental responses and test results, etc. However, no experiment, as yet, has demonstrated any change in behaviour. Experiments would also seem to indicate that such ads prime generic thought processes and drives e.g. semi-subliminal ads for a specific soft drink would prime the need to drink rather than a preference for any specific branded product. These results may therefore indicate there is a two stage process at work. First, drive related behaviour is primed by exposure to semi-subliminal advertising. Secondly, once a desire for a drink or some other product is primed, a specific brand needs to be selected. This selection would be made on the basis to exposure to promotional activities in general and other preferences. If this two stage processes did operate, it would be the second of these two processes that was relied upon by commercial users of 'subliminal' imagery if they needed justification for their attempts to unethically influence consumers. The secondary or 'subliminal' element would not, in itself, produce a preference for a specific product.
However, one needs to appreciate other factors related to extraplation from experimental conclusions as there are undoubtedly a number of reasons why short term experiments do not immediately influence behaviour. Advertising in general, of course, hardly ever brings about instant changes in behaviour. Sutherland's book on Advertising likens advertising to the influence of a feather. Like a feather dropping on your head, each ad has no specific influence. But, cumulatively, they 'add up' to justify the existence of a multi billion dollar industry - and, of course, a ton of feathers weighs as much as a ton of steel. This 'additive process' may also underpin a case for presuming that the semi-subliminal elements in ads are influential. Each semi-subliminal ad has no specific influence. But, over time, the (unconscious) associations that are formed between semi-subliminal images and ideas associated with specific products may accumulate. Ultimately they may influence choices regarding these and other products without the person making the decision being aware of the process.
Experiments conducted by psychologists throw no light on this long term process as most experiments are 'one-off' studies, at a specific point in time. Evidence concerning the effectiveness of secondary imagery and how it 'works' is undoubtedly only to be found within the records of the companies who have used (and evaluated) such techniques over a period of time.
Exemplars of the companies who might hold the type of information that would allow consumers insight into whether or not semi-subliminal advertising works are the tobacco companies. They have used such techniques more assiduously and over a longer period of time than any other companies noted by the author. Ask Philip Morris Inc. or R.J.Reynolds! If any single person exists who could answer the question 'How does semi-subliminal advertising work' then they are to be found among the employees of these two companies and their advertising agencies.
Since this web page was constructed additional research has been carried out by the author and a number of collaborators. One undergraduate student carried out a study with the semi-subliminal elements of Marlboro ads. His study showed that there was a preference for ads with subliminal elements. More recently the author and a colleague carried out a more complex study comparing responses to extracts of the 'subliminal' features of ads. This study compared images with and without 'subliminal' elements but also included a control condition in the study to assess the influence of simple change i.e. alteration of a non'subliminal aspect of the image. The study thus had three conditions. A) Extracts from ads containing semi-subliminal elements. B) The same extracts with the semi-subliminal elements altered. C) The same extracts with a 'neutral' section, comparable in size and colouration to the semi-subliminal element, altered. This arrangement allows one to conclude whether or not change alone brings about different judgments or whether it is the semi-subliminal elements that are influential.
The results showed that subjects responded similarly to the two sets of extracts containing semi-subliminal components i.e. varatiations A and B. Both sets A and B were judged differently from the extracts in condition C, the set where a neutral area of the ad had been modified.
Given that such ads are highly unlikely to have been produced to trigger negative reactions to the products involved, it seems reasonable to conclude that semi-subliminal ads are constructed influence consumers in a manner leading to additional consumption (or interest in the product). The extent to which this is possible has yet to be determined. Similarly, it is still necessary to determine which type of person responds to such secondary imager and the nature of the embedded elements they respond to. Given the unexpected ease with which the author and his colleagues carried out this study using real and not simulated ads one can bet ones bottom dollar that such information, and much more, is stored away in the vaults of the tobacco companies and their advertising agencies. [ This last paragraph added 6th March, 2001. See the answer to Question 20 for additional informati.]
Given the very limited amount of research that has a direct bearing on the effectiveness of semi-subliminal advertising it is impossible to say who, if anyone, is influenced by it. However, by extrapolating from research focusing on conditioning, advertising, visual perception - including subliminal perception - it would seem that the majority of individuals are susceptible to some degree. There is also a possibility that young males are more susceptible than other groups.
This does not mean that anyone will immediately respond to a specific semi-subliminal image in an ad and rush to buy the goods or service being advertised. Acknowledging that we are all influenced by secondary imagery is simply another way of stating that we will 'take on board' the semi-subliminal information if we are not visually impaired. This occurs in the same manner that we perceive any other visual aspect of the surrounding world. We will then 'draw conclusions' on the basis of whatever we have perceived, preconsciously and consciously, including any semi-subliminal information contained within an ad, and what we already know. Then, we may possibly respond then or at some future date.
If we do respond in accord with the desires of the ad agency and its client, our response will not simply be on the basis of the semi-subliminal information in their ads. Any behaviour will be the result of all that we know about the product and the various values, associations, implications, and opinions associated with the product and its use. This array of knowledge will most likely have accumulated over the years and it is unlikely to be changed by any specific embedded element in an ad, regardless of how powerful or emotive the secondary imagery might be if presented at a level where conscious attention could be paid to it.
The most pertinent research would seem to indicate that if mental associations are to be formed between semi-subliminal information and a product then ad viewers have to be partially aware of the embedded imagery. This evidence, from studies in conditioning, would indicate that less than 1% of those who view such ads would perceive the embedded message or image. Even when they perceive the embedded message, it is likely this aspect of the ad will only attract a minimal amount of attention. It will thus quickly be driven from consciousness by more salient information. Although quickly forgotten, the important point to note is that the semi-subliminal information will not have been ignored. Like any other sensory input, whether visual, auditory, tactile, or whatever, that information, once stored in memory, may ultimately become a factor in decision making.
With less than one percent of an audience perceiving an association, it would seem that a much smaller proportion of individuals will be influenced in their purchasing decisions. However, it is noteworthy that the most assiduous users of secondary imagery are extremely large, multinational, corporations. They have been making use of these techniques for many years. The constant drip, drip, drip of secondary imagery in their ads may have a cumulative effect on susceptible individuals, especially younger individuals who are less set in their ways of thinking.
With alcohol and tobacco products there is also some evidence to indicate that those who are most responsive to this type of advertising are young, extrovert, males. These are the types of individuals who constitute a major segment of the market for these products. Extrapolating from this data one can readily imagine that long term advertising strategies using semi-subliminal advertising may pay dividends.
The semi-subliminal aspects of ads that are not consciously perceived may help in forming strong - but irrational - mental bonds between emotions and specific products, if not brands. There may also be dividends for large companies in using secondary imagery to trigger particular emotional responses if these responses are related to consumption. Again, tobacco and alcoholic drinks provide the ideal products for such a strategy as consumption of these products is often associated with attempts to manage emotional states.
In conclusion, everyone is potentially susceptible to information presented at a semi-subliminal level. Some individuals are undoubtedly more susceptible than others. With any specific ad, regardless of the extent of embedded imagery, there is little for anyone to be worried about. But this may not be the case when ads have consistently conveyed semi-subliminal messages for many years, as has been the case with tobacco ads.
Some consumers may simply be responding to the beat of the ad agencies muted drums under the illusion that they are making a free choice. Others may be thoroughly confused if they have internalized semi-subliminal images and messages running counter to common sense and rational decision making. The latter group of individuals may feel little control over the external world when their moods are regularly influenced by the content of ads rather than more readily appraised aspects of their environment.
They might be in some circumstances but in general the answer to this question has to be a definite NO. An illustrated set of comments can be found on the pages associated with the Index of psychology pages Only psychotic individuals are likely to consistently perceive something that does not exist. Individuals capable of strongly projecting their ideas may also perceive images that do not exist. In the majority of cases the author is convinced that perceiving semi-subliminal elements in ads relies upon perceiving cues that do exist in the real world. Ads with elements very close to the borderline of perceptual ability are likely to produce ambiguous and ambivalent judgements and imagination and expectations may play a larger role than normal and lead to initial conclusions that do not reflect what is ultimately consciously perceived.
The illustration on the left is intended to demonstrate that we can see what doesn't exist if the appropriate visual cues are presented. The 'bright triangle' that is 'seen' in the centre of this illustration does not, in fact, exist. The colouring of this 'brighter' triangle is actually idential to what is 'seen' as the background. The differential brightness is 'constructed' by the visual and perceptual system on the basis of visual input and the application of existing knowledge of how the world 'looks' i.e. objects that are closer generally appear brighter.
Artists and advertising personnel know only too well that presenting appropriate cues can lead people to 'see' what is only suggested. Technically one should refer to perception rather than seeing: seeing is the function of the eyes, perception is the outcome after what is seen is integrated with what is known, anticipated or expected. The resulting percept is thus more than the initial stimuli that impinges on the eyes. Manipulative advertising therefore has the potential to be influential even if there is nothing to be 'seen', provided care is taken to embed ambiguous and semi-subliminal elements into the adverts.
The average layperson without any knowledge of psychology reasonably assumes that their responses only occur when information is noticed. Whilst this assumption is largely true, when we are paying conscious attention to the world around us, it does not hold when we are not paying conscious attention.
A few simple examples make this clear. Everyone, car drivers in particular, can recall periods when they have travelled considerable distances from A to B without any recall of the period in between. Effectively, we have operated on autopilot. Using unconscious, automatic, decision making in response to environmental cues drivers function quite effectively but they often have no conscious awareness of what occurred or what controlled their behaviour.
Again, when we speak, we normally do not have control over the grammatical structure of our statements. If we attempted to maintain conscious control over our speech it would be very slow and halting. Instead we rely on automatic, over learned, mental processes to 'make' the decisions for us. These decisions occur unconsciously but they are nevertheless crucial to how we function.
In both these examples it is obvious that psychological processes can function independently of conscious attention. Similar processes occur when we view a scene or an advert. We may 'take in' a scene or an ad holistically, judging what is important and what is not important almost instantaneously. However, the details of the scene are not subject to recall.
Ads for example are only viewed for a brief period of time, usually less than a second. This is about the same amount of time we spend looking at a scene just before crossing a quiet road. In neither case do we stop to appraise every individual element of the scene. We simply glance around, assess the scene as a whole, and respond appropriately and usually sensibly. It only requires this glance up and down the road and we 'know' that there is no danger. Nevertheless we might be hard pressed to tell the colours of the cars parked by the kerbside, the number of individuals walking down the sidewalk, whether the traffic lights were on green, and so on.
When there are semi-subliminal elements in ads they are mentally assessed in the same manner as any other aspect of the overall ad. However, the automatic judgmental processes that take place lead us to focus conscious attention on the primary meaning of the ad. It is this we become aware of. All other aspects of the ad have seemingly been ignored. However, experimental studies by psychologists indicate that what happens is more complex than this. Even although we may only recall a small proportion of the information contained in a picture or ad, at the moment we first look at the scene all of the information is seemingly equally available for access i.e. any aspect of a scene can be recalled if the appropriate questions are asked. In other words everything about the scene has been processed by the brain. Simply because it does not reach consciousness does not mean it has not been analysed and stored in memory. For more information on this process see the relevant section of the pages devoted to Imagination and Psychology. A typical example of this process in action can be noted in the Palmolive shower gel ad below.
Normally one would simply give this ad a passing glance. Dozens of my students have looked at this and another similar ad for the same product. Their assumption is that the ad on the left presents the image of a woman within the context of a lava walled shower room. On the wall of the shower is a small recess hold containing Palmolive shower gel. The reason they reach this conclusion is because attention is focused on the ad overall and the colourful representations of Palmolive soap.
Relatively few individuals, even after they have begun to pay conscious attention to the ad, notice that the arm in the forefront of the ad is most likely that of a man, rather than the arm of a woman. There are two people in this shower.
Including such a features in an ad is pointless if no-one is influenced by it. So why should they be there? Consider what ideas could be triggered by such a combination of images: a man and a woman in a shower scene. These ideas could range from comfort and reassurance, if these qualities are associated with a strong arm 'surrounding' oneself, through sexual ideas arising from the male/female combination, to the extreme (and undesirable from the producers viewpoint) of 'slasher' movies. The latter might conceivably be triggered in circumstances where a viewer had recently seen the shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho or the recent remake.
Each set of associations triggered by the elements in the ad are unique to the individual viewer. However, there are sufficient common elements to justify an ad agency incorporating this type of semi-subliminal element. If such an ad influences some individuals, and the ad is produced on a cost effective basis, then it makes commercial sense for the makers of Palmolive.
If such ads are evaluated by the agencies responsible, and the results of such evaluations provide the justification for such ads, then it would seem that unconscious decision making, or to be more accurate, preconscious decision making, may respond to this male/female combination. The fact that it is an unlikely combination, given that there are no other cues relating to a man in the ad, will not attract sufficient attention to lead to conscious appreciation of the more complex message. What will be consciously appreciated will be the simpler, common-sense, message. Conscious appreciation will simply register that there was a woman in a shower. The incomplete male would be 'overlooked'. But for the 'male' to be consciously overlooked some unconscious process had to discount the likelihood of the arm being that of a man.
Presumably the outcome of such combinations of elements in ads will be to provide the product with an aura of sexiness, comfort and reassurance. These will supplement any claims made regarding personal cleanliness and the avoidance of socially unacceptable bodily odours, etc.
In essence, it is deemed essential for semi-subliminal images to be noticed for them to have some influence. If semi-subliminal elements were noticed there may be a backlash because of an associated awareness of the manipulative intent of the advertiser, and knowledge of their failure to adhere to ethical advertising standards.
Practice. Practice. Practice. And self reflection upon the outcome of ones activities in observing and analysing ads.
There is no easy answer to this question. It also has to be acknowledged that some individuals will have difficulty noting the existence of semi-subliminal elements in ads. They may vociferously deny that such ads exist. But there are some individuals who can never 'see' the various elements in visual illusions offering two different interpretations. Psychology textbooks and books on visual perception, visual illusions and mind games usually offer a number of interesting, classic, examples of visual illusions. And the page devoted to ads from the archives focusses on Jack Haberstroh and his approach to a classic semi-subliminal ad. A more obvious example is illustrated below on an image of a 20p UK postage stamp. Others can be found on the Psychology page.
The primary element of this UK stamp is the image of a cow. Superimposed on the cow, instead of the usual randomly distributed black and white colouring, is the outline of a doctor giving an injection to a young child. Note that there are two ways of 'seeing' the central aspect of this stamp. With normal vision it is not possible to perceive both images at the same time and it requires conscious effort to change the focus of attention from one to the other of these images. One either perceives the cow or the embedded figures, not both.
If one has the mental facility to 'extract' images from their background and perceive these as meaningful entities, as with the cow and doctor example, then there are various sources of useful examples of semi-subliminal art in ads. The present Subliminal World Web Pages, the books of Wilson Key and the forthcoming book of the author, together with some sites on the WWW, provide a rich source of examples. Check those which are listed on the psychology pages and the links page for information. Viewing these sites and the current site should offer insight into the techniques in use. If you can start with a collection of ads for the same product, rather than a specific ad, this is a useful bonus. One can often identify similarities or themes running across a number of ads, even although they may be difficult to identify when one is 'caught up' in making sense of a specific ad.
Viewing any ad requires a degree of reflection. Our natural inclinations and a lifetime of experience lead us to recognize things for what they are. To be more accurate, we recognize them for what we expect them to be. Any aberrations in an ad are often overlooked, especially when they are carefully disguised. This was the case with the semi-subliminal example of the arm in the Palmolive ads discussed above. By modifying the colour of the features in the ad the normal cues to judgement disappeared. These would have been more readily apparent if the ad had been in colour. Variations in skin tone and hair colouring would have made the mans arm noticeably different from that of the woman.
To break free from this 'mould' of experience one needs to practice using ads where the different elements have been identified. One can then progress to testing out other likely sources of semi-subliminal ads. To produce a high 'hit rate' of successes one ought to start with tobacco advertising. But certain problems need to be allowed for.
One should beware of projecting ideas onto the images that are being looked at. And one should become aware that projection is easier if suggestions have previously been offered as to what is likely to be perceived. This process of biasing judgements is referred to as priming. Just as water can be used to prime a pump so suggestions can be used to prime judgements. Some suggestions to help avoid being influenced and 'seeing' semi-subliminal advertising everywhere are noted in psychndx.htm See also the entries under Projection and Pareidolia in the glossary.
The Bibliography includes a complete list of all the books pertinent to the subject of what is known as subliminal advertising. However there are no entries on the subject semi-subliminal advertising. The few existing books focussing on 'subliminal' advertising address a combination of subliminal audio and semi-subliminal visual material. The authors forthcoming book Sexy, Subliminal and Deadly?: The Psychology of Manipulative Advertising will be the only book devoted to the subject of semi-subliminal advertising as defined on this site. The reason for these apparent disparities are as follows.
For many years, the literature on 'subliminal' advertising focused on all forms of difficult to perceive communications as if they all shared the same characteristics. As a result a useful and meaningful terminology, capable of distinguishing between different types of subliminal and semi-subliminal communications, was never developed. The resulting generalized terminology led to the topic of semi-subliminal advertising being erroneously included under the general rubric of subliminal advertising. Truly subliminal advertising i.e. advertising that cannot be detected, may exist. However, it is noticeable that all of the illustrations offered in all of the books devoted to the so-called field of subliminal advertising can be perceived by the majority of individuals with normal vision. As the controversial elements within these ads can be perceived, the ads cannot be truly subliminal. They can only be considered to be semi-subliminal.
For a variety of practical and scientific reasons, discussed in some detail in Sexy, Subliminal and Deadly?: The Psychology of Manipulative Advertising (in preparation), semi-subliminal adverts should not be labelled as subliminal. To do so defeats the interests of organizations and individuals interested in protecting the rights of consumers. The use of erroneous terminology also plays into the hands of unethical businesses. These businesses currently enjoy the freedom to make use of semi-subliminal advertising because critical attention is deflected towards the (possibly non-existent) arena of subliminal advertising. By encouraging their critics to label all ads that contain semi-subliminal embedded messages or images as subliminal lets ads agencies and their client companies 'off the hook'. The ad agencies can then justly - but disingenuously - claim that they are not using subliminal advertising.
See the AAAA ads and the author's correspondence with the AAAA, IPA and ASA for perfect examples of how advertising professionals or their creative artists con the consumer into believing 'black is white'. The views of the Advertising Standards Authority and Institute of Practitioners in Advertising from the UK and theAmerican Association of Advertising Agencies can be found on ASA.htm , IPA.htm and Classkey.htm and AAAA.htm respectively.
All subliminal advertising and semi-subliminal advertising can be considered manipulative. In each case some elements of ads are designed to influence consumers without consumers having any possibility of rejecting that information. It is, after all, rather difficult to consciously appraise an ad if it contains emotive images and messages that one cannot consciously perceive. However, although all semi-subliminal (and subliminal ads if they exist) are manipulative, all manipulative ads are not semi-subliminal or subliminal in nature.
It is possible to attempt to manipulate consumers values, beliefs, ideas and behaviour using images and messages that are quite clearly visible. For example, visualize a two page magazine ad containing the well known phrase Come to Marlboro Country. This would normally be spread across a two page ad alongside an illustration of a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. If a reader temporarily perceived only the initial letters of Come, and the last few of Country, then they would be 'forced' to temporarily respond to another message (Come'n'try Marlboro) for the brief period when only the left half of the left page and the right half of the right page were visible. This 'message' would be processed but quickly 'overridden' as the full Marlboro slogan came into focus.
Psychological experiments indicate that what occurs in such a situation is equivalent to the process that psychologists call backwards masking. In the backward masking process a second message obliterates conscious recall of the message that was presented first. Most importantly, if one is to gain an understanding of how some semi-subliminal and manipulative advertising works, one has to appreciate that the first message, despite not being remembered, still had an impact. The information in the first message was processed and, even though it cannot be recalled, the information presented in the message can still influence behaviour such as speech and the completion of word tests. This is so even when the viewer claims never to have seen the first message. It seems possible that Philip Morris' ad agency are attempting the same form of 'brainwashing' with some of their ads.
Other manipulative ads can pull 'emotional strings' and influence thinking by presenting images that seem to have a clear cut meaning. However, inherent in ads are artistic elements that provide secondary meanings to viewers. These are unrelated to the product and no conscious attributions are likely to be made about their contribution to understanding the ad. For some examples see the Nescafe and Phoenix ads on the Ads of the Month page. Each ad presents a secondary, covert, meaning related to sexuality in addition to any other meaning.
In some cases e.g. one series of Benson and Hedges, the covert and manipulative message conveyed was about inadequacy in the face of something bigger, more powerful and more important. What was presented as big and important was, quite naturally, from the tobacco company's point of view, Benson and Hedges cigarettes. Those who were deemed unimportant, demeaned, confused and demoralised, and those whose thoughts and feelings could cynically be manipulated, were Benson and Hedges smokers. The smokers (and potential smokers) 'knew' they could not defeat their habit, nor cope with adversity, and had these ideas bolstered by the B&H advertising. Viewers may also like to reflect upon the connotations associated with a more recent B&H campaign, focussing on colour yellow and what insights this might offer into how B&H view their customers.
Essentially the only real difference between semi-subliminal advertising and manipulative advertising is one of degree. Semi-subliminal advertising clearly involves messages and images that are either faint or small. Manipulative advertising can, as indicated above, involve images and language that are clearly visible, yet camouflaged. In both cases, however, the intention is to manipulate thoughts, ideas, values or behaviour. There is no intention to lead to informed discussion, to persuade or even to be controversial.
The author holds the view that such advertising is clearly unethical. A statement to this effect was also made on behalf of the American Association of Advertising Agencies in 1981. Such advertising intends to deny the consumer the right of conscious appraisal. Such ads do not breach any specific guideline agreed by the Advertising Standards Association in the United Kingdom but nevertheless breach the spirit of these guidelines.
The ASA and AAAA pages indicate how little attention such organizations are willing to pay to ethical principles when their 'bread and butter' is provided by commercial concerns whose sole interest is their profit margin. The actions of companies such as Philip Morris, R.J.Reynolds-Nabisco and British American Tobacco have, over the years, shown their disdain for ethical practices where the consumer is concerned.
There is little likelihood that these organizations. and commercial concerns will change their ways unless members of the public insist that consumers be treated as responsible individuals, preferring to make their own judgements as to the worth of products or services. Write or e-mail the ASA, AAAA, IPA and other organizations and the commercial concerns they represent if you feel concerned about the long term effects of manipulative advertising and the ethical standards associated with them. Write or e-mail your political representatives, contact the organizations listed on the links page, decide to boycott the purchase of all goods produced or promoted by such organizations. Above all, find out more about such practices and help put a stop to them before they become a standard aspect of advertising. At present, manipulative advertising seems to simply represent poor ethical standards and lack of consideration for members of the public. In future, with the development of new technologies, it may become more effective, more manipulative and more difficult to detect.
Product placements is often assumed to be a form of subliminal presentation. It is not, given the definition used on this web site. Product placement is actually a specific practice that may be considered manipulative but it is not in any sense subliminal.
In product placement, products or brands are displayed in appropriate, and sometimes inappropriate, contexts on TV shows, in films, and brand names are used in preference to generic names in novels, etc. For an example of inappropriate context and use one need look no further than the extremely generous backing of Hollywood movie makers by tobacco companies. For a number of years, movie fans were confronted with a grossly disproportionate number of tobacco packs, cigarette smokers and advertising billboards on their screens. These presented impressionable adolescents with a false idea of the prevalence and social acceptability of smoking. And the widespread smoking by female movie idols may be a contributory factor in the increase in smoking among young women in recent years. Such movies are now having reruns on TV. Tobacco company executives are undoubtedly gleefully look forward to securing another cohort of impressionable youngsters as smokers of their products, thanks to the insatiable need of TV companies to rerun movies, almost regardless of their social impact.
The cigarette products used in these movies generally serve no useful part in the storyline. But their use by key characters, often the hero or heroine, ensures that potential and actual smokers become aware of smoking as a seemingly risk free, socially acceptable, habit. Non-smokers, of course, are also intended to be influenced by the 'socially acceptable' face of smoking.
One wonders how many of the actors who become smokers to obtain their parts in these movies will die of cancerk. And, in doing so, follow the long line of Hollywood actors and actresses who succumbed to cancer long before it was known that smoking kills. One anti smoking site provides a lengthy list of idols who smoked on screen and died prematurely because of their smoking out of the limelight.
Unlike the ads discussed on the Subliminal World, product and brand placement, whether for cigarettes, cars or any other product, generally requires that a limited degree of attention is paid to the placement of the product or brand. In addition, for adults, it is relatively easy to detect such use of products, once one is aware of the technique. Where children are concerned, such knowledge may not exist. Even if children had such knowledge it may not provide much of a defence against the types of information presented in movies. Associations between products, characters and behaviour are most likely to be assimilated in an unquestioning manner, as young children are not as sophisticated as adults in dealing with the machinations of corporate advertising.
'What you see isn't necessarily what you get' is a good way of summing up the difference between seeing and perception. The eye sees because it responds to varying light input. However, what we perceive is a combination of the sensory input into the eye and what we already know or expect. Anyone who has changed from wearing spectacles with ordinary lenses to those with varifocal lenses is aware of this interaction. With the change of sensory input brought about by varifocal lenses the user has to relearn, to a certain extent, to see things 'properly'. More extreme cases are evident when individuals who have been blind have their sight restored. They often find it very difficult to 'see' because they have not learned how to interpret visual input. In extreme cases they are so distressed, because they cannot 'make sense' of what they are 'seeing', that they wish they were blind once again.
Because perception is not the same as seeing, we can therefore see an incomplete figure, yet perceive it as complete. We can see a visual illusion that is ambiguous, yet make sense of it. In the context of semi-subliminal ads this distinction is very important. It gives viewers, automatically, the ability to make sense of the nonsensical, to attend to some aspects of an ad and ignore others.
It is rare, nowadays, for a semi-subliminal ad to present a clearly identifiable figure or message. Even when one has masturbating images such as detected in a fairly recent Camel ad, the masturbating figure is small and the action is blurred. Only a knowledge of human behaviour and language, together with an appreciation of Camel ads, and the way in which artists can represent actions in symbolic ways, leads one to conclude this image is intended to represent masturbation.
However, one has to note that this is an interpretation. One is not observing behaviour. As with illusions, different interpretations of exactly the same image or visual stimuli can be made by different individuals because of their different experiences and expectations. The ads and works of art illustrated on the Beginnings pages illustrate this notion quite well. In some instances viewers will agree with the author, in others they will be uncertain or even find no indication whatsoever of the phenomenon that are discussed.
Across the whole of the subliminalworld.com/ site there are a wide range of ads. Some are semi-subliminal, some are simply manipulative. Some combine both sets of characteristics. Although differences of opinion are anticipated, especially with members of the advertising profession and other psychologists, it is expected that, overall, a sound conclusion can ultimately be drawn in order to clearly demarcate subliminal advertising from other related issues..
Rather than give my own views on the subject of subliminal perception, click here to view an article in the Encyclopedia of Psychology by Professor Philip Merikle, University of Waterloo, Canada. Various pages associated with a course presented at the University of Austion contain information on this topic and other related subject matter.
The question of effectiveness has never been accurately answered. Most authors simply extrapolate from academic studies in the field of subliminal perception (see experts.htm). Very few articles consider 'subliminal' advertising. One of the few summaries of the limited number of studies in this field has been produced by Ji-Young Hong at the University of Texas at Austin. Whilst Hong's article summarises the literature extremely well it actually pays little attention to the type of ads presented on the subliminal world web site and presents the standard conclusion ie such advertising is ineffective.
The best one can currently do in the absence of studies investigating advertising when one is aware of the number of companies using 'subliminal' ads, is to extrapolate from research into subliminal perception and more general studies of advertising. Consideration of the conclusions drawn from studies into subliminal perception and an awareness of the range and power of the companies using 'subliminal' techniques leads one to a sceptical conclusion concerning these two fields of study.
Advertising generally does not have instant effects on behaviour, it has its effect over a period of time. Subliminal perception studies likewise do not indicate any instant behavioural response. However, studies in subliminal perception do indicate that judgements can be influenced by stimuli that cannot be consciously perceived. One can thus extrapolate from academic studies to the use of semi-subliminal content in adverts. Despite the common generalisation that 'subliminal' and subliminal information does not information one may be led to conclude that 'subliminal' content in ads might influence consumers. After all, why should such information be influential in one context and not in another.
One must, however, acknowledge that the contexts of 'subliminal' communications in laboratory studies and 'subliminal' content in advertising are different. Ads contain lots of information in addition to any secondary image/message. It is argued, though there is no published evidence indicating this, that the additional information contained in any normal ad will 'wash out' the impact of any secondary imagery contained within the boundaries of the ad (or TV commercial). Additionally, the stimuli used in subliminal perception studies are generally limited to simple images or messages. Such communications are thus very simplistic when compared to the complex images presented in ads.
However, when considering effectiveness ie the ability of 'subliminal' ads to influence viewers, one can also presume that ad agencies who use the technique consistently have evaluated their use - and found them commercially effective. However, given the lack of public acknowledgement of such use (see the authors correspondence with the AAAA and the ASA) one must be cautious in making such assumptions. Even when 'subliminal' content is used regularly by ad agencies and artists they may simply be operating on the basis of limited understanding or trying to 'pull the wool' over their clients' eyes.
Despite these cautionary notes, some studies by the author and a colleague support the notion that advertising containing secondary images has a similar impact on viewers as does sublimimal stimuli. That is to say, the 'subliminal' elements of ads do influence judgements. Additionally, in less well controlled studies and classroom observations it seems clear that the complexity of ads does not prevent the secondary content from similarly influencing judgements. See the page subexpt.htm for further information and webbmp2.htm for copies of the experimental images.
Whilst the effect of the embedded elements on judgements is weak, one must not forget that the impact of most advertising is also relatively weak - only sales and special offers tend to have consumers beating a path to the door of retailers. Most everyday consumer items are advertised to keep the product 'in the mind' of consumers, rather than to have any radical impact on immediate consumption behaviour. Only sales figures, in general, indicate whether or not advertising campaigns have been effective.
So, in this respect, there is only a difference in degree between the impact of standard, overt, advertising and the covert aspects of advertising involving secondary or 'subliminal' images. In both instances, information can be acquired by 'osmosis' rather than by conscious consideration of advertising or promotional activities. It thus seems, despite the protestations of the advertising community to the contrary, semi-subliminal ads are likely to work on the same basis as conventional advertising, though possibly achieving less of an impact ie influencing fewer people.
Where secondary images may be most effective is in swaying the undecided customer, in triggering emotional reactions, and making a difference when a large number of individuals are exposed to a message. Take as an example the RATS commercial used in the Bush Presidential campaign in 2001. This was deemed to be ineffective - because it was easily noticed. Had this been pitched at a much lower level of intensity it may have helped 'nudge' some undecided voters into the Bush camp. And one might also note in passing that such an ad may have also have had some impact on those individuals with little preference for either party who were watching TV at the time but were not 'paying attention'. In other words, the information content may have been processed without any conscious attention by some viewers who were not focussing on TV but nevertheless 'saw' the image on screen.
TV commercials with related properties, some semi-subliminal in nature, others containing covert messages favouring one party rather than the other, were produced in the UK during the period of the 1992 UK General Election. These were, in some cases, noted at the time by the author as being biased but their potential importance was overlooked until he was reminded of their existance by Philip Brachi. Phil presents an illustrated talk on the subject of The Compliant Society. He drew the authors attention to various TV commercials of the period he remembered seeing but not paid undue attention to, as subliminal advertising was not at that time a prime research interest. Check out Phil's developing web site, spillingthebeans.com, for further information. An additional page regarding these commercials will be presented on the subliminal world site in due course.
In line with the broader definition of subliminal advertising noted in Question 1, many commentators consider product placement a form of subliminal presentation. This position is held simply because the products tend to go unnoticed when they are presented on TV or move screens. However, simply focusing attention on the relevant aspect of the programme indicates that the products are very far from being presented in a subliminal manner if one applies the more rigorous definition used by psychologists.
Product placement generally leads to the presentation or use of products in films or TV programmes. The products are not disguised in any way, nor are they intended to be completely overlooked. However, as the products are presented in such a manner that little or no conscious attention is paid to them - they are simply part of the fantasy world that is being observed - any information relating to them may be processed unconsciously. The unconscious processing of information should not be considered the equivalent of subliminally presented information although some information regarding both forms of information (product placement and subliminal stimuli) may be internalised. Whilst the internal, psychological, processes may be the same in both instances, the external stimuli are different. To equate them would be equivalent to saying that food and oxygen are the same because they are both necessary for life.
Product placement leads to some rather insidious practices. A particularly obnoxious practice is having lead actors or actresses in movies smoke, when smoking is neither necessary nor appropriate for the character or storyline. In such instances, although the term subliminal message might be used, it is actually the promotion of an association between what is deemed glamorous or desirable and cigarettes that is important. Think of this as classical conditioning, in which one item (cigarettes) is consistently paired with another (glamorous movie stars or aspects of behaviour deemed desirable to disaffected youngsters or those attempting to develop an independent personality e.g. rebellion against society, family). The glamour of the movies 'rubs off' onto the mundane tobacco product and these become an unjustified 'cool' product for impressionable youngsters. Tobacco companies have often placed their products in movies and paid for stars to promote their products without acknowledging their involvement.
Numerous academic, magazine and newspaper articles have discussed this topic and part of an article containing some relevant academic references can be found by clicking here. To obtain your own evidence you only need to consider the extent to which you see smoking depicted in repeat movies on any TV channel. Smoking is not a minority habit with lead characters, it seemingly is close to the norm. Prevalence of smoking is not the only gross distortion of reality, films - like adverts the world over - present smoking as if it were non-addictive, problem free, socially desirable, even healthy. So much for socially responsible behaviour on the part of tobacco companies and their shareholders.
Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003