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   Imagination, Illusions and Projection




If you think you are seeing a pink dragon when none exists then you are hallucinating.

If you think you are holding a pink dragon then you are psychotic.

If you perceive a pink dragon when you are presented with a picture of a pink dragon or even minimal cues indicating the presence of a dragon i.e. those based on the techniques used by cartoonists and caricaturists, then you are in good company. You are normal. You are also normal if you think the combination of blobs of colour and dark lines in the image on the right is a  representation of Clintsketch of clint eastwood Eastwood.  And you are equally normal if you perceive the few sketched lines in the image on the left as a representation of a woman.

Neither of these images are pictures but, nevertheless, very basic line drawing of a womanthe artists who produced them knew that the combination of lines and colours would lead viewers to perceive a likeness of the movie star or a woman.  Variations on the same techniques are used to produce semi-subliminal images within adverts.  See, for example, the sketched figures on the Bud Ice label.

The sketched information can be minimal, such as the few classic lines used to indicate Alfred Hitchcock in silhouette, or be very faint.  Some examples are provided on the Faces page. Or the image can offer only the vaguest indications of a face, as in the logo on the Macintosh Operating System Version 8.0, of which four animated variations are shown below. Note that each animation presents two 'faces' but only one can be perceived at any particular moment. The logo thus shares some of the properties of the classic vase/face illusion, of which some variations are shown later on this page.

Animated lines 1 animatied lines 2 animated lines 3 animated lines 4

On the right is an example of a classic image found in many psychology textbooks. It contains very ambiguous information. Illusion of beared ChristEmbedded in this classic illustration is a male figure. Once it is 'seen' it is difficult not to perceive it afterwards. However, before one 'recognizes' the position of the face of this figure it is normal just to 'see' a pattern of black and white. Rollover the image to see the positioning.

As the information in this jumble of black and white is ambiguous, not everyone can perceive the figure. I, for example, 'recognise' quite easily a bearded individual, rather like Christ or Che Illusion of beared Christ and 'Salvador Dali' in backgroundGuevera and another figure. If you possess the capacity to distinguish 'figure from ground' i.e. an ambiguous object or figure against what is seemingly background, then you should also find it possible to 'see' a second figure. He is looking over the right shoulder of the main figure. Look for a 'devilish' face, a little bit like Salvador Dali, in the extract shown alongside. There is even a hint of Dali's moustache.

Another classic black and white image, that of a Labrador dog against a background of snow can be found on the Psychology page and various illustrations of paintings with embedded figures can be found on the ArtAttack page.

There is thus plenty of evidence to indicate that figures can be embedded without difficulty in ads. Nevetheless, advertising professionals continue to deny that such activities occur. As is the case with works of art, so it is with adverts. Whether or not embedded images are presented very subtly or in an incomplete manner, such images present cues or stimuli to which visual and perceptual processes will respond. They exist outside the imagination of the viewer.  They are not figments of the overly creative imagination as is continually claimed by critics of Wilson Key such as Burtch, Haberstroh and others. See the entries in the Glossary under Projection and Pareidolia.

This means that when you are presented with examples of semi-subliminal advertising do not get gulled by arguments from the advertising profession claiming that no such phenomenon exists. The cues in semi-subliminal adverts might not be as obvious, pink and dragon-like, as in the illustration above, nor as clear-cut as a cartoonist's silhouette, but in many instances they certainly exist. They might not influence you but the many examples on this site testify to their existence. Some of these examples will be the result of over-interpretation by the author. However, this cannot be the case with all of the examples presented. If the author's views are simply based on delusional responses then one would have to acknowledge that what the author misperceives with conscious attention is ALSO capable of influencing other viewers when they have no conscious awareness of the embedded imagery. Such influence without awareness CANNOT be accounted for by the process of projection nor as pareidolia. They can be accounted for by processes related to subliminal perception, learning without awareness and implicit learning as investigated by psychologists and put into practice by advertising agencies, intentionally or unintentionally.

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Cigs, Alcohol and Rock'n'Roll

If you smoke or drink, or even if you don't, you can bet your bottom dollar that in lateanimated cockerel setting of TNT teenage or early adulthood, and even earlier, you would have been exposed to many ads containing semi-subliminal ads. Advertising in general is a strong influence in these years when one is sometimes desperate to become accepted as an adult. It may not seem as though advertising had any influence on you at the time but advertising played its role to perfection, just like the Rooster in this animation. Give some thought to the role played by Joe Camel, Reg, the Hamlet cigar ads, the Marlboro TV commercials and other promotions and advertisements played in the development of your understanding of cigarettes and smoking? There is no equivalent of these iconic characters in the field of alcohol advertising but nevertheless key elements in advertising have had their influence on you. Whether it be Carling Black Label, Carlsberg, Molson, Jim Beam, Miller Lite, or whatever, these adverts had an impact on you. And some of these contained semi-subliminal elements. So what, you might say. They didn't influence me. Well, don't be so sure. No company spends the amount that tobacco and alcohol companies spend without getting an adequate return on their investment. Even if that investment is simply intended to ensure equity with their competitors, they expect value for money.

Cigarette and alcohol ads tend to have three primary functions. 

First. They present a socially acceptable face to the world: they generally look good and they are found them in classy magazines. They keep company with ads for other, less problematical, products. This association works only to put a 'gloss' on cigarette smoking and the conspicuous consumption of alcohol. The association rarely works the other way around to tarnish the image of products advertised in conjunction with cigarettes or drinks because the number of non cigarette/alcohol ads vastly outnumbers cigarette/alcohol ads. The result you accept that cigarette and alcohol advertising is O.K. 'No problem!'

Second. Such ads are often calculated to keep smokers and drinkers and others in a state of anxiety, often using imagery associated with death or confrontations with death. See the various Marlboro, Jack Daniel and other ads for examples. Your response will be 'Can't be the case'. 'Never influenced me'.

Third. Many ads, particularly those for cigarettes and alcoholic drinks, also attempt to develop a mental link between sex or anxiety and the Brand. The process is known as paired or associative conditioning.  Simply by presenting the two sets of information together viewers become accustomed to the pairing. Viewers thus tacitly acknowledge the association and there is 'cross fertilization' of ideas associated with the brand and whatever they are associated with. The outcome of this process is likely to be that your store of knowledge about cigarette and alcohol brands also contains knowledge of many socially acceptable subjects. In addition, if your preferred brands advertise using semi-subliminal material, you will also 'know' other, less desirable types of information obtained from viewing the semi-subliminal components.

The semi-subliminal content of ads do not need to be simplistic. Marlboro ads, in particular, indicate it is often possible to incorporate two or more semi-subliminal messages within one ad e.g. messages associated with sex and death. It simply requires multiple sets of cues or trigger images in the same ad.  So long as the two sets of cues or triggers are not placed in positions where they conflict with each other, susceptible individuals will tend to 'identify' only those messages that are salient for them. For example, one may find something attractive, another abhorrent, depending upon their own personal

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To See or Not to See

A distinction was drawn above between seeing and perceiving.  These terms are not synonymous in meaning.  Psychologists and others can demonstrate very effectively that there is a difference between what is seen and what is perceived.  In brief, the eye responds to light.  It thus only 'sees' colours - perhaps even shapes - but there is no sense or meaning in what is seen.  The world is just a booming, buzzing, confusion of changing colours.  This is the type of description offered by people who have been blind for most of their life and an operation restores their sight. They have to learn how to interpret the visual information they begin to receive. It is information provided by different wavelengths of light registering on the eye that have to be interpreted before it can make sense. For more information on this subject see the entries in the Glossary and also view the Psychology page for examples.

Book cover: Visual Intelligence.It is only when the sensory input to the eye is combined with knowledge gained from experience that one perceives objects, people, etc.   In effect, information that is merely seen is essentially meaningless. It needs to be converted into something meaningful by perceptual processes.   What is important is what we perceive. When perceptual and related processes do not function properly we hallucinate or become psychotic.   When they function normally they 'turn' the sensory input produced by line drawings or simple paintings into something that we recognize - as with the Clint Eastwood image and other examples shown above.

People, in other words, are active participants in making sense of their world. We are not simply biological video recorders.   What comes to our conscious attention is the outcome of a complex set of psychological processes. But this does not mean that we do not and cannot respond unless we pay conscious attention to the world around us. Book cover: Understanding consciousnessThe widespread use of semi-subliminal ads by major international corporations are possibly one indication of the ability to make sense of information without paying conscious attention to it. But everyday experience at home, work and when travelling provide many other examples of behaviour that operates on the basis of our habitual 'autopilot'. Most thinking and most responses to visual information function on autopilot and it is undoubtedly the case that if semi-subliminal images are perceived then they tend to have their impact, if any, out of conscious awareness.

A fuller discussion of psychological processes can be found on the Psychology page. Additional information, when necessary, can also be found in the Faq's, the Glossary and in chapters on visual perception in most psychology textbooks.

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Imagination, incidentally, according to Orwellian standard advertising speak, is simply a psychological process that produces fantasies. Imagination, in this view is concerned with things that do not exist.   Ergo, anyone who claims that subliminal or semi-subliminal advertising exists is fantasizing. 

As indicated above, this is an inaccurate viewpoint and should be dismissed as nonsense, yet it is a seemingly effective 'put-down' that has worked for the past 3 decades or more. Even were there some truth in the 'put-down' it is far too simplistic.   In terms of making sense of adverts, imagination is best considered as one aspect of the processes used to help make sense of ambivalent sensory input. As indicated above, animated billboardthere is no meaning to anything that is simply seen.   You, the viewer, have to work at making sense of the sensory input that is received by the visual system and the brain every time you look at an advert, image or object and even the words on your computer screen.   And, because you are attempting to make sense of ambiguous, continually changing, sensory input it is possible to 'guess wrongly' or be misled by visual illusions.

The definition of imagination given in the Penguin Dictionary of Psychology is "The Cover of the Dictionary of Psychologyprocess of recombining memories of past experiences and previously formed images into novel constructions."  That is, imagination is treated as creative and constructive. It may be primarily wishful or largely reality-bound or it may involve future plans and projections or be mental 'reviews' of the past.  Often qualifiers are appended to the core concept for clarity; e.g. anticipatory imagination for the future, reproductive imagination for the past, creative imagination for the novel, etc."

Imagination is thus necessary to help make sense of anything that is ambiguous. For example the visual illusions illustrated below.

Book cover: Theories of Visual PerceptionThis is no place to go in depth into the various psychological processes related to the workings of the visual system, attention, memory and perception.  Readers interested in more information should consult any of the textbooks listed in the bibliography.  Yet it is the processes of the visual system, attention, memory and perception that turn the light impacting on the eye into perceptual constructs that we are consciously aware of and lead to claims that we can 'see' what things are.  Without the use of 'imagination' to help make sense of the world, each and every one of us would be in pretty much the same state as a blind person who recovers their sight late in life. Such individuals only perceive a very fuzzy and confused 'image' of the world.  They do  not have the ability to recognize objects and people because they have never learned to 'make sense' of the light input into the eye.

Seeing, in other words, is not an automatic process. Seeing is the outcome of a lifelong period of learning. Viewers of ads and other images have to learn to make sense of ambiguous or ambivalent cues whether or not the the ads contain semi-subliminal images. When ambiguous stimuli are presented to a person or the stimuli are on the borderline of their perceptual threshold, viewers have to rely upon their experiences and their predisposition's to help them make sense of what they are seeing. Ambiguous stimuli can involve inappropriately placed words, incomplete images or images that bear no relationship to an overall ad, distorted figures and images with two or more meanings. Such is the stuff of manipulative and semi-Book cover: Eye and BrainBook Cover: The Intelligent Eyesubliminal advertising.

Imagination is as good a word as any to indicate the type of selection process that attempts to select the correct interpretation from a great many possibilities.  Is a line indicating a letter or is it the side of someone's face?  If such a line were broken by a shadow the decision would be even more fraught with uncertainty. Yet this is what each and every one of us is doing every time we view something. 

Where advertising is concerned it may even be that where images are on the borderline of perceptual ability we can sometimes perceive an image, on other occasionsanimation of the 'disappearing' Cheshire cat we may not. Visual capabilities vary depending upon our emotional and physical state - sometimes we are fatigued, other times full of beans.  Semi-subliminal advertising may therefore contain elements that can sometimes be perceived yet on other times cannot be perceived, even although the ad is just the same.  secondary imagery thus has some of the characteristics of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. Sometimes its all there, other times it's not.

In attempts to make sense of the sensory input from ads containing ambiguous secondary imagery an individual has to unconsciously 'run through' a number of possibilities to determine the 'real' meaning.   If this process raises thoughts associated Book Cover: Repression and Dissociationwith unpleasant experiences it may trigger fears and anxieties.  If the experience is completely unique then new memories may develop.  However, in most instances, with adult viewers, it is probably the interaction between what a viewer already knows and the ambiguous or ambivalent information in ads that allow semi-subliminal ads to make their impact, if any.  Each viewer thus makes senseBook cover: Freudian Repression of what has been seen in terms of their own experience. Theoretical views on the origins of these processes and how they operate differ. However, all researchers would agree that responses to adverts are not simply automatic responses to visual cues.

It is not only academics who carry out reseach into how the perceptual processes of the ordinary individual function, advertisers also carry out a lot of research into the values, interests, activities and lifestyles of their potential customers.  In other words, when they produce ads, they 'play' to what they already know about their clients.  Consumers who smoke and drink, for example, are generally known to be more anxious than the average person.  Many of them make use of cigarettes or alcohol as means of keeping their emotions under control. This is an unfortunate outcome arising from learning that occurred in adolescence.

Book Cover: Controlled or Reduced DrinkingDespite the reseach conclusions it is probable that these individuals are not inherently more anxious than the average person. It is more likely that these individuals learned early in life that nicotine or alcohol could help them control their feelings. Using drugs of any sort to control their feelings meant that they did not develop more natural or mature forms of emotional control. This leads into a vicious circle. Subsequent 'need' for nicotine or alcohol arises from the physiological need that their body has developed. They thus need additional use of their preferred drug when they feel anxious, depressed or whatever. Yet it is the lack of the drug that causes the feelings of need in the first place. The vicious cycle continues unless the dependency need can be broken.

Had they not become early users of cigarettes or alcohol then they would not be in the position of 'doing without' and feeling bad, edgy or anxious as a result. The initial use of chemical aids to control mood changes are of course encouraged, indirectly, by advertising that promotes products containing these drugs and presenting them as eminently socially acceptable (and harmless and without any undesirable side effects).

When advertising makes use only of imagery to promote tobacco and alcohol products it helps to prevent the establishing of a state of emotional equilibrium in adolescents, young adults and even mature adults.  Without the provision of information no individual in our society has the capacity to make a reasoned judgement, especially about long term outcomes. Ultimately, by the time individuals learn that the means of managing their emotions is a dose of addictive drugs, a sizeable proportion of each cohort of individuals have become dependent upon nicotine or alcohol.

Socially acceptable and life enhancing imagery is the chosen means for promoting most cigarettes and alcohol brands, though there are a few exceptions as is indicated below. Yet lying underneath Comment on Death cigarettes. the glossy imagery of all the major brands is a truer reflection of the motivating factors underlying cigarette smoking and excessive drinking. The semi-subliminal elements incorporated into ads for these products seem calculated to enhance natural avoidance tendencies or to associate the products with fears and anxieties when they are not plugging an association between sex and the brand. The author has yet to find any semi-subliminal ad that promotes a positive feeling (with one possible cheerful exception) or a message in tune with personal or social development. The success of semi-subliminal advertising, as judged from the point of view of those who produce the products, relies upon viewers of their ads making use of their Imagination. But the imagination of their customers has and is often distorted by semi-subliminal content so that their is an enhancement of negative, depressive and anxiety provoking elements.

There is little one can ad to this analysis where products other than those for cigarettes and alcoholic drinks are concerned. Imagination is needed to make sense of what is seemingly a basic obsession with sexuality in all it guises and this is capitalized upon by most semi-subliminal advertising. It is rare for any deeper, theoretical, elements to inform semi-subliminal advertising*. For this we perhaps ought to be grateful. If it were possible to extend semi-subliminal and other manipulative advertising into realms that were far removed from basic motivational drives and emotions then it would be much more difficult to determine what was occurring. Additionally, it would make current moves into using truly subliminal advertising on the Internet much more worrying.

* For a rare example, apparently based on knowledge of attachment theory and adolescent sexual behaviour, see the discussion of a series of ads for NatWest bank.

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Dictionary of PsychoanalysisThe Penguin Dictionary of Psychology offers a number of different definitions of projection. Three of these are relevant to the discussion of semi-subliminal and subliminal advertising. 

First, "Projection is a symbolic process by which one's own traits, emotions, dispositions, etc. are ascribed to another person."   Typically, "accompanying this projection of one's own characteristics onto another individual is a denial that one has these feelings or tendencies."  

Secondly, in the classical psychoanalytic approach to understanding the individual, "projection is  considered to be a natural psychological defence mechanism used to protect an individual from underlying conflicts that have been repressed".  Other psychoanalytic approaches downplay the notion of underlying conflicts and view projection simply as "the unwitting attribution of one's beliefs, values, etc. to other individuals".

A third definition is even more neutral and refers primarily to the "perception of ambiguous visual stimuli - such as presented by adverts - in terms of one's own expectations, needs, desires, etc.".   No pathology is involved, merely, the inappropriate perception of ambiguous stimuli.    

The first and last of these three definitions are common in defensive discussions of semi-subliminal and subliminal advertising because they place the onus for recognizing semi-subliminal stimuli on the viewer. And they allow advertisers to claim that 'it is all in the imagination'.   The second definition is favoured by Wilson Key to account for why individuals do not consciously recognize some of the visual material that is placed in front of them.

The original books by Wilson Key emphasize the classical psychoanalytic approach. Book cover: Subliminal Ad-ventures in Erotic ArtHere projection comes into play in certain individuals as a preferred means of dealing with internal anxiety or threat. The means of doing so are to 'project' the anxiety onto some other person or process.  Key also tended to emphasize that individuals would, in fact, repress ideas that were found unacceptable. The final paragraphs of this section will address this defensive function. In the meantime, much more pertinent to the case presented in these web pages is the third definition. This takes into account the progress that has been made in understanding psychological processes over the past three decades and can be supported by experimental evidence. This simply relates preconscious and unattended learning to visual perception and accounts for responses to semi-subliminal ads in terms of psychological processes.  This definition is neutral so far as pathology and can explain why viewers might respond to semi-subliminal ads. It does not provide a simple solution to the determination of what is and what is not semi-subliminal advertising and why semi-subliminal elements are difficult to recognize

When observing and analysing semi-subliminal aspects of advertising images one has to acknowledge that projection, in the first and second senses of the term, present a thorny problem. It has to be acknowledged that individuals can project their own fears, ideas, wishes, etc. 'on to' the external world and 'see' what is not there. This is not unusual. Artists, for example, are taught to focus on textured materials until they can 'see' whatever they wish in the texture. Take any picture with a blotchy or textured surface and stare at it and you also will soon be able to 'project' images from your imagination 'onto' the surface of whatever you are looking at. See, for example, Myoslaw Smyk pages on The man in the moon and other weird things. But there are differences dependent on the nature of an ad. In the Marlboro ad on the left you might be correct in your judgement if you perceived embedded messages/imagery, with the ad on the right you would most likely be wrong.

If one looks at many of the naive lay person's comments on the WWW regarding 'subliminal' advertising it seems clear that the projection of their expectancies 'on to' suitable material is is what many individuals are doing.   They find examples of semi-subliminal advertising virtually everywhere they look.  The individuals concerned are so keen to find examples that they confound what they are thinking about with the sensory input they are receiving. They thus 'see' things which do not exist and are 'projecting' their thoughts outwards and thinking they are 'seeing' examples of 'subliminal' advertising everywhere.  In the author's experience, such widespread use of secondary imagery is extremely unlikely, at least where U.K. advertising is concerned. The only likely exception to this rule would be if viewers scanned a very limited set of journals with a very large amount of tobacco and alcohol advertising.

The 'put-down' type of argument states that all reports of semi-subliminal phenomenon are works of the imagination without any basis in reality. Two typical examples of this approach are discussed on the Ads from the Archives page). A common example, often cited in support of how easy it is to 'see' images when they don't exist, is to refer to seeing the 'Man in the moon'.   Clearly identifying a face on the surface of the moon is a creative activity as you would have been made aware of if you had viewed Myoslaw Smyk's pages, noted in the previous paragraph. But, recognizing the Man in the moon does not mean that those who recognize it are fantasizing. The Man in the moon 'exists' in reality because there are features on the surface of the moon that can lead one to recognize a face. Nevertheless, the common perceptual process that lead to reports of this phenomenon are pounced upon and distorted by advertisers. They attempt to present those who effectively use their imagination constructively as if they were making use of some abnormal process. 

animation of smiling moon faceAdvertisers are clearly keen to have everyone believe that all reports of secondary imagery are imaginary constructions or projections, rather than a normal response to visual cues in the real world.  In this they have been highly successful. Many individuals would accept that the perception of semi-subliminal elements in ad are 'all in the mind' of the perceiver. But one should note that their argument is actually an inverted argument. To recognize the Man in the moon provides justification for the accurate perception of reality.depiction of the  moon by an artist suffering from a mental illness Being able to perceive the 'Man in the moon' or 'semi-subliminal advertising' is, in fact, evidence of accurate perception.  Exactly the same set of processes are at work whether one is viewing the 'Man in the moon' or semi-subliminal aspects of adverts.   In each case there are cues that trigger 'recognition'. Aberrant thinking or psychopathology is only at work when one sees or believes the moon in a form rather like the illustration on the right.  This depicts a painting by an individual suffering from mental illness.

There is no doubt that one can perceive a 'face' on the moon precisely because there are cues that lead to such a judgement. Similarly, where semi-subliminal images are perceived, they do not simply 'pop out' of the imagination. They are recognized because advertising agencies include the necessary cues in the adverts.  See, for example the 'alterations' made to the normal view of the moon in an ad for Marlboro Ultra cigarettes in Germany.. These can be recognized for what they are by anyone paying conscious attention to the different elements in the ad instead of looking at the ad as a whole (see the animated quarter moon Illusions below for some insight into the psychological processes involved). There is a parallel here with the common saying "that one cannot see the wood for the trees". However, the process is reversed. When looking at an ad as a whole (the wood) it is often difficult to discern the individual elements (the trees).

The cues for the 'recognition' of semi-subliminal words, faces and other images are generally related to themes and are consistent over time. There is thus no doubt in the mind of the author that the agencies and companies concerned have a manipulative intent. They wish to suborn the freedom of choice of the consumer. Where addictive products are concerned the freedom to make choices has already been considerably reduced. The extensive use of semi-subliminal ads in this field is therefore a further matter of social concern.

The present web site documents the existence of semi-subliminal and other aspects of manipulative advertising. It does not demonstrate that it is successful. To demonstrate that semi-subliminal advertising is successful in influencing a proportion of consumers requires evidence that does not exist in the public domain.  The larger companies using semi-subliminal techniques undoubtedly evaluate their campaigns. They must already know whether their semi-subliminal advertising is commercially effective. Ask them whether semi-subliminal advertising is effective.

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visual illusion of old woman/young woman 1Illusionsvisual illusion of old woman/young woman

There are many common illusions to be found in psychology textbooks and books on perception.  A number of excellent examples are included in the psychology section of the bibliography.  Typicalclassic duck/rabbit illusion examples include the rabbit/duck (reproduced to the right), old/young woman alongside the heading to this section of the page, the reversing cube, vase/face (to the left), classic vase/two faces illusionetc.  In each case, although there are two possible interpretations, only one can be perceived at any moment in time.  Such illusions do not need line drawings to be effective as the photograph of the vase illustrated below indicates. The reversible perspectives are just as strong.faces and vase illusion

This illusion also holds even in animated form as the animation below right indicates.animated face and vase illusion

A simple example that requires no artistic ability to reproduce is the Muller-Lyer illusion. Here there are two lines of identical length with arrowheads at each end. The direction in which the arrowheads 'point' markedly influences judgement of length, such that the two lines seem considerably different in length. So much so, that one often needs to check the length of each line with a ruler to be absolutely certain they are the same length.

Muller-Lyer illusionAnother more intriguing example is the Kanizsa triangle (various examples below).  The central area of this triangle appears slightly brighter than the rest of the page/screen and there is also the impression of a second triangle lying on top of the first.  The slight brightness is illKaniza triangle illusion with perceived bright centreperceived because (without any conscious thought) it is presumed to be a solid object partially obscuring a triangle.   This area is therefore considered to be closer than the triangle and background.   On the basis of previous experience everyone has learned that foreground figures ought to be brighter and this 2 dimensional representation of reality is actually perceived as if there were such an object present. 

Adding additional (dark) features around the central area, as in the figure on right, enhance the perceived brightness of the centralenhanced Kaniza triangle illusion area.  Similar illusions can be produced using curved rather than straight lines.

Try drawing this illusion yourself.  Black figures on a white background produce the strongest effect. Producing this image on your own piece of paper reinforces the notion that it is an unconscious process that leads to perception of the bright area in the centre.Enhanced Kaniza triangle illusion   Even though you  know what you are doing and you know that the paper you are using is all the same colour you cannot prevent your perceptions changing. Once you have drawn the figure you cannot help but recognize a brighter area in the centre of your drawing. As in the illustration on the left, black on white produces an even stronger effect that black on blue.

Similar illusions can be produced using coloured lines against different coloured backgrounds. Although all four images shown below are drawn using straight lines in the larger images to the right of each pair the red lines are perceived as part of a circle of pinkish-red. Again the perception centres of the brain is 'constructing' what it thinks is 'out there' rather than allowing us to possess an accurate picture of reality. The brain 'thinks' this is a black cross with a (pinkish, transparent) circular disc covering the central area.

illusion of non existant colour circles illusion of non existant colour circles

Only a few illusions have been shown here but you can find others on the Psychology page). These should be sufficient to indicate that when you look at ads, especially those with manipulative intent, you will only tend to note one aspect of the ad and not the component parts.  Additionally, you will tend to make a decision about ambiguous information at a preconscious or unconscious level. You do not need to think about what you are doing.

These illusions indicate that what we 'see' is not a true reflection of what exists. We do not just record information as if our visual system were a piece of film. What we do is 'construct' our perception of the world on the basis of what is seen PLUS what we know about the world. Perception if thus more useful than vision but it is not necessarily more accurate.

More information about illusions can be found in the books by Gregory, Gregory and Cover of the book The Intelligent EyeGombrich and Hoffman and any introductory psychology textbook. 

It is at the level of (preconscious) psychological processes that semi-subliminal information is presumed to operate - if at all.  For decisions to be made about semi-subliminal content some recognition must have taken place - and yet been discarded from consideration by conscious awareness.  Cover of the book Illusion in nature and artThe classic psychoanalytic approach and Wilson Key would argue that the initial meaning (about sex, death, etc.) had been repressed.   The more prosaic perceptual approach would simply argue that on the basis of probability, one is more likely to perceive that which is common, expected and known, rather than uncommon and unexpected. 

Regardless of which explanation is preferred the consumer still needs to consider the ethical issues associated with presenting imagery or information at a level at which it cannot normally be consciously considered. The author considers this type of information to be manipulative in intent. It also denies the consumer certain of his/her rights concerning freedom of choice and control over their decision making.

For more information and examples of Illusions and their explanations see the Imagination page.

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Defending the wood against the trees

The previous section of this page indicated that decisions about ambiguous stimuli can take place without any conscious control.  Viewing the illusions indicates that where more than one possible frame of reference exists only one can be attended to, even when the stimuli are presented clearly.   When embedded stimuli are presented at a semi-subliminal level then it is unlikely that sufficient attention will be paid to the stimuli to cause any conscious conflict.  However if one is to judge by the extent to which major corporations make use of embedded stimuli in ads, some recognition must take place before such aberrant semi-subliminal stimuli are disregarded in favour of the more obvious elements or recognition of the whole picture. If such preconscious recognition did not take place then the investment in the ads would be wasted.

This recognition need not involve a whole image, it may be only part of a 'jig-saw'.    The word sex for example may be represented by incomplete letters or simply s and X.   Symbolic images such as death masks or dogs may be merged with the background or be incomplete.  Yet, in each case, the same process of perceptual decision making has to be run through in order to decide what is worth 'raising' to levels of conscious appraisal.  Consumers tend to perceive the ad as a whole. But prior to this they presumably attempt to make sense of the contributory parts, including any semi-subliminal components on the basis of their previous experiences. Such experience includes decades of observing semi-subliminal ads and each of us presumably knows, almost intuitively, what an ad is supposed to 'tell us'. And we may respond accordingly.

There is some evidence to indicate that anxiety can be triggered by subliminal and semi-subliminal images in experiments. If anxiety can also be triggered by semi-subliminal aspects of ads then one need not acknowledge any psychological defensive strategy on the part of viewers to account for some of their behaviour. Tobacco and Spirits ads for example, seemingly rely upon viewers of their ads experiencing anxiety but using their products as means of allaying anxiety. Defensive psychological processes do not need to come in to the reckoning to account for commercial use of semi-subliminal ads.

Book cover: Repression and DissociationSome viewers, according to Key, repress 'recognition' of semi-subliminal features. Here Key assumes that the Freudian notion of repression comes into play to 'prevent' viewers becoming anxious about distasteful material. Repression is an unconscious attempt to 'block out' recognition of something that is unpalatable or objectionable. This is markedly different from the suppression that occurs when one actively attempts to 'push something out of ones mind' e.g. a repetitive tune.

Clinical reports and personal observation indicates that certain individuals do not like to acknowledge the existence of semi-subliminal ads. Some, in fact, react vociferously.animated angry bear There could be a variety of reasons for such reactions. But, if they are doing so without any conscious awareness of why they are reacting in this way, then their behaviour can be interpreted as evidence for the existence of some form of defensive process such as repression. Such a mechanism might also account for some people being unable to recognize semi-subliminal aspects of ads, even when they are pointed out to them. However, it would be going far to far to state that the failure to recognize all semi-subliminal aspects of ads is dependent upon the activity of defensive mechanisms.

In most instances, it is much more likely that the failure to recognize semi-subliminal stimuli is due to weakness or inappropriateness of the semi-subliminal stimuli. That is, the semi-subliminal content makes relatively little impact when compared to the main content of an advert. Such arguments are promoted by experimental psychologists on the basis of experimental evidence. However, these experiments do not necessarily have ecological validity. They are carried out using unusual stimuli and unusual conditions. And they do not get carried out over an extended period of time. Advertising, of course, tends to be long term, rather than expecting immediate impact. And, as indicated above, failure to consciously recognize imagery does not mean that there is also failure to make a (minimal) impact. It is also notable that the largest companies have run (and continue to run) the longest running semi-subliminal campaigns. Long term use may simply be a reflection of resources or it may be an indication of what is required to influence sufficient members of the audience.

Book cover: Freudian RepresionWriters such as Michael Billig also point out that as we learn our native language we also learn to control our use of that language and those aspects of reality that are pertinent to us. Failure to recognize semi-subliminal material may simply be a 'matter of choice', a preference to attend to certain aspects of the environment and ignore others, rather than repression in terms of active psychodynamic processes. However, even information that is supposedly disregarded, either upon an injunction as in a court of law or by preference when the argument does not appeal, tends to carry 'weight' when subjective judgements are made. Semi-subliminal images and messages may just manage to tip the scales in the direction of a specific product when no particular preference is held.

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Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003


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