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, there 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 process 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 on the attached page.
This 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-subliminal 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 occasions 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 with 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 sense 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.
Despite 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 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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Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003