The 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. Here 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.
Advertisers 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. 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 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.
See the Frequently Asked Questions Page for further information
Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003