22nd September, 2002
For the Attention of Ms. Marina Palomba,
Legal Affairs Director,
Institute of Practitioners in Advertising,
44 Belgrave Square,
Dear Ms Palomba,
This is in response to your letter of 13th September,
2002. It is a lengthy response and I therefore present
a summary of the key points at the end.
Firstly, I would like to thank you, inadvertently,
for drawing my attention to the fact that one of
my web pages concerning 'subliminal' advertising
was incomplete (the reason for the inverted commas
will be presented below). You are the first person
to bring this flaw on my web site to my attention.
I presumably got distracted before I completed the
page and it was subsequently uploaded to my web
site along with other material. I therefore take
your point, given its content, that a cursory viewing
i.e. simply reading the title rather than any of
the content, could have led a viewer to consider
the page to be owned by the IPA. When I restore
the web page I will have modified the relevant title,
etc so that there should be no likelihood that any
viewer will consider the page to be owned by the
Whilst on the subject of URL's I should point
out to you that you do not seem to have a clear
understanding of the difference between a site URL
and a page URL. You refer in your heading to the
Website - www.subliminalworld.com/IPA. This is itself
misleading. It is not a site URL, rather it is an
incomplete page URL. If you removed the /IPA then
it would be a site URL, if you added .htm or .html
after the /IPA then it would be an accurate page
URL. Therefore, re your request to withdraw any
reference to the IPA in the page URL, I see no need
to do so. It is the domain name that determines
the site and thus its ownership, not any individual
page. The full URL www.subliminalworld.com/IPA.htm
is clearly an indicator of a page on the subliminalworld.com
domain. One example makes this clear. If there were
a page URL www.ipa.co.uk/Gophers.htm, on the basis
of your complaint the IPA domain would presumably
be perceived as being owned by a family of gophers.
I could, of course, easily and rather facetiously,
have renamed the page IPAcrap.htm or Correspondence_with_the_IPA.htm
or even Not_India_Pale_Ale.htm. Note that the example
indicates that IPA has more than one meaning. In
summary, as brevity tends to equate to memorability,
a page URL should, ideally, providing it is not
misleading, make use of the English language to
offer viewers a simple means of remembering a page
URL. The page URL https://www.subliminalworld.com/IPA.htm
does just that.
Now for a few distinctions related to what you
call subliminal advertising, to clarify my use of
inverted commas around the word subliminal, in line
two, paragraph two, above. Whilst the phrase subliminal
advertising is commonly used by both professionals
and lay persons it can have a number of meanings.
As initially used by Wilson Key it covered a continuum
of ads. At one end of the continuum this focused
on the type epitomised by many of the ads illustrated
on the subliminalworld.com web site. These are ads
containing secondary, embedded, content that can
be consciously perceived, though most often with
difficulty - usually after attention is drawn to
the relevant artwork. At the other end of the continuum,
Key referred to ads or messages presented to viewers
at levels below the level of perceptual ability.
The lay person, whose understanding of the subject
is limited to a reading of Wilson Key's books, would
likewise use the term subliminal advertising in
a very broad sense. Many commentators and much everyday
usage stretch the meaning further to include anything
that is not initially noticed or what is implied
rather than stated. Spokespersons for the advertising
profession often use the phrase subliminal advertising
in a similar, off-handed manner. Generally, they
write as if the term covers the full range of advertising
that is not perceptible by the average viewer (both
above and below the limits of perception). Yet the
evidence cited tend to relate only to those aspects
of advertising that can never be perceived i.e.
truly subliminal content as per the definition presented
in the next paragraph.
Psychologists generally make use of a more precise,
though not completely trouble free, definition than
Wilson Key and the layperson. This applies the term
subliminal in its true sense i.e. below the limits
of perceptual ability. I attempt to use this definition
in a consistent manner and therefore, when possible,
would not refer to the ads discussed on the subliminalworld
site as subliminal ads.
If truly subliminal ads exist, by definition,
they could not be perceived and one could never
raise complaints about them. Yet truly subliminal
ads - if they exist, together with subliminal stimuli
used in rigorously controlled experiments and ads
containing secondary imagery presented at levels
close to the limits of visual perception, share
many of the same features. All these forms of communication
can influence viewer's judgements without the viewer
being aware of that fact. Given that this is the
case, I am often left to wonder why no professional
organisation has ever expressed any interest in
the type of ads that I wish to discuss with them.
One can therefore distinguish between different
types of unethical adverts - and I presume you would
agree that all subliminal ads are unethical, regardless
of how one defines the term. The type of ads I discuss
generally contain secondary images, providing that
one appreciates that a word embedded in an ad is
simply a specific form of image.
It would be too tedious to repeat such distinctions
on every page of my web site. Additionally, since
web sites are not like books, it is possible to
arrive in the 'middle' of a web without any awareness
of how this section relates to the rest of it. Hence
most pages have an animated image directing people
to the introductory pages where various terms are
Despite the lack of imprecision associated with
the phrase subliminal advertising, as it is commonly
used, if the IPA wish to explicitly acknowledge
that the term subliminal advertising subsumes ads
containing secondary images then I will happily
make use of the term subliminal advertising in any
correspondence. But you need to make clear what
you are referring to i.e. the complete continuum
of ads, from those that contain material that can
be perceived with difficulty to those beyond the
limits of perceptual ability, or whatever. If you
do not, and simply use the term subliminal advertising
in an imprecise manner to present blanket statements
about the historical activities of the IPA, then
it is irrelevant to the subject matter that I raised
with Nick Phillips.
Having offered these definitions, my viewpoint
should not really be problematical, neither should
my comments associated with Nick Phillips' letter.
You claim these comments are inaccurate. But if
so, then it would have been helpful if you could
have stated which aspects were inaccurate.
A related issue is raised in paragraph three
of your letter. You refer to Nick Phillips' letter
as rather dated. Does this imply that the IPA has
changed or up-to-date views on the subject of secondary
imagery in advertising? Or, if you wish to include
such ads under the rubric of subliminal advertising,
do you have updated views on subliminal advertising?
You can rest assured that I will correct any mistakes
and modify my comments in the light of any updated
views you present on behalf of the IPA.
Having dealt with some tangential issues I will
now deal with the issues related to your charge
Firstly, my missing letter. You seem to imply
it is important. I do not think so, for a variety
of reasons. Admittedly, it is rather unfortunate
that I did not include a copy when I first produced
the page but, as noted above, its inclusion on the
web site in the form you viewed it was an oversight.
The modified IPA.htm page, when it appears, will
make it clear that the content of my letter to the
IPA did not differ substantially from those addressed
to the ASA and the AAAA. Additionally, as my communications
with the IPA arose from a referral by the ASA, any
interested reader should have little difficulty
in determining the gist, if not the actual wording,
of my letter to the IPA.
I note, in passing, that you did not refer to
your copy of my original letter in an attempt to
determine whether or not my comments were pertinent.
I no longer have copies of my correspondence from
this period due to a computer crash but should you
still possess a copy of my letter in your archives,
perhaps, in the interests of accuracy, you would
be willing to supply me with a photocopy.
You also question my interpretation of what
subliminal advertising means. The implication of
your question is that there is only one definitive
definition. Clearly this is not the case as I indicate
above. You also state that that my interpretation
is rather unfortunate. I wonder for whom as something
cannot be unfortunate in the abstract. Could you
therefore elaborate what you mean by this statement?
Do you mean unfortunate for the IPA, for members
of the public, or whomsoever?
You further state that the IPA does not condone
subliminal messages. If I take this to mean that
the IPA does not condone the type of adverts I discuss,
and which form the basis of Wilson Keys arguments
and laypersons understanding, then I find it raises
some problematical issues.
A spokesperson for the ASA found that an ad
containing embedded imagery, clearly evident once
attention is drawn to the relevant artwork, did
not justify any action on their part. Given the
nature of the justification the ASA offered for
their decision it seemed pointless that I repeat
the exercise with additional ads. The justification
offered by the ASA was, in my view, laughable. They
did not see that it breached the advertising codes.
Although true, given that there is no mention of
subliminal advertising in the codes, this simply
indicates a deficiency in the codes. More crucially,
they stated that most people would not see the ad
in the manner I suggested. This indicates a horrendous
disregard or indifference for the unethical nature
of the content and the distaste with which the layperson
regards such underhand attempts to influence them.
Additionally it seems to indicate a complete lack
of knowledge of the power of information to influence
people without their being consciously aware of
what is influencing them.
You may wish to argue that this was an isolated
ad and that other 'subliminal' ads might be perceived
differently by the ASA. I doubt that, as it is notable
that neither the ASA nor the IPA displayed the slightest
interest in investigating any of the issues I raised
If, on the other hand, your statement re not
condoning subliminal advertising doesn't cover the
type of ad containing secondary imagery i.e. is
restricted to the precise psychological definition
that refers only to adverts below the limits of
perception, your statement is irrelevant. Some other
viewpoint needs to be expressed. I would therefore,
once again, appreciate it if you would state precisely
how the IPA stands with regard to the type of ads
I comment upon.
You furthermore state the IPA has always been
opposed to subliminal advertising and was instrumental
in condemning the practice. On this issue, I have
a limited viewpoint. I would only comment that contentious
advertising could only have been produced by members
of the advertising profession and thus your statement
seems merely to be an example of a profession putting
its own house in order to avoid the government implementing
legislation. I therefore don't doubt that the IPA
expressed opposition to subliminal advertising in
the past but what is the state of affairs at present?
I would like to be more specific and ask, since
the IPA is the parent body for the ASA, why is secondary
imagery in advertising ignored by the ASA? And why
is there no specific mention of subliminal advertising,
however it is defined, in the advertising codes?
Bear in mind at this point that truly subliminal
content and embedded secondary imagery share the
same characteristics and thus, in my opinion, deserve
the same degree of attention.
It was possible a few years ago for spokesperson
for the advertising profession to rely upon blanket
denials of the existence of subliminal advertising
without fear of reproach. Until the presentation
of the ads on the www.subliminalworld.com web site
there was little that could be presented in the
way of evidence to counter such statements. The
only notable set of examples in the public domain
were presented on the poleshift.org site, a site
which 'stretches' the definition of subliminal advertising
to incorporate a wide range of ads: from ads containing
secondary imagery to those reliant on imagery involving
social cues. Thanks to the addition of the www.subliminalworld.com
web site this set of examples in the public domain
has been extended to include many recent examples
of 'subliminal' ads containing secondary images.
Secondary images in ads may or may not influence
consumers. I think they do, as I make clear on the
introductory pages to my web site. And evidence
is accumulating to indicate that they actually do
influence viewers. But whether or not that influence
exists, their use is a clear indication of unethical
behaviour, a subject that presumably is of relevance
to the IPA. I would therefore like to see the IPA/ASA
address the implications of their use by advertising
agencies and their clients.
The advertising profession cannot 'have its
cake and eat it'. You either have a broad definition
(incorporating material on the borderline of perceptual
ability ) or a narrow definition (in which it is
impossible to perceive subliminal content). In the
case of a broad definition, then your argument falls.
Neither the IPA nor the ASA seems to have done anything
in recent years about ads containing secondary images.
More specifically, as I note above, the ASA do not
see such ads as in breach of the advertising codes.
If you support a narrow definition, then it is irrelevant
to the issue of secondary imagery in advertising.
Organisations such as yours are then clearly being
disingenuous when you report to the public that
you disapprove of subliminal advertising, given
that the laypersons understanding falls into line
with the broad definition.
If I am in error on this matter I would request
that you supply me with information about any action
the IPA or ASA has taken in the past ten years to
prevent the use of such ads or chastise any agency
who made use of secondary imagery in ads.
Regarding my comments on the letter received
from Nick Phillip in his role as Director General
of the IPA - these will stand. I make clear that
these are my views. It is up to viewers to decide
whether they are valid or not. If you find any inaccuracies
in them I shall be only to happy correct them. You
may take exception to the fact that these comments
are integrated with the body of your letter. I agree
that this is not ideal but the different colour
of print and the use of brackets clearly demarcate
comments from Nick Phillips' views. It is possible
that the understanding of intellectually challenged
viewers might be influenced by this structure but
this would not be true of anyone with an interest
in subliminal advertising nor advertising in general.
When the page was first produced there was no adequate
technology to present my comments in a clearer manner.
It is now possible to do so using pop-up messages
and over the next few months, as time permit, I
shall be making a range of changes to ensure the
views of the IPA are clearly distinguished from
Finally, I would suggest that if you subsequently
wish to initiate any proceedings under the Defamation
Act 1996, please ensure any future letters are more
accurate and more precise. This might then make
it easier for me to make amends. In the present
instance I acknowledge that I am the author of the
statements you take exception to and I have immediately
taken steps to change the page. However, none of
my statements can be considered defamatory when
taken within the wider context of the web site as
a whole. They accurately reflect the (possibly rather
muddled) state of knowledge within the advertising
profession on the question of 'subliminal' advertising.
But, as I suggest, perhaps you can elaborate on
what has so far been presented to me and allow me
the possibility of correcting any erroneous statements
and also put the public record straight. The subliminalworld.com
web site might thus simply become a record of historical
Should you wish to initiate any such action
I shall be happy to present this letter to any court
as evidence of my intention to rectify any erroneous
content on my web site. I would also reserve the
right to present all of the material on the www.subliminalworld.com
web site to a court as an indication of my overall
intention regarding its content. The basis for such
a presentation being that, on the basis of a reading
of a single page, taken out of context, any claim
for defamation is likely to be misleading, if not
malicious in intent. And of course, as additional
defence, I can always call upon testimonials related
to my academic record and my stance on various unethical
issues in the past.
Incidentally, your threat to take action within
the next 7 days leaves me wondering whether you
mean 7 days from the date of your letter, 7 days
from when I received it, or 7 days from when I first
read it. Since you did not ensure that your letter
had to be signed for by me personally (it was signed
for by another resident at the same address) you
clearly make no allowance for the fact that I could
have been away from home or even out of the country.
Given this shortcoming, the lack of precision in
your letter, and other shortcomings (others of lesser
importance have not been addressed in this reply)
then I would be only too pleased to see you present
your letter to a court.
Overall, I do not find your letter a creditable
attempt to rectify what you claim is possible defamation.
It seems to be more a case of a large organisation
attempting to frighten an individual into 'toeing
the party line'. This is not going to be the case
as my argument regarding the unethical and manipulative
nature of secondary imagery in advertising is a
valid one. My case is not perfect, and some examples
that I present on my web site may be due to pareidolia
or misinterpretation. Such outcomes can, however,
easily be discounted by simple experimental investigations.
Overall, a considerable body of evidence can back
my claims. Most of this evidence relates to studies
of subliminal perception but a growing body relates
to advertising. Should you thus wish to initiate
legal proceedings I would anticipate any reasonable
court would dispose of your claim on the grounds
that there was no reason why it should be tried.
In summary I would appreciate it if you would:
A) be more precise and state exactly what errors
you perceive in my comments.
B) state whether or not the IPA has changed or up-to-date
views on the subject of secondary imagery in advertising
since I received Nick Phillips' letter.
C) state what the IPA means when the term subliminal
advertising is used i.e. communications below the
level of perceptual ability (narrow definition)
or to a continuum of ads including those with embedded
imagery (broad definition), or whatever?
D) what action, if any, has the IPA taken in the
past decade to deal with truly subliminal advertising
or 'subliminal' advertising containing embedded
E) why is there no specific mention of subliminal
advertising, however it is defined, in the advertising
This should not be too difficult for you as
I note that you sent a copy of your letter to the
ASA. I would expect close collaboration to produce
a more acceptable, precise, and up-to-date policy
statement, underpinned by clear definitions. Perhaps
then I might be able to resolve the inconsistencies
between the statements of advertising organisations
and also the statements and actions of some of their
members and their clients. If not, then you can
expect that the www.subliminalworld.com site will
become more elaborate and contain more experimental
and other pertinent information as time progresses.
What I hope is that the IPA and the ASA may
be prevailed upon to make the advertising codes
more specific and clearly ban secondary imagery.
Alternatively, state specifically that you find
no grounds for disapproving of it. In which case
we will clearly disagree.
If your claims to oppose subliminal advertising
still have merit then these requests seem more than
reasonable. If the impact of secondary imagery in
ads on judgements, thinking and behaviour is more
profound than I originally anticipated (and this
seems to be the case), then such a change cannot
come too soon.
Please note that any correspondence on these
issues will be placed in the public domain on my
web site along with previous correspondence.
I look forward to your response.
Jim Hagart, C.Psychol.