The perceptual system is an organizing system. Where there is simply a meaningless array of objects in the 3 dimensional world the perceptual system produces organization. The following illustrations demonstrate that although we could simply 'see' arrays of individual objects what we perceive are organized sets or clusters of objects.
The simplest figure shows some crosses and squares. They could be 'seen' as pairs of crosses and squares or as 12 different shapes. But they are not. We see them as two lines of crosses and squares. Similarly when presented with a larger array of the same shaped objects we will perceive four matching sets of crosses and squares, rather than 48 images, or whatever.
Some of this mental organization arises because of proximity as the illustration on the right shows. The gap between the column on the left and the other columns is sufficient to produce an appreciation of one single column and a group of four columns.
With unusual patterns there is still the superimposition of perceptual organization and this can lead to the perception of 'letters' and 'words'. The illustration on the left, for example, does not produce an appreciation of a random display of shapes, we perceive instead four lines. Other rules relating to Common Fate, Closure and Symmetry can also be identified in the way in which we make judgements about images laid out in 2 dimensional images. All of these processes can be manipulated to produce particular perceptions and influence judgements. Consider for example how little effort it would require to organise the shapes on the continuity image into an approximation of the letters SEX, especially if they were to overlap. Check out the rollover to see. Four dots have been removed and one added. It still looks like a collection of lines but the example now included 3 overlapping letters. If such an example were embedded in an ad on its own it would probably have little impact. If it were presented in conjunction with other 'letters' and/or relevant cues, the ad could make quite an (unconscious) impact.
Various illustrations based on sets of colours such as shown below can also be used to demonstrate that what we 'see' is dependent upon the context in which we see them. If the colours illustrated in the boxes on the right could have been reproduced accurately on screen it could be shown that both contain exactly the same sets of coloured squares. The two sets are simply laid out in different orders. However, when each square is compared with its identical counterpart, because of the different surrounding colours, each colour is 'seen' as being somewhat different. More information about such phenomena can be found in the book Visual Intelligence by Donald D. Hoffman and other books on perception. A larger example, giving you the opportunity to move the various colours around to compare 'differences' can be accessed by clicking here.
The fact that perception is partly influenced by context helps explain why one can clearly 'see' a semi-subliminal embedded figure within the context of an ad or a work of art. However, when it is extracted and presented on its own the image does not seem the same. The image may, in fact, become unrecognisable as the various cues available in the surrounding area are no longer present to help guide the perceptual decision making. In effect, one is seeing a different image. Other factors relevant to this phenomenon are related to various rules as noted below.
A second major part of an explanation for the differences that are perceived when viewing segments of ads in and out of context relates to how we perceive the edges of objects/images in two dimensional representations. Common-sense 'tells us' that we see the edges of objects. Research indicates otherwise. We actually 'construct' the objects that we 'see'. We learn to 'recognize' discrete, sharp, edges even though the information we receive through our visual sense (the eye) is vague and uncertain. The edges of many of the objects illustrated on web sites, in paintings and ads, etc are actually fuzzy as you can verify by enlarging them slightly or viewing them with a magnifying glass. Nevertheless, despite the fuzziness around the edges we 'see' distinct edges. Similarly, even when there is slight variation in colouring we perceive solid colours.
Despite the limitations of our visual system we need not get concerned. Our judgement remains secure even although it is based on a fallacy, the fallacy that we actually 'see' what exists in the real world.
Our conscious perception of what we are seeing is much more clearly delineated - and thus much more useful - than the indistinct and fuzzy visual input received at our eyes. The illustration included in the next paragraph gives some insight into this process and how it is influenced by pre-existing knowledge by focussing upon the judgement of perceived contours.
The impression in this illustration is of ridges and valleys. It seems, therefore, that the shading ought to vary across each segment of the illustration i.e. the area between each of the noticeable boundaries ought to vary in brightness, depending upon how much light it was receiving. This is, in fact, what is perceived. Light seems to be catching the illustration from the right hand side. The right hand side of each segment is thus perceived to be darker than the left hand side. Yet this is an illusion produced by the visual system.
If you cover up the edges of any of the segments or run the mouse over the image to see the rollover image you will note that the shading is pretty much the same all the way across. With perfect reproduction of the basic image that was scanned the same effect can be produced by segments that are uniform in colour, other than the contoured edge. It is the existance of the contoured edge at the side of each segment that leads us to perceive dips and ridges. And, since these dips and ridges are seemingly there, our judgement of what we are 'seeing' must take this into account. Accordingly, we 'see' variations in shading that do not exist in reality.
Accurate variation in shading can only be recorded by a light meter. People with normal vision are incapable of such accurate judgements because our perceptual systems are designed to enhance any edge/contour. We then can clearly 'recognize' objects even when the visual input is actually fuzzy and indistinct. When these and other powerful rules of perception intended to be applied to the real, three dimensional, world are applied to two dimensional images we are often deluded.
The type of 'errors' produced by the perceptual system, in conjunction with various other rules applied to the information extracted from the visual system (see Hoffman's book on Visual Intelligence), mean that it is possible to 'see' embedded figures in adverts even if these figures are incomplete. The perceptual system, in effect, 'completes' them just as it 'fills in' the blind spot in our vision produced by the lack of receptors in the centre of the human retina.
Various perceptual rules that are applicable to 3 dimensional reality are applied to 2 dimensional ads in order to extract meaningful information or to make sense of the input. For example rules regarding curvature are applied in conjunction with knowledge of contours. These lead to judgements as to whether an object is convex or concave. A perfect application of these rules to a two dimensional advert can be found in the extract from a Marlboro ad reproduced on the right. If it seems familiar, then so it ought to be, it was initially presented near the top of this page in another context.
The 'face' that can be perceived has no distinct edge but the essential facial features can be 'seen', embedded within the background. This 'face' can be 'seen' because of judgements based on the 'rules of perception'. The rules are applied to the variations in texture evident in the image even if these do not produce a complete image. This is an automatic set of processes that are applied whenever a normally sighted person is viewing a two dimensional or three dimensional object, providing they do not allow their judgement to be 'biased' by oversimplistic or concrete thinking and make snap judgements about the ad as a whole.
Other rules are also applicable. As was noted above, where objects are partially obscured or where contiguous or aligned edges exist, there is an assumption that one object is in front of another (as evident in the Kanizsa triangle illusion) and that the object has a particular shape. Additionally, when there are curves, these are taken to indicate rims (edges or outlines of objects). Concave creases point in to an object whereas convex creases point out of an object. The 'eyes' of the Marlboro 'face' are darker and have concave 'creases' - they are further away. The 'nose' has convex 'creases' and is lighter - it is closer. The 2 dimensional image thus assumes a 3 dimensional form based on the application of the rules of visual perception allied with existing knowledge of the world.
On the basis of intuitive judgements, appraisal of a number of Malboro ads and knowledge of the rules of visual perception, it is therefore possible to state with a considerable degree of certainty that this 'face' is not simply a judgement based on aberrations in the colouring of the ad. Nor is the 'image' simply the projection of ideas around a set of ambiguous visual information. This embedded image (face) was intended to be perceived, unconsciously, as a face or as some other meaningful entity by some of those who would view the ad.
A few possibilities seem likely. The author prefers the primary interpretation to be related to death or dying because of other contextual features of the ad e.g. depressive colouring, helicopters in the background, various connotations associated with the caption, etc. One possible interpretation leads to 'identification' of the face as that of a dead, buried and decaying individual. Others, equally reasonable, could be face-like imagery related to the Star Wars movie. The 'face' shares some of the same essential structure as the headgear of a Star Wars trooper (illustrated above) and, to a lesser extent imagery from other science fiction movies e.g. the alien in Predator, or a latter day soldier in anti biological warfare gear as illustrated on the left.
What is ultimately 'recognized' is not simply what is in the ad, it is what is the outcome of mental processes triggered by the ad. The 'recognition may occur intuitively and consciously, as in the author's analysis of the ad, or preconsciously in instances of normal viewing when individuals are predisposed on the basis of previous knowledge or expectations. An ex-soldier, for example, might respond to the mood of the ad. If a depressed mood were enhanced by the embedded imagery, this could lead to depressive thoughts. If the viewer were a Star Wars fan the response might be quite different. To paraphrase the popular saying 'Horses for courses', one might state that ads, in particular embedded elements of ads, present 'Images for Individuals'.
The construction of specific images are likely to be based on the type of psychographic analysis discussed in textbooks on marketing and consumer behaviour. Language is also an important factor as the next section demonstrates. Complementary information can be found on the Imagination page.
For more on Faces in Ads see the Faces pages.
Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003