The Marlboro cowboy is among the most readily recognized advertising icons of the 20th century. Hopefully, early during the 21st century we will see his demise, just as we have seen the unfortunate passing of some of those actors who featured in Marlboro ads and TV commercials. Unlike the actors who portrayed the Marlboro cowboy, the ad icon will never suffer from any tobacco related illness. This Top Gun will simply fade away, mourned only by those associated with the tobacco trade and join the ranks of Joe Camel, Reg and other icons whose impact upon young people helped lead to a resurgence in smoking among young men and women. Among the mourners will be those who have made a career in the advertising business.
Despite the toll of human suffering left in the wake of smoking, ad agencies have rarely turned down money from tobacco companies. Their justification is simple, 'If it's legal, it's OK to advertise it.' That their actions may lead to the early deaths of many thousands, if not millions, of smokers is seemingly not among their concerns.
Other branches of the media have also enhanced social pressures on young people to smoke. Hollywood financiers have gleefully accepted money from tobacco companies for many years. Films from the 80's onwards feature clear examples of product placement of cigarette packs and disproportionate numbers of characters who smoke. Yet, miraculously they never seem to run out of wind. Many of them will, unfortunately, end up like Humphrey Bogart.
The primary vehicle for conveying a message of social acceptability about cigarette smoking is the printed media. Another is sport and recreational promotions. Marlboro remains top gun in the promotion stakes. Advertising executives have a very strong association with those responsible for the promotion of businesses underpinned by tobacco company money, Formula 1 racing for example. Other forms of promotion are less indirect. One might even consider that Philip Morris and other tobacco companies produce their own magazines to promote their products to underage smokers. They don't need to actually pay for the printing. They simply need to get their brand name emblazoned on every winning F1 racing car and make use of the subsequent photo opportunities.
Have you ever noticed the extent to which magazines promoting Formula 1 racing feature cigarette logos and brand colours? And how this might impact on viewers? Some magazines covering F1 events promote the sporting aspect. Others might as well be considered publicity vehicles for the tobacco companies. One might as well call F1 magazine T1 magazine, with the T standing, of course, for Tobacco. The Official ITV F1 Sport Grand Prix Guide 1999 included 21 pages featuring cigarette brands names, most of these in the first quarter of the book. Somehow this is deemed a neutral, sport oriented and acceptable, publication, even though its readership will include a very high proportion of children. Racing car drivers might be considered gladiators on four wheels but, as publications such as this indicate, they are no more than highly paid bait for the tobacco companies. The promotional material for the year 2000 Grand Prix Ball might have been more accurate if it had been printed as shown below.
It is no secret that tobacco money keeps Formula 1 racing going. A much better kept secret has been the existence of semi-subliminal content within many cigarette ads. And it is perhaps not really surprising that the the tobacco companies and the advertising professions have been able to keep this a secret. The tobacco companies had decades to hone their techniques for convincing the public that their profession is an honourable one. The advertising profession undoubtedly learned a thing or two from their association with tobacco companies. See Ads from the Archives for some early examples of how attack is deemed their best method of defence. But the skeleton in their cupboard keeps on rattling.
Thanks to the efforts of Merrill Williams (left), Jeffrey Wigand (right) and various US Attorney Generals the general public now know the extent to which tobacco companies covered up, withheld or attacked research findings demonstrating that cigarette smoking was extremely hazardous to health in the long term. Only in recent years has the extent of their hypocritical stance on research become evident as papers are released in Canadian and American court cases. One of the best accounts is to be found in Ashes to Ashes by Richard Kluger. Others, equally as good, can be found among the books listed on the Smoking Bibliography page.
It is clear that if tobacco companies can hush up research findings that are clearly pertinent to the health and welfare of millions of individuals, then they should have little difficulty in keeping to themselves research into the effectiveness of the semi-subliminal and other manipulative components in their adverts. The contents list of adverts on this site indicates without a shadow of a doubt that tobacco companies and their advertising agencies are the most common source of manipulative and semi-subliminal advertising.
The ad profession despite their links with the tobacco industry is, admittedly, in a different league to the tobacco companies. But the techniques that seem so useful to the tobacco industry seem to be spreading even although, in the author's view, semi-subliminal advertising is not as common as some early writers on the subject have contended. Nevertheless its use has spread. Ads for the car company Peugeot and for Pirelli tyres are, for example, every bit as sophisticated as those of Marlboro. Each set of ads also show an appreciation of the psychology of their customers.
Whether the proliferation of such advertising has been because of the gradual spread of individuals who have used the technique, or whether it is simply furthered by attempts to put into practice the understanding gleaned from the books of Wilson Key is not known. What is certain is that the drive to use semi-subliminal techniques is not driven by published academic research. Psychologists are almost 100 per cent certain to state that embedding one image or message in amongst more obvious visual material is unlikely to influence anyone.
And here lies the dilemma.
To date, very little research has surfaced that could justify the extent to which tobacco companies and their advertising agencies make use of semi-subliminal elements in their ads. One can only conclude therefore that the tobacco companies have carried out their own research and found it to be commercially effective, even if it has not been noticeably effective within the limitations of traditional laboratory experiments.
The present web pages cannot demonstrate unequivocal evidence that all tobacco companies produce semi-subliminal advertising. The many examples included on these pages undoubtedly rely upon the application of subjective judgement and experience to what is, in many cases, ambiguous material. The examples often tend to be closer to what would best be called unattended material than they would be to the subliminal end of the continuum. Much semi-subliminal material in cigarette ads is, in fact, close to being subliminal but cannot be presented here. It would be difficult to demonstrate even when one had high resolution printed copy to look at. But to make a sound case on the basis of the current exampmles is not impossible, even if much of the evidence is somewhat circumstantial in nature. An analogy can make this clear.
If one were seeking to pinpoint a radio beacon, the best means of determining its location would be to use the process known as triangulation i.e. detecting the source from a number of different locations and zeroing in on the source. Similarly, one can point out a variety of factors relevant to semi-subliminal advertising and manipulative advertising. Each may only provide one limited source of evidence. Together they all 'hone in' on the core issue and can be used as a basis for determining whether or not tobacco companies use semi-subliminal advertising.
The Experts page noted that there is no scientific evidence to support the efficacy of 'subliminal advertising'. And, additionally, the subject was regularly debunked by members of the advertising and other professions. This debunking continues.
A recent book by John Philip Jones on Advertising Organizations and Publications seems to think that despite the lack of evidence, and three to four decades of denials by the advertising profession and others they still have to comment on the matter. In a preface dedicated to David Ogilvy, they state the best thing to do is IGNORE the subject. Somewhat paradoxically, the editor then goes on to produce a couple of pages headed 'Subliminal' Advertising. This takes the standard line, parroted over the years. The preface slates Vicary's reputed study of popcorn and coke sales (see Flickers and Classkey pages) but does not mention any recent work in the area, not even current research in psychology, nor the review papers in the Skeptical Inquirer. If something ought to be ignored why make such a prominent issue of it?
This standard line of defence has continued for years. Ads from the AAAA demonstrate that members of the advertising profession were aware of the techniques many years, even if they personally do not benefit from their use. Yet, there has not been a single voice raised by spokespersons for the Advertising community in condemnation of those unethical members of the profession who use 'subliminal' advertising. Nor from psychologists in their experimental bunkers. Nor from the public, except on rare occasions, such as when Disney was reputed to have embedded the word sex in some children's movies.
Instead, the advertising world continuing to foster public misconceptions that 'subliminal' advertising does not exist. And, if it does exist, then it is not effective. Such arguments go against the grain of people's experiences, even if that experience has not been consciously attended to. The public continue to believe in the phenomenon even though they cannot offer any examples. Such persistence of belief in the absence of evidence seemingly justifies calls from some researchers to classify 'subliminal' advertising alongside pseudo-sciences such as parapsychology. However, the examples provided on this web site lead to opposite conclusions and also indicate why members of the lay public have difficulty in identifying such ads. Only the careful analysis of ads can help one identify the key features. And, additionally, only persistence over a period of time can lead to identification of those areas of advertising in which semi-subliminal techniques are consistently used. The need to do more than superficially look at ads is the most likely reason for psychologists failing to consider the study of advertising as ripe for investigation.
If any profession is in a position to demonstrate that 'subliminal' advertising' worked' that profession would be that of experimental psychology. However, given that there is a strong professional current promoting the notion that 'subliminal' advertising does not exist, no self respecting psychologist interested in pure theoretical research would consider studying the subject. It is, naturally, impossible to study a phenomenon that does not exist. But what if it did exist? What then?
A first step towards making the invisible skeletons in the advertising cupboard visible is to provide categories of information and appropriate terminology. Previous classification systems e.g. a fourfold breakdown of different presentation techniques offered by Anthony Pratkanis in an article in Psychology and Marketing in 1988, considered Subthreshold stimuli, masked stimuli, unattended stimuli and figurally transformed stimuli. This terminology is very appropriate to laboratory studies, involving the presentation of visual and auditory stimuli for very short periods of time, using devices such as tachistoscopes or computers (see FAQS for additional information).
Printed adverts, unlike television and movie commercials that are generally not recorded by members of the public for later scrutiny, are available for whatever period of time the viewer wishes to look at them (usually very short). Additionally, print advertising is almost invariably part of a lengthy promotional exercise, extending over many years and sometimes decades in the case of well known brands. These are major distinction that are rarely acknowledged in the academic literature. It is therefore unlikely that the conclusions based on episodic laboratory studies can be extrapolated to print advertising.
The author has attempted to further the goal of identifying categories of information in print advertising by distinguishing between subliminal advertising and manipulative advertising and certain other categories of problematical advertising. This classification system is presented below. It bears some similarity to Pratkanis' classification scheme and the overlap is noted in a footnote at the the conclusion of this section.
At one end of the print continuum there are Categories I and II ( Unattended Information and Product Placement, respectively ). The relevant stimuli or elements in ads are not normally noticed. But, once attention is turned on them, they are blatantly obvious. An example of unattended information would be the alignment of the letters SEX in this ad for FCUK.
Product placement, often included under the rubric of subliminal advertising, is far too obvious a technique to deserve a great deal of consideration on this site. Nevertheless, product placement is part of an overall stratagy to manipulate the views and attitudes of viewers and may form a more important part of cigarette 'advertising' in Europe once normal advertising is banned.
Unattended information and product placements often contain wording or images that are ultimately expected to attract attention. When this is the case such ads are not manipulative nor semi-subliminal in nature. Ads with unattended components overlap with the next category of ads (Category III). Category III ads can be very similar in content to those containing unattended information. The key distinguishing feature of the latter is that attention will not be drawn to the elements embedded in the ads. One can reasonably both forms of ads as manipulative in intent. With unattended information, however, the level of manipulation is pretty low. With this type of ad, complaints are likely if the 'hidden' element is distressing to anyone who notices it.
Next there are a set of ad phenomenon that are also manipulative in intent but not so easy to notice (Category III). Even directing attention to them may not, initially, lead to identification. These could be word based or visually based or could contain a combination of both. Examples of word based manipulation could be Marlboro's Rush Hour or Blown Away ads. Manipulative advertising is a very appropriate term for such ads but the term is not exclusive to this set of ads as all semi-subliminal ads and subliminal ads are also manipulative. Can you suggest a more appropriate and discrete term that could apply to this category alone?
Further along the continuum one comes to Semi-subliminal content (Category IV). These incorporate ads that contain small, camouflaged or embedded components. By definition, if they can be perceived consistently, even with difficulty, then they must be semi-subliminal and not subliminal. This sub-set of ads are also manipulative but their key identifying characteristic is that they are semi-subliminal. Many Marlboro ads, including the Fast Food ad, provide examples of such contents.
Right on the borderline of visual perception lies the area where stimuli can be perceived some 50% of the time and overlooked the other 50% (Category V). This is another manipulative area of advertising. Ads falling into this category could only be defined statistically on the basis of test results. It is the visual equivalent of guessing heads and tails and getting half right. But where adverts are concerned there would be no certainty that one had actually got that 50% correct.
Any advertising containing embedded material at this level of perceptual difficulty would be extremely difficult to identify. And it is here that the problem of projectionwould become most pronounced. and it would be extremely difficult to ensure that projection of ones thoughts did not influence recognition. Identifying an example that fits this category can only truly be the outcome of professional judgement based on years of experience. But one must also acknowledge that the self same experience can also lead to bias in identification. Examples in this range can be found throughout this web site e.g. the extracts from the ad on the right that can be found on the What is Subliminal advertising pages.
Beyond the 50/50 borderline there can only be truly subliminal material (Category VI). If used in advertising, this could never be recognized and therefore no examples are provided. Without a shadow of doubt any such advertising would be manipulative. Although it seems that such advertising may be exceedingly rare, if any exist, if anyone knows of instances where subliminal advertising has been attempted, the author would be pleased to hear from them.
Of these six categories of visual information, only the first four can be investigated without special experimental procedures. And of these four, only the first and second categories (Unattended/Product Placemen)t and are likely to produce thoroughly convincing evidence. The third category (Manipulative) will produce fairly discrete examples but differences of opinion will mean that identification of any specific ad content and associated meaning is contentious. The degree of contention will increase markedly with the fourth (Semi-subliminal) and fifth categories (50/50 Borderline).
Despite problems with such a system, it is hoped that this process of categorization might assist the governing bodies and professional associations come clean about the skeletons in their cupboard. However, such an outcome is perhaps unlikely, given the symbiotic nature of large advertising agencies and their clients. It will probably not be until social scientists examine advertising material more thoroughly instead of relying upon extrapolation from a limited range of experimental studies to make their pronouncements about 'subliminal' advertising. Or, alternatively, some individuals take legal action against companies who appear to have done their best to deny them of the freedom of choice that is deemed to be the right of every consumer.
*Pratkanis essentially lumped together categories I, II and III (Unattended but not manipulative, Unattended and manipulative, Product Placement) under the label of Unattended Stimuli. Categories IV (semi-subliminal) and V (borderline) are subsumed under his category of Figurally Transformed. Note, however, that Category V is also relevant to his Subthreshold stimuli as such stimuli are only perceptible on some occasions. Category VI is equivalent to his Subthreshold stimuli. Pratkanis' Masked class is almost unique and has relevance to printed ads. However, a few examples making use of the principles of masked presentations can be found in print. One Benson & Hedges ad, analysed on another page, is a perfect example of how masking techniques can be adapted for use on the printed page and on hoardings and billboards.
The material on this site is a mixture of three of the six categories noted above i.e. unattended, manipulative and semi-subliminal advertising. The existence of such advertising techniques cannot be demonstrated unequivocally and will be subject to dispute, as history has proven. Some form of objective testing is required to complete a convincing, triangulated, argument. But, even if such testing is successful it will not prove that semi-subliminal advertising does exist. What it will do is demonstrate whether or not adverts that are categorized as semi-subliminal or manipulative are influential because of their content.
The categorization process may be deemed suspect. However, if consistent and reliable differences emerge in research involving the modification of ads whose content is judged to be manipulative or semi-subliminal then this supports the judgement of those who identify these elements. If the original ads are more influential than any modified ad then this would also support a case stating that such ads were manipulative.
The triangulation process can also be supported by other forms of evidence. If semi-subliminal and manipulative advertising has any basis in fact then it should also be possible to demonstrate this by addressing the following issues. Ads are produced by individuals, teams and agencies for specific companies and brands. When companies change agencies then they may well change policy or their new agency may have different standards. This means that blind testing/sorting of ads should produce clusters of ads whose publication dates correspond to the periods different business relationships were in force.
For example if individuals knowledgeable about semi-subliminal ads were presented with ads placed in chronological order they should be able to rely upon their subjective judgements to determine when the use of semi-subliminal advertising started/stopped. If these cut-off dates corresponded with changes in agencies, etc. this also would help strengthen the case against ad agencies and their clients. Simply sorting a random selection of ads containing semi-subliminal and ordinary ads and finding equivalent correspondence should produce similar results. The most suitable candidates for examination are the tobacco companies and their ad agencies.
Another means of examining the prolific output of the tobacco companies would be to compare the types of advertising for different segments of the population. Semi-subliminal advertising for cigarettes is thematically based but the same themes will not be pertinent to all members of the population. Comparisons of different ads for different brands produced by the same agencies, etc. should also be capable of providing the basis for and objective examination of any consistencies in judgements that paralleled brands and types of promotions.
One further area worth examination could involve the study of ads that have been banned or withdrawn from circulation by the various regulatory bodies. The author would contend that ads withdrawn from circulation are likely to contain a disproportionate number of ads with semi-subliminal content. In other words, a disproportionate number of ads that were banned for an overt reason are also likely to contain semi- subliminal content. That content, would have, unwittingly, influenced the judgements of those asked to judge their acceptability. The author thinks that the banned Peugeot ads noted on the ASA pages are typical examples.
The scope for objective and experimental research is thus considerable. But so far marketing specialists and psychologists have not grasped the nettle and seriously examined advertising. Instead they have kept low in their bunkers and examined psychological and social processes related to semi-subiminal advertising. They thus skirt around the problem. Psychologists have focussed either on audio tapes or else subliminal perception. Marketing and other business oriented professionals have carried out surveys. Neither approach says much about actual advertising.
Why there should be reluctance to examine real advertising is to some extent understandable. And not all the reasons are related to the standard conventional view regarding 'subliminal' advertising. First one has to collect the material. Tis takes time. Then appropriate ads have to be identified (and one may be subject to the ridicule of ones colleagues). Then some means has to be found to study this 'non-existent' phenomenon that you have managed to lay your hands on. Self reflection is inevitable and one wonders whether one is really imagining all this.
However the logic of a case regarding the existence of semi-subliminal advertising is irrefutable, even if the visual evidence is debatable. If ad agencies produce effective advertising material in categories 1 and 2, as they do, why should they stop there? It would seem eminently sensible, if marketing research supports the view that categories 3 and 4, and perhaps even 5 and 6, can be effective at influencing people, why should companies not renowned for their ethical standards not pursue these also.
One would not expect companies who adhere to high ethical standards or who rely upon literary means of persuasion to make use of such techniques. However there are many large companies who have no compunction about breaking laws, about producing goods that are strongly addictive, who target underage children, who treat all agreements and legislation as hurdles to be overcome. They put profits and self interest well before the interest of the general population. I refer of course to the major US and other tobacco companies.
I did not initially single out tobacco companies when I began collecting examples of semi-subliminal ads. It was only after a period of time I realized how extensive was their use of 'subliminal' advertising. This despite some indications that this might be the case from earlier readings of Wilson Bryan Key's books.
My attention was usually captured by aspects of ads in the level 2 category and recognition of ads with content in categories 3 and 4 were always problematical, as might be expected. The latter, in particular, also prove difficult to present to many other individuals and have undoubtedly been the source of some difficulties in recognizing the content of such ads. It is for this reason that various rating systems and supplementary information were considered to be However, the categorisation system seems sufficient to indicate the differences in confidence that exists.
As viewers will note most recent tobacco ads belong in categories 3 and 4 and perhaps even 5. Older cigarette ads give a strong indication of the extent to which manipulative techniques were used. Over time one can see that ads have moved towards more subtle and semi-subliminal levels. Additionally, it should become apparent that these ads do not rely for their effectiveness simply on the inclusion of the word sex or anything as simple as that. They are much more sophisticated and draw upon a wealth of knowledge of human behaviour, motivation, visual perception and thinking. A simple conclusion with simple examples should therefore not be expected.
We live in a world of meaning and the meanings that are associated with the manipulative and semi-subliminal aspects of cigarette advertising are multifaceted and complex. Do not underestimate those who produce them. And, to repeat, a parody initially presented on the Full Introduction page..............
Would you be interested in supporting the development of a web site focussing specifically on cigarette advertising, smoking behaviour, nicotine addiction and related information? In particular would you like to help encourage youngsters to develop a healthy scepticism about advertising practices associated with cigarette advertising and promotion? If you can offer either financial assistance to develop such a site or have material available that could be of use on such a site, the author would be pleased if you would contact him.
Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003