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What's Subliminal and What Isn't : Part I


 

Ryvita Ryvita thumbnail Absolut Vodka Absol Vodka thumbnail FCUK Fcuk thumbnail  Stella Artois Stella Artois thumbnail   

Marlboro Marlboro thumbnali Esquire logon Esquire magazine banner. Judas Priest Judas Priest article.

Remy MartinRemy Martin thumbnail.

 

Get it right, Esquire

Esquire magazine in October 1998 expressed what is a traditional and disparaging view ofEsquire magazine logon subliminal advertising.  The article, needless to say, also criticized the few individuals who take the time and trouble to draw attention to unethical advertising practices. Below is a reproduction of that article.

"Hidden in much advertising, if you know where to look, are images that will make your hair stand on end: severed heads, gargoyles, snakes, genitalia...Alternatively, you might spot taboo words like 'sex', 'fuck' and 'death'. This, at least, is what the Great Advertising Conspiracy Theorists believe. These people espy evil on every street hoarding, throughout weekly colour supplements, and even, yes, in glossy magazines like this one. The advertising industry, they claim, is bent on controlling our minds. By peering through magnifying glasses at ordinary printed ads they have discovered an extraordinary collection of horrors. In a Ryvita ad (illustrated below), for example, they found an ugly, fat woman hidden in the corner of the image. More shocking still, Benson and Hedges 'Venus fly trap' ad showed a crucifixion, a headless Christ and a cowled Mary. And in an ad for John Player Special, you can see the Face of the Damned.

Quite what these images are meant to do to us is not clear. Agencies, of course, say the subliminal messages are simply printing effects or the result of overactive imaginations.

One second commercials are the latest attempt to cut costs. They are not illegal like subliminal ads, and they are already in use in the US"

 Ryvita ad

On the left is an illustration of the ad referred to in the Esquire article. Underneath the ad is the 'blown up' image of the fat lady. It is not very distinct but the rollover provides an indication of where to look.

For those not accustomed to identifying semi-subliminal images embedded in other images, note that the face of the woman is to the left-of-centre at the top, and she is facing to the left.  As this is a copy of a copy and the screen resolution mitigates against clear reproduction, you may have to look at a blown-up version of this thumbnail illustration before you can identify the figure as a woman.  But this aside, the Esquire article is so crock-full of errors that it doesn't really deserve commentary. However as it is typical of the type of article that endorses a number of fallacies about subliminal advertising these need to be countered.

Esquire magazine logonFirst, subliminal advertising is not illegal in the UK nor the US, despite public (and professional) beliefs to the contrary. There is some legislation in both the UK and US concerning TV but none concerning printed advertising. See the Flickers page for more information on this subject and ASA for professional view from UK. advertising professionals.

Esquire magazine logonSecond, although professional guidelines generally state official disapproval of 'subliminal' techniques they are not banned. Commentators often state that such bans attempt to ban something that doesn't exist. Bodies such as the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), who are responsible for enforcing guidelines in the UK, are, of course, drawn from the companies who produce the ads. Other members of such bodies have no professional interest in whether advertising is ASA logosubliminal or not. Truly subliminal advertising, if it exists, could not be seen. But as this web site demonstrates there is a considerable amount of semi-subliminal or marginally perceptible advertising*. The ASA pages indicate only too clearly that the ASA has no interest in policing this topic. This may not be as surprising as it seems. It is not within their remit.

Perhaps it is being too critical to ask if one can justifiably be both poacher and gamekeeper at the same time. The members of the Advertising Standards Authority believes they are doing a good job in keeping advertising agencies 'in line' with what the public expects of responsible advertising. The ASA also has statistical evidence to support its view.  But whether the ASA is doing a good job where semi-subliminal and other types of manipulative and covert advertising such as semi-subliminal advertising is concerned is a moot point.

As the numerous examples on this web site demonstrate there seems little doubt that techniques approaching those of the truly subliminal are in use by major companies. Conspiracy theories, as mentioned in the Esquire article, don't really come in to the reckoning. cover of Subliminal SeductionMentioning such theories is simply one of the many red herrings regularly dished out by the advertising agencies and their spokespersons. The author of this web site believes that reporters who write about such a complex subject ought to learn a bit more it before they write articles bout it, especially short articles. A starting point would be one of the few books on the subject and a review of the academic literature on related subjects such as subliminal perception.

Red herrings are regularly spun off by members of the advertising profession. In part they may be genuine attempts to dissuade members of the public to believe in processes that the spokesperson does not believe are practiced. In others, they are merely attempts to disguise the existence of semi-subliminal advertising (and perhaps even subliminal advertising).

Although there is no grand conspiracy to manipulate the minds of viewers of semi-subliminal advertising, it is true that there is often collusion against the interests of consumers. For example, there has been collusion between major tobacco companies with regard to the sharing of knowledge about the effectiveness of different advertising campaigns. For more information on the 'The Big Conspiracy' see the Top Secret page.

Esquire magazine logonThirdly, 'subliminal' ads, or semi-subliminal ads to give them a more appropriate label, are not simply figments of the imagination as the Esquire article implies. Imagination does, however, have a role to play in this process and this is provided on the Imagination page. Imagination is required if one is to perceive anything, not simply those aspects of the visual world that are on the borderline of perceptual ability. Again 'throwaway' comments to the effect that critics are simply fabricating images on the basis of their imagination are useful red herrings to throw the public 'off the track'.

Perceiving semi-subliminal images depends upon the ability of the viewer to make sense of an incomplete or ambiguous set of cues implanted. Where semi-subliminal ads are concerned the relevant cues have been placed by employees of the ad agencies. The fat lady in the Ryvita ad is a perfect example. The cues indicating the presence of a figure are apparent - even though the fat lady is not presented in entirety, as would be the case in a photograph. She is presented using the type of marginal clues one would find in a cartoon or a caricature - and there are plenty of these in Esquire and no-one states these are simply figments of the imagination. Although much less evident than in cartoons, there are sufficient cues to allow any perceptive individual to come to the conclusion that a 'fat lady' is represented in the Ryvita ad.

If the recognition of such embedded artwork occurs without conscious awareness - as it seemingly does - then it seems possible that repeated exposure to similar messages will influence, to some degree, whoever is viewing the ads. The goal in most cases is to influence the emotions and judgements of the viewer without the viewer being aware of this fact.

Esquire magazine logonF ourthly to state that perceiving such ads is due to an overactive imagination is simply another means of fobbing 'people off'. By 'telling people to ignore such ads', and stating that only 'crackpots' investigate them with magnifying glasses, they imply that any viewer taking an interest in them is 'odd'. Such article title: Subliminal ad tactics etcindividuals can expect to be vilified.

There is nothing inherently odd about investigating unethical behaviour. However by suggesting that it is odd is one means by which the advertising profession and others who benefit from expenditure on semi-subliminal advertising can keep the public 'in the dark'.

There are in fact sound psychological reasons why

  • such ads are difficult to perceive
  • why they require careful consideration before they can be detected (though it is not normally a good idea to make use of magnifying glasses. Simply magnifying images rarely helps one to recognize what is inherently ambiguous.)
  • and why such images may influence individuals without their being aware of this influence

It is not possible to go into all of the research that underpins these points. Background information and relevant examples can be found on the following pages: Psychology, Imagination, TopSecret. In addition viewers are referred to various journal articles and relevant books for further information e.g. Preconscious Processing by Norman Dixon. A full list of titles can be found in the cover of Preconscious ProcessingBibliography. And some extracts from Sexy, Subliminal and Deadly?: The Psychology of Manipulative Advertising (in preparation) provide additional information and examples.

There is an important distinction that needs to be made between (truly) subliminal advertising and semi-subliminal advertising but, for the present, one need not consider this in detail. Nor need one wonder why ad agencies make such a big issue out of the fact that 'subliminal ads' don't exist, whilst at the same time stating that the best way to deal with the problem is to ignore it i.e. refuse to discuss it. Simply accept that dismissal and personal attacks are a standard defensive technique in advertising. It is, after all, commonly noted that attack is the best form of defence.

A variation on the personal vilification technique simply revolves around incorporating criticism into advertising, whilst meanwhile disparaging or poking fun at critics. See the Click for a larger, floating, image. Red Kamel ad featuring an usherette examples on the Ads from the Archives page. In effect, it is chequebook censorship and an attempt at 'technological control' of public attitudes and behaviour.

Big ad budgets can usually 'outgun' any critic any day and get their message across to the public. Hopefully, the dissemination of accurate information via the WWW might curtail, if not end, this monopoly of media power and influence. There is, obviously still a problem for viewers in determining what information on the Internet is accurate and valid.

In the absence of any objective means of determining the truth of the author's arguments I would suggest five factors ought to be taken into account.

1) self interest, what are the benefits I can obtain from producing these web pages?

2) your common sense.

3) the internal consistency of the argument presented here.

4) the nature of the companies producing the adverts illustrated on this site.

5) the type of arguments presented by myself and those who disparage critics.

Ultimately, since the Subliminal World site provides a considerable body of examples, more objective evidence should become available. The examples range from the subtle to the relatively obvious. Experiments by psychologists and psychology students making use of these materials will also help provide more objective judgements as to what is semi-subliminal advertising and what is not. Additionally, they will be able to determine whether and to what extent such advertising is capable of influencing people. And who, if anyone, is influenced.

In the meantime, it should be acknowledged that articles such as the Esquire article are simply means of drawing unwitting individuals, who have little knowledge of the topic, into a collusive state with advertisers. The advertising spokespersons and reporters, in effect, ask the viewer to share the viewpoint of the advertising profession. If the viewer falls for the half-baked line of argument evident in the Esquire article then both viewer and ad agency seem to share the 'high ground' of 'knowing' that subliminal ads don't exist. The implication is that only those who delude themselves are subject to the belief that such ads exist. Oh, happy days!

Regrettably, the author of these pages shares these so-called delusions with a small number of other critics of unethical advertising companies and their clients. He invites you to join him. The ads below and those on the other pages of this Web Site clearly Cheshire cat. demonstrate why.  Initially you may feel that semi-subliminal elements in ads are a bit like the Cheshire cat.  However, unlike the fictional cat, semi-subliminal elements of the ads are very real, even if difficult to perceive. Given some practice the semi-subliminal contents become as visible as the different facets of standard visual illusions, with which they share some of the same properties.

*Note: this does not mean that truly subliminal advertising is not being used by some companies.  If they were, then there is no means by which an ordinary member of the public could detect this.  Some companies have used advertising that is much less detectable than the examples on these pages - and many of these will not be obvious to viewers.  These companies may have also 'crossed the borderline' and also be using subliminal advertising.   However, to the author's knowledge the only consistent use that is made of truly subliminal techniques tends to occur within the audio domain, where audio cassette tapes are used. For further information about the lack of effectiveness of subliminal messages on audio cassette tapes see the summary of the report compiled by the British Psychology Society (Edited by Howe, M.J.A. et al).

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False Alarm ?

Remy Martin ad.This Remy Martin ad is the equivalent of the type of ad identified by Sutherland, M. & Sylvester, A.K. in their book Advertising and the Mind of the Consumer: What works, what doesn't and why as subliminal. In fact, on the basis of the feature that they identify in their book, it is not even semi-subliminal in nature. The crucial element in the ad so far as they are concerned would be the appearance of the company logo - the Centaur - in a format that is compatible with the overall image. In this case the logo is formed from party streamers, in others from smoke, liquid and other substances.

The Centaur is best considered as falling within the category of unattended stimuli: it is clearly visible when attended to and may not be noticed otherwise. Additionally there is no meaning attached to the image unless one has knowledge of mythology: the figure simply reinforces the brand logo. Additionally it is the same from ad to ad. Such obvious repetition does not form part of the standard battery of 'subliminal' techniques. Semi-subliminal ads, and most other manipulative ads, aim to trigger emotional responses or form a mental association Extract from Remy Martin ad.between some emotive/motivational element and the brand/product. Neither factor operates here. At best the figure is a distraction from something that may be more emotive.

More in tune with any search for semi-subliminal content is the glass being held by the young woman. In it one can discern the sketched outlines of two rather inebriated individuals. The 'ice cube' on the left is clearly male, the other 'cube' seems more like a teddy bear. The message would seem to be 'it is alright to get stonkered, drunk, pissed, merry or whatever' if you are drink Remy Martin Champagne Cognac.

Go on, drink the whole bottle! You would never be influenced by such advertising would you?

The Centaur is thus clearly positioned to function as a distracting figure whose aim is to distract attention from the glass with the inebriated figures. This glass and its contents would be the first aspect of the ad a viewer would see as they turned the page. They would be unlikely to notice the contents, judging it simply to be a full glass also containing some ice cubes. However, shortly afterwards their attention is likely to be captured by the party ribbons and the Centaur, preventing attention returning to the glass. In psychological jargon this would be an example of 'backwards masking' in which a second image prevents one becoming consciously aware of the image presented immediately beforehand. See the psychology pages for more of the psychology lying behind semi-subliminal and other manipulative ad techniques.

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Absolut Nonsense

Click for a larger, floating, image. Spoof subliminal ad from Absolut.You probably remember having seen this Absolut Subliminal ad at some time or other.  Embedded in the ice is a very faint message and if you look carefully enough you will note, in partially displayed capital letters the words Absolut Vodka. This, however, isn't a subliminal ad.

The reason it isn't is because your attention is drawn to the fact that there is a subliminal message in the ad.  Additionally, because the lettering is visible and attention was drawn to it, the message does not function in the same manner as other ostensibly subliminal, but actually semi-subliminal, messages.  In this instance the ad should be seen as a parody of true subliminal advertising, should such advertising really exist.

The Absolut Vodka ad functions pretty much the same way as the AAAA and Seagram's ads analysed in Ads from the Archives. However, since it does no more than 'take the mickey' it is possible that whoever drew up the Vodka ad knew relatively little Click for a larger, floating, image.  Seagram's ad with lower portion of 'face'. about the subject of semi-subliminal art. Another Absolut ad receives some attention later on this page, where it is pointed out that the ad is probably more meaningful than first attention would indicate.

The same could not be said for whoever produced the AAAA ad. They attempted to 'put down' critics of the advertising profession, claiming that 'subliminal' techniques were not used. At the same time their ads made use of the same techniques that they claimed did not exist. And, of course, this non existant technique was put to good use by the Absolut ad team.

Now just imagine what would be the outcome if your attention had not been drawn to the lettering in the ice cube. You would most likely think that if you did not notice it then it could not influence you. You might be wrong. I emphasize the word might simply because there is no academic evidence to indicate that unattended 'subliminal' information influences behaviour. However, one should be cautious on this question of influence. Many of the world's largest and most influential ad agencies have been making use of this technique for years. Would they be doing so if it did not benefit them by influencing some consumers? You can decide after viewing a variety of the ads on this site.

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  FCUK AdvertisingAnimated Tweetybird

Fcuk ad with spoof subliminal contentAn advert with the same slogan as the heading of this section offended the members of the Advertising Standards Authority in 1998. It was criticized on the grounds that it could bring the advertising profession into disrepute.  Hmmm. 

FCUK, a registered brand of French Connection UK, have continued to produce advertising of dubious quality.   They would claim that such advertising will appeal to the mentality of readers of Loaded and similar magazines. The same ads appear in American magazines directed towards young woman.  Basically the theme is intended to be somewhat controversial, counterculture and antiestablishment, appealing to the younger consumers who believe they are not influenced by advertising.   The ads 'draw them in' to what seems to be a shared critique of conventional advertising.   Encouraging the identification of individuals who reject advertising indicates how sophisticated and subtle such ads are. Despite their overt crudity and sexist nature they are effective. However, when they make use of the word subliminal in this specific ad it should not be taken at face value.

Apparently sharing the same relatively uninformed knowledge base as the Esquire article with which we started, the FCUK ad draws upon public awareness of the field of subliminal advertising. But it is not a subliminal ad. What it does, however, is align the letters s e and x from the three words in the caption to emphasize that sex and subliminal advertising go together like cheese and biscuits. Sex, however, is the key element in this and other FCUK ads. In this instance, the result is also to demean the model and treat her as if she were simply a sex object. Her face is not shown.  She is therefore a non-person.   

Other FCUK ads make use of various techniques that are common in ads containing semi-subliminal images to present other tasteless messages to viewers. For example the 'word' CARSES was printed on the right hand page of a magazine. This is likely to be read as ARSES until the C comes into view.  FCUK this for a lark might well be ones considered response. 

Such ads are tasteless but they are not illegal, nor indecent, nor untruthful nor Seagram's addishonest - nor are they subliminal.   They would not even qualify as semi-subliminal as they overtly draw attention to the 'hidden' aspect of the advert. They do not misdirect as is the case with the Seagram's ads noted above and others elsewhere on this web site. 

Other than on the grounds of bringing the ad profession into disrepute, the ASA has no ability to prevent FCUK producing such advertising material as they do not wish to become censors.  So be prepared for more and more of such ads if they are perceived to be the means of appealing to the younger generation of consumers. Additionally, since the public is becoming accustomed to seeing 'subliminal advertising' as a joke and a subject around which to hang non subliminal ads, be prepared for the continuing use of semi-subliminal material. That is ads that are in some respects the equivalent of those for Absolut and FCUK but in which no attempt is made to draw viewers attention to potentially meaningful aspects of the ad. Such ads might as well be subliminal because if they have any impact on viewers the viewer will be unaware of the source of influence.

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Thank Stella for the memories

Click for a larger, floating, image. Stella Artois ad with 'condensed sex'.Unlike the previous two ads, this ad for Stella Artois contains a semi-subliminal message, yet it is easier to perceive than either the Absolut Vodka in the ice cubes or the alignment of sex in the FCUK ad. Or at least this is the case in retrospect.  Despite being clearly visible, the embedded message in this ad is usually overlooked in practice because attention is not drawn to it.

Viewers are normally only aware of a beer glass surrounded by pools of liquid and the ad caption. But, in some instances, despite claiming not to have noticed it, they will have been influenced by semi-subliminal information presented by the pools of liquid. See if you can detect what I mean.

Despite being asked to look at the pools of condensation you probably have not noticed that they spell out the word sex. The letters SeX are, admittedly, upside down. This does not necessarily mean that you did not register this information in your memory. In (unsystematic) classroom studies I have noticed on a number of occasions, when students are asked to describe the contents of this ad, that they often describe the ad (or the Stella Artois  condensation in the form of letters.glass) as sexy. Yet when asked why, they cannot state the reason why they chose this word. The reason for their choice is seemingly the 'lettering' in the ad. Click here for more info on this ad.

animated Garfield.This type of unwitting description parallels the outcomes of experiments where subjects are presented with subliminal information i.e. information presented for extremely short periods of time so that it does not register on the visual system sufficiently strongly to lead to conscious awareness.  Despite claiming they have not seen whatever had been presented to them, people in such circumstances give responses to subsequent tests that are apparently influenced by the 'unseen' information.

Whether one wishes to call the Stella Artois ad a subliminal ad or a semi-subliminal ad, it seemingly had the capacity to influence viewers in a manner that would be judged positive by whoever produced the ad (see Detect for additional commentary). If the other ads illustrated on this site also lead to an iota of change then one would be forced to conclude that such ads influence people without their being aware of that fact. This is something that both psychologists and advertising professionals deny can happen.

Existing evidence does not focus on advertising. Any statements regarding such British Psychological Society booklet coverevidence are merely extrapolations from conclusions of studies focussing on subliminal perception and the influence of subliminal audio messages. More work needs to be carried out to address the effect of the semi-subliminal ads illustrated here rather than continuing to focus on subliminal issues. Concern with subliminal advertising (whatever that may be) is another means of distracting public attention from what advertisers actually do. Disingenuous denials merely help advertising agencies continue their usage of the type of ads illustrated on the subsequent pages.

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Building a case

Semi-subliminal ads are relatively common in the advertising of some product animated wolf howlingranges. But note that one-off examples cannot make a strong case, any more than 'one swallow makes a summer'. In the absence of any social consensus that such ads exist, to produce the beginnings of a watertight case there needs to be demonstrable proof that such techniques exist and have been used consistently over a period of time. These Web pages cannot provide more than the rudiments of a case. However, there is more than ample proof recorded in the pages of Sexy, Subliminal and Deadly?: the psychology of manipulative advertising to satisfy the most rabid critic. Without such evidence then one might as well be baying at a semi-subliminal moon.

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  Virtually subliminal ads

There are ads that contain semi-subliminal content that are very close to the truly Click for a larger, floating, image. Marlboro ad: If Duane's listening. We've found your cow. subliminal. These are generally too subtle to be portrayed on the Web. View for instance the original versions of many Marlboro ads, including the ad on the right. Embedded in the clouds, the cliff faces or the ground, are 'faces' reminiscent of the breed referred to in the Esquire article as The Damned. One can accept either that such faces are the result of paranoid thinking or that they are, in fact, artistic representations of The Damned, the type of face one finds in films like Night of the Living Dead.

This is a typical Marlboro ad. It seems to be telling a story about the Duane and his cow. However, the range that is referred to on the roof of the wooden shack could equally be considered to be 'within radio range'. Almost hidden from view, even in the printed version, is a squadron of helicopters. Could the reference to Duane and his cow be a veiled reference to the fact that trigger happy air gunners who went 'Cattle Crazy' in Vietnam were quite happy to shoot at anything that moved, cows included.

The ad is clearly rather sombre, either the sun is rising or setting. But adding to the enlarged  extract from Marlboro adsombre feel is at least a couple of 'faces' of the type referred to above. Situated in the foreground, underneath where the helicopters are there are two figures. These figures have no outline and could be considered as representations of troopers from the Star Wars, warriors from the Predator movies or, more likely, dead and decaying individuals. Such interpretations would gain strength if the helicopters were perceived as military helicopters. The conclusion one is drawn to is that this ad is destined to appeal to ex soldiers and also a younger generation with a fixation on the military and Star Wars movies. Bear in mind, as usual, that the rollover can only give an indication of the figure that is illustrated. Perceptual processes can 'give' 3 dimensional depth and 'solidity' to an ambiguous figure. The rollover can only roughly outline the area containing the core elements.

One final point needs to be made about this ad. It contains stimuli intended to trigger smoking activity and serve as a reminder that smoking can be used to control the anxiety. The cues might be most appropriate for ex US soldiers or airmen because of the helicopters in the backgound but some aspects would be relevant to any susceptible individual.

Note that the hut 'is smoking'. The left hand side of the hut contain an arrangement of features such that is is almost like a face. There are a pair of lopsided 'eyes' (the eye on the right is tearful), a 'runny nose', and a square 'mouth'. And, in perfect alignment with the 'box' that represents the lower 'lip' of the mouth, there is something projecting from behind the hut. If you consider this as an extension of the box, as was intended, then the hut has a cigarette in its mouth, it 'is smoking'.

Because of the ambiguous nature of such semi-subliminal elements it would be difficult but not impossible to prove to public satisfaction that such embedding is intentional occurs. But one test to demonstrate that this type of advertising does exist and has the potential to influence people would be to take a series of Marlboro ads in which it is reported that there are faces embedded in rocks, clouds, etc. The sections of the ad containing the faces should be cut out. Likewise an equivalent number of cut-outs of similar selections of clouds, rocks, etc. should also be cut from other ads. If one can obtain similar types of magazines then the print quality and other factors should be equivalent and the only difference ought to be that Marlboro ads contain embedded 'faces' the non Marlboro ads do not.

The Marlboro and other set of cut-outs should be mixed. Naive individuals who know nothing about the origins of the cut-outs should be asked to sort them into two sets. They can be given instructions to find 'faces'. Alternatively they could simply be asked to make the selection (technically known as a Q sort) on the basis of any characteristics that they can observe. If faces (or some other notable feature) were only detected in Marlboro ads this should influence the sorting. If this occurred then it would constitute strong statistical evidence that the Marlboro ads were distinctly different from the others (had been artistically altered). It would not determine that the features actually were 'faces'. But such a result would tend to indicate that recognition of the 'faces' did not simply rely upon 'imagination'. For other information about possible experiments see the Experiments page.

See also the Page on Detecting semi-subliminal Ads.

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  Something you cannot see at all

For a truly subliminal message, once you have had enough of these pages, pop across to Microsoft Humor by Gimmick. Check the links page from the Contents list for an up-to-date URL. This offers you the chance to 'see' a truly subliminal message. You get to see it , not because of supernormal perceptual skills but because the site uses HTM technology to 'switch on' the aspects of the message that Judas priest articlewould normally not be perceived. 

You might also like to consider the case of subliminal and embedded messages in audio and CD music tracks.  See the Judas Priest page and, additionally, or Flickers for additional information and links to pertinent sites.

 

 

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From the subliminal to the Meta-subliminal

Over the years, there has been a slowly developing set of critical commentaries on the nature of subliminal advertising. Some have come from academics, usually emphasising subliminal perception rather than subliminal advertising. Others have come from media critics and commentators. These provide useful indications of how many members of the advertising profession are aware of subliminal advertising. They also show how advertising professionals make use of their knowledge and that of the public to justify what Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller call Meta subliminal ads. Numerous examples of meta subliminal ads can be found in their book Design Writing Research: Writing on Graphic Design. Many of the examples on this page fall into this category.

Meta subliminal ads are those which take a tongue in cheek, self reflexive, look at what are deemed to be old fashioned advertising strategies i.e. what Wilson Key called subliminal advertising. The Seagram's 7 ad.Absolut Advocat ad up above is a typical example. Lupton and Miller include other examples, including those illustrated here for Seagram's 7 and Absolut Vodka.

Note that the rollover for this second Absolut ad indicates that Absolut ads may not simply be self reflexive, tongue in cheek, commentaries.

In the centre of the bottle is a figure reminiscent of Aboriginal art - and he has a rather long 'didgeridoo'. And, on the Ads from the Archives page, a number of other Seagram's ads are also demonstrated to be 'two faced' in terms of meaning. They are indeed self reflexive and poke fun at subliminal techniques. But they Absolut rollover showing 'figure' in centre.are also manipulative in that they make use of techniques that the viewer is not made aware of. It is the contention of the author of this web site that it is often the semi subliminal aspects of ads that capture the attention of authors writing about subliminal advertising when they select illustrations for their books i.e. they are influenced by those aspects of the ads that they are not consciously aware of. This phenomenon leads to a disproportionate number of ads containing semi subliminal components and has also been noticed in the illustrations accompanying discussions or critiques of subliminal advertising in various textbooks including textbooks on consumer behaviour.

However, along with some of the authors cited on the Experts page, Lupton and Miller are among the few who acknowledge that subliminal advertising does exist and do not confuse it with subliminal perception. One is nevertheless left wondering how they define such advertising. Is it in terms of truly subliminal, or in terms of the examples cited on this siteand as discussed extensively by Wilson Key i.e. semi-subliminal. By implication is seems to be the latter, although they provide no examples in their book chapter on the subject.

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From the subliminal to the semi-subliminal

Critics of the advertising profession who attempt to 'hoist the advertising high' on the basis of attacks on subliminal ads are often 'flogging a dead horse'. Quibbles and reasoned argument about what is and what is not subliminal advertising bog down the argument too easily. The present author believes that a more readily identifiable target  is necessary if consumers are to effectively bring advertising agencies and their clients 'to heel'.

It is, in effect, time for a 'change of emphasis'.   The focus on subliminal advertising is past its 'sell by date' because the ads in question are not really subliminal - as noted above.  It is semi-subliminal advertising that is ripe for exposure.  A change in terminology would help avoid many of the problems that are associated with 'subliminal' terminology. A change would also make the subject seem less esoteric and provide the vehicle necessary to bring public censure upon those companies making use of manipulative and unethical techniques on the borderline of perceptual ability.

In some cases compensation may also be justified if ads such as the Marlboro ad up above are effective at influencing some individuals. There is little doubt that such advertising breaches the spirit of all professional guidelines, even if it does not breach formally stated guidelines. Those individuals who believe that they might have been influenced by tobacco and spirits advertising, for example, may justly claim that their addiction to smoking or alcohol may not have simply been the result of freedom of choice. However, as indicated above, the jury has not yet been 'called in'. Evidence regarding the effectiveness, if there is any, lies solely in the archives of the agencies and companies who produce such ads. Academic reports to the contrary, psychologists and others have yet to produce any worthwhile evidence regarding semi-subliminal advertising. Psychologists tend to focus on subliminal perception and this can only be related to advertising by the process of extrapolation. And extrapolation from psychological and other fields of research still leave considerable doubts as to the ability of subliminal material to influence behaviour but relatively little doubt with about the ability to influence thinking. However, one can also say that about advertising in general. And we, of course, are concerned with semi-subliminal advertising, advertising that is close to being subliminal but actually isn't.

Read on and make up your mind as to what needs to be done next. Start with the Ads of the Month or TopSecret or whatever (TopSecret is 'heavier' than the other two) and 'follow your nose'. The pages noted are reasonably comprehensive and contain a variety of semi-subliminal and otherwise manipulative ads.

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Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003

 

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