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Inside Subliminal Advertising


Inside Subliminal Advertising

Branding Strategy Insider helps marketing oriented leaders and professionals like you build strong brands. BSI readers know, we regularly answer questions from marketers everywhere. Today we hear from Kris, a Senior Marketing Executive in Tampa, Florida who has this question about subliminal advertising.

“Please describe the origins of subliminal advertising.”

Certainly Kris. The term “subliminal advertising” was coined to describe advertisements on television and in movie theaters that include extremely short duration text messages or images that are embedded into the advertisement to provoke a subconscious response from the consumer. Such messages are limited in duration by the refresh rate of television systems, but can be made much shorter with films by using a separate projector to flash extremely short duration messages.

The single test case that claimed to demonstrate the power of subliminal advertising was later exposed as a fraud, because the person performing the test falsified the results of the test. An audience at a theater was exposed to very short duration messages flashed onto the screen, encouraging people to purchase certain food products.

The theory was that people would subconsciously absorb the content of these messages (e.g., “Buy Sudz, it’s a great detergent”) and respond by selecting the product in stores. Testing has never demonstrated any such correlation. However, the level of fear generated by the concept of subconscious persuasion was so high that subliminal advertisements were strongly discouraged, even though they were rarely used, apart from testing audience reaction, and did not produce the desired results.

Subliminal advertising can be accomplished by embedding images within the advertisement itself. (As seen in a KFC ad above)  An image can be embedded or suggested in several ways, including manipulating the shapes of items shown in the ad, placing images on reflecting surfaces (e.g., in a background mirror in the shot), or distorting the image by viewing it through another medium (e.g., ripples on the water surface, behind a frosted glass window, through an ice cube). Some peculiar people have claimed that several popular children’s cartoons are full of ‘suggestive’ images intended to promote one or more (mythical) agendas of the producers.

Embedded advertising in the form of product placement has been used in film and television for decades. If the label on a bottle of Coca-Cola is visible, you can be sure that someone is paying for that exposure. Drinkers always order ‘beer’, but a brand name is rarely mentioned. Cars, clothing, drinks, food: all are embedded advertisements. On the other hand, products or their identifying labels might be obscured in some fashion to avoid displaying a company’s trademark without paying rights to the trademark holder.

It is still widely believed that subliminal advertising was made illegal in the USA. In fact, no such legislation was passed (although it was in a number of other countries including the UK and Australia).

We hope this is helpful Kris.

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1 Comment

Dennis Moons on October 22nd, 2009 said

The other day I read an article about research done at the University College London. One of the conclusions was that a bigger impact is achieved, on a subliminal level, by pointing out negative points of your competitors then in the case where you focus on your own qualities.


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