Subliminal Messages in Advertising: The Case Forand Against Lisa Caswell Syracuse UniversityRunning Head: Subliminal Messages Subliminalmessaging and subliminal perception arecontroversial topics in the field of psychology.Many studies have been conducted to determine ifsubliminal messaging does in fact work.
Manypeople think that subliminal messages in the field ofadvertising are much more successful thansubliminal messages for self-improvement, such astapes sold to help the consumer lose weight, gainintelligence, or do something else to improvethemselves simply by listening to a tape. Subliminaladvertising can be defined as “embedding materialin print, audio, or video messages so faintly thatthey are not consciously perceived.” Rogers andSmith (1993) surveyed 400 households. Whenasked if they believed advertisers deliberatelyincluded subliminal messages, 61.5% responded’yes’. A 72.2% ‘yes’ answer was obtained whenasked if subliminal advertisements were effective.Based on these results, it can be concluded thatconsumers are aware of subliminal advertising, andbelieve it is effectively used by advertisers toinfluence their decisions.
The term “sub-thresholdeffects,” first popularized by Packard in 1957,preceded the popular notion of “subliminaladvertising,” whose originator is James Vicary.Subliminal advertising first came to the public’sattention in 1957 when Jim Vicary conducted asubliminal advertising strategy of interspersing”drink Coca-Cola” and “eat popcorn” messageson a movie screen so quickly that they could notbe seen consciously by the audience. His researchinitially reported increases in the sales of bothCoca-Cola and popcorn as a result of thesubliminal messages. Later, however, when hewas challenged and could not replicate or evenproduce the results, Vicary admitted that theresults of the initial study had been fabricated(Weir, 1984). Key (1989) has more recentlyclaimed that hidden or embedded messages arewidespread and effective.
Key’s theories havebeen widely discredited by scholars who haveexamined marketing applications scientifically(Moore, 1982). Although a few scholarly studieshave reported certain limited effects of exposureto subliminal stimuli in laboratory settings(Greenwald, Klinger, and Liu, 1989), mostacademic researchers on the subject havereported findings which indicate no practical orpredictable effect in an advertising setting (Dixon,1971). The 1957 Vicary study has been largelydisregarded in the scholarly community due to lackof scientific documentation of methodology andfailure to replicate.
However, scholarly findingsand industry assertions may have had little or noeffect on the average American, who has beenexposed to popular articles and books promotingthe notion that subliminal advertising is used and iseffective. In addition, Americans have beenexposed to advertisements claiming that self-helpaudio-tapes and videotapes containing subliminalmaterials can help the purchaser with weight loss,better relationships, an improved golf game,quitting smoking, and even birth control.Awareness of Subliminal Messaging by the PublicMany in the public are aware of the term”subliminal advertising,” understand the basics ofthe concept, and believe it not only is used byadvertisers but is also successful in influencingbrand and purchase choice. Shortly after theVicary study was brought to the public’s attention(Brean, 1958), Haber (1959) sought to discern”exactly what the public believes about subliminaladvertising when so little factual information isavailable.” Results of this study determined that 41percent of 324 respondents had heard ofsubliminal advertising, and although half believed itto be “unethical,” 67 percent stated that theywould still watch a television program even if theybelieved subliminal messages were embedded inthe commercials. Two decades later, a survey of209 adults conducted by Zanot, Pincus, and Lamp(1983) reported double the awareness levels ofthe Haber study. The Zanot survey concluded that81 percent had heard of subliminal advertising andthat “respondents believe that subliminaladvertising is widely and frequently used and that itis successful in selling products.” The same surveydetermined that educational level is thedemographic variable most highly correlated withawareness of subliminal advertising; the moreeducated the respondent, the more likely he or sheis to be aware of the phenomenon.
A study byRogers and Smith (1993) found that the moreeducation a person has (and therefore the moreopportunity to learn of the limitations of thesubliminal persuasion phenomenon), the morelikely one is to believe that subliminal advertising”works.” A 1985 study by Block and VandenBergh surveying consumers’ attitudes toward useof subliminal techniques for self-improvementfound some consumer skepticism and reportedmore favorable attitudes among those who wereless educated and younger. Three surveysconducted in the past decade have demonstratedthat a majority of American adults are aware of”subliminal advertising” and believe advertiserssometimes use it to sell products. The threesurveys spanned a broad geographic spectrum(Washington, D.C.; Honolulu, Hawaii; andToledo, Ohio). All three surveys opened withquestions that determined whether the respondentwas aware of subliminal advertising anddetermined whether or not basic knowledge waspresent and sufficient for continued discussion.Remaining questions in all three surveys assessedbeliefs about the phenomenon, as distinguishedfrom knowledge.
Each study covered slightlydifferent ground. Each was subject to differentlimitations, yet all three produced similar findings.All three surveys found similar proportions whowere aware of subliminal advertising, whobelieved that it is used by advertisers, and whothought that it “works” to help marketers sellproducts. Awareness of Subliminal Messaging bythe Advertising Industry A survey of advertisingagency members, their clients and mediaproduction professionals was conducted byRogers and Seiler (1994) as to whether or notthey have ever used, or been connected with afirm that used, subliminal advertising. Based on aresponse rate of 36 percent, the reaction wasnearly unanimously negative, and evidencesuggests that the few positive responses were dueto a misunderstanding of the term “subliminaladvertising.” The results revealed that the majoritydenied ever using this advertising strategy, despitethe public’s fears of this method of ‘brainwashing.’In addition, a significant part of the minority thatanswered in the affirmative is shown to havemisinterpreted ‘subliminal’ as ‘subtle.’ Theadvertising industry trade press has for decadesridiculed the notion of using hidden or embeddedmessages in advertisements.
A significantpercentage (75 to 80 percent) of the U. S.population believes that advertising agencies andthe companies they represent purposely usesubliminal advertising. These consumers alsobelieve that subliminal advertising actually “works”even though research studies have shown that nosignificant effects can be identified as a result ofusing subliminal imagery in advertisements (Rosenand Singh, 1992). Consumers spend about 50million dollars a year on subliminal self-helpproducts (Krajick, 1990). Scholars haveresearched advertisements with subliminalmessages embedded in them and their effects(Beatty and Hawkins, 1989). These studies havegenerally refuted the possibility of elicitingpredictable responses that could be useful tomarketers.
No one has tried to determine whetherthe advertising community has deliberately utilizedsubliminal messages (Kelly, 1979; Dudley, 1987).The advertising industry has repeatedly denied theuse of subliminal embeds, and spokespersonswithin the industry have used such common-sensearguments against its probable use as: “Ifsubliminals worked, wouldn’t there be textbookson how to practice it?” and “How can showingsomeone a penis get him or her to switch, say,from Kent (cigarettes) to Marlboro?” (Kanner,1989). Wilson Bryan Key’s (1972, 1976, 1980,1989) writings, and frequent public-speakingpresentations, may have served to promote theconcept and purported use of subliminalpersuasion by advertisers.
While his theories havebeen widely discredited by scholars (Moore,1982), his writings still appeal to consumers andkeep the question current: do advertisers usesubliminal advertising purposely in order to elicit apredictable response by consumers? Kelly (1979)asserts that this question is extremely important butunanswered by existing research, which focuseson whether subliminal advertising might beeffective if it were used, and not on whether it isused deliberately. One way of identifying whetherin agencies and the client companies theyrepresent consciously use subliminal advertising tohelp sell their products is to survey them. It wasnot until 1984 that a formal research study wasundertaken to determine if advertisers purposelyused subliminal embeds as an advertising strategy.In his survey of 100 advertising agency artdirectors, Haberstroh (1984) inquired whether anyof these art directors had ever deliberatelyembedded, supervised an embedding, or hadknowledge of an embedding of a subliminalmessage in advertising artwork for a client.
Hisfindings indicated that, of the 47 usable responses,only 2 answered “yes” to any of the questions.When he checked open-ended explanations bythese two respondents, he determined there wasconfusion on the part of the respondents to theimplied definition of “subliminal embeds” and that,apparently, none of the 47 participants had everused subliminal messages (Haberstroh, 1984). TheAffects of Subliminal Messaging Vokey and Read(1985) were unable to find any evidence tosupport the claim that subliminal messages affectbehavior in their study. Key is a major figure in theargument that subliminal messaging not onlyoccurs, but is also effective. Key claims that avariety of subliminal techniques are used tocapitalize upon the public’s obsession with sex.These include the obvious use of sexual imagerywithin the verbal and pictorial content ofadvertisements. Examples of Key’s researchinclude both the Playboy ads and the rum pictorialads.
Key asserts that the subliminal sexual imageryincluded in a Playboy magazine advertisementdepicting a naked woman effectively renders thead more memorable. He stated that about 95% ofcollege males remembered viewing this ad anentire month later. It is also possible that thecollege students would have remembered the adequally well without the embedded imagery.
Thereis ample data to demonstrate that college studentscan likely recognize 95% of even relativelyextensive sets of pictures shown to them. In thecase of the rum ads, Key felt that the explanationfor an overwhelming preference for a particularbrand of rum is the embedded presence of thephrase “u buy” in a pictorial ad depicting fourtypes of rum. No researcher since has been ableto find the message in the ad. Key claims that 80%of the subjects in his studies unconsciouslyperceived the backward message, resulting in amarked preference for the rum with the message.Key refuses to believe that the fact that thepreferred rum is the only one with the words”extra special” written on the bottle, or that it ismuch darker than the others and presented in ahigh-status brandy-snifter in a larger bottle hasanything to do with the preference. A study byVokey and Read (1985) was conducted to testKey’s hypothesis on the embedding of sexualmessages on images.
Participants in the studyrecognized the images imbedded with sexualimagery, random imagery, and no imagery at thesame rate. Key suggested that it often takes atleast a day to see the effect of the subliminalmaterial. Vokey and Read waited two days andfound that the participants who waited the twodays to indicate what slides they had previouslyseen remembered less than those who indicatedwhat slides they had seen immediately. Everyresult in the study disagreed with Key and hisideas regarding subliminal messages. It is difficultto believe that while there has been so muchresearch completed proving that not only aresubliminal messages not used, but that subliminalmessages are completely ineffective in changing orinfluencing behavior, the public so stronglybelieves in the influence. After all the research, thepublic still fears subliminal messages and theeffects they could have.
Psychologists must workto educate the public in the matter of subliminalmessages. It is as if subliminal messages are likesuperstitions. Everyone knows that it is just asuperstition that if one breaks a mirror it will bringon seven years of bad luck, yet most people willbecome quite upset if they do break a mirror.
Most people realize that subliminal messages donot have a strong effect, yet they are stillsuperstitious about them. The paranoia brought onby the idea that the brain can be influenced bysubliminal messages is great. No one likes the ideathat their thoughts and beliefs are being alteredwithout their knowledge or consent. Educationregarding advertising practices and thenon-existent effects of subliminal messages wouldhelp to bridge the gap between the knowledge andbeliefs of the industry, and the knowledge andbeliefs of the public.
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