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Subliminal Messages in Advertising

Subliminal messaging and subliminal perception are controversial topics in the field of psychology. Many studies have been conducted to determine if subliminal messaging does in fact work. Many people think that subliminal messages in the field of advertising are much more successful than subliminal messages for self-improvement, such as tapes sold to help the consumer lose weight, gain intelligence, or do something else to improve themselves simply by listening to a tape. Subliminal advertising can be defined as “embedding material in print, audio, or video messages so faintly that hey are not consciously perceived.

Rogers and Smith (1993) surveyed 400 households. When asked if they believed advertisers deliberately included subliminal messages, 61. 5% responded ‘yes’. A 72. 2% ‘yes’ answer was obtained when asked if subliminal advertisements were effective. Based on these results, it can be concluded that consumers are aware of subliminal advertising, and believe it is effectively used by advertisers to influence their decisions. The term “sub-threshold effects,” first popularized by Packard in 1957, preceded the popular notion of “subliminal advertising,” whose originator is James Vicary.

Subliminal advertising first came to the public’s attention in 1957 when Jim Vicary conducted a subliminal advertising strategy of interspersing “drink Coca-Cola” and “eat popcorn” messages on a movie screen so quickly that they could not be seen consciously by the audience. His research initially reported increases in the sales of both Coca-Cola and popcorn as a result of the subliminal messages. Later, however, when he was challenged and could not replicate or even produce the results, Vicary admitted that the results of the initial study had been fabricated (Weir, 1984).

Key (1989) has more recently laimed that hidden or embedded messages are widespread and effective. Key’s theories have been widely discredited by scholars who have examined marketing applications scientifically (Moore, 1982). Although a few scholarly studies have reported certain limited effects of exposure to subliminal stimuli in laboratory settings (Greenwald, Klinger, and Liu, 1989), most academic researchers on the subject have reported findings which indicate no practical or predictable effect in an advertising setting (Dixon, 1971).

The 1957 Vicary study has been largely disregarded in the scholarly community due to lack f scientific documentation of methodology and failure to replicate. However, scholarly findings and industry assertions may have had little or no effect on the average American, who has been exposed to popular articles and books promoting the notion that subliminal advertising is used and is effective.

In addition, Americans have been exposed to advertisements claiming that self-help audio-tapes and videotapes containing subliminal materials 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 Public Many in the public are aware of the term “subliminal advertising,” understand the basics of the concept, and believe it not only is used by advertisers but is also successful in influencing brand and purchase choice.

Shortly after the Vicary study was brought to the public’s attention (Brean, 1958), Haber (1959) sought to discern “exactly what the public believes about subliminal advertising when so little factual information is available. ” Results of this study determined that 41 percent of 324 respondents had heard of subliminal advertising, and although half believed it to be “unethical,” 67 percent stated that they ould still watch a television program even if they believed subliminal messages were embedded in the commercials.

Two decades later, a survey of 209 adults conducted by Zanot, Pincus, and Lamp (1983) reported double the awareness levels of the Haber study. The Zanot survey concluded that 81 percent had heard of subliminal advertising and that “respondents believe that subliminal advertising is widely and frequently used and that it is successful in selling products. ” The same survey determined that educational level is the demographic variable most highly correlated with awareness of subliminal advertising; the more ducated the respondent, the more likely he or she is to be aware of the phenomenon.

A study by Rogers and Smith (1993) found that the more education a person has (and therefore the more opportunity to learn of the limitations of the subliminal persuasion phenomenon), the more likely one is to believe that subliminal advertising “works. ” A 1985 study by Block and Vanden Bergh surveying consumers’ attitudes toward use of subliminal techniques for self-improvement found some consumer skepticism and reported more favorable attitudes among those who were less educated and younger.

Three surveys onducted in the past decade have demonstrated that a majority of American adults are aware of “subliminal advertising” and believe advertisers sometimes use it to sell products. The three surveys spanned a broad geographic spectrum (Washington, D. C. ; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Toledo, Ohio). All three surveys opened with questions that determined whether the respondent was aware of subliminal advertising and determined whether or not basic knowledge was present and sufficient for continued discussion. Remaining questions in all three surveys assessed beliefs about the phenomenon, as distinguished rom knowledge.

Each study covered slightly different ground. Each was subject to different limitations, yet all three produced similar findings. All three surveys found similar proportions who were aware of subliminal advertising, who believed that it is used by advertisers, and who thought that it “works” to help marketers sell products. Awareness of Subliminal Messaging by the Advertising Industry A survey of advertising agency members, their clients and media production professionals was conducted by Rogers and Seiler (1994) as to whether or not they have ever used, or been connected with a irm that used, subliminal advertising.

Based on a response rate of 36 percent, the reaction was nearly unanimously negative, and evidence suggests that the few positive responses were due to a misunderstanding of the term “subliminal advertising. ” The results revealed that the majority denied ever using this advertising strategy, despite the public’s fears of this method of ‘brainwashing. ‘ In addition, a significant part of the minority that answered in the affirmative is shown to have misinterpreted ‘subliminal’ as ‘subtle. The advertising industry trade press has for decades idiculed the notion of using hidden or embedded messages in advertisements. A significant percentage (75 to 80 percent) of the U. S. population believes that advertising agencies and the companies they represent purposely use subliminal advertising. These consumers also believe that subliminal advertising actually “works” even though research studies have shown that no significant effects can be identified as a result of using subliminal imagery in advertisements (Rosen and Singh, 1992).

Consumers spend about 50 million dollars a year on subliminal self-help products (Krajick, 1990). Scholars have esearched advertisements with subliminal messages embedded in them and their effects (Beatty and Hawkins, 1989). These studies have generally refuted the possibility of eliciting predictable responses that could be useful to marketers. No one has tried to determine whether the advertising community has deliberately utilized subliminal messages (Kelly, 1979; Dudley, 1987).

The advertising industry has repeatedly denied the use of subliminal embeds, and spokespersons within the industry have used such common-sense arguments against its probable use as: “If subliminals worked, wouldn’t there be textbooks n how to practice it? ” and “How can showing someone 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-speaking presentations, may have served to promote the concept and purported use of subliminal persuasion by advertisers.

While his theories have been widely discredited by scholars (Moore, 1982), his writings still appeal to consumers and keep the question current: do advertisers use subliminal advertising purposely in order to elicit a predictable response by consumers? Kelly (1979) sserts that this question is extremely important but unanswered by existing research, which focuses on whether subliminal advertising might be effective if it were used, and not on whether it is used deliberately.

One way of identifying whether in agencies and the client companies they represent consciously use subliminal advertising to help sell their products is to survey them. It was not until 1984 that a formal research study was undertaken to determine if advertisers purposely used subliminal embeds as an advertising strategy. In his survey of 100 advertising agency art directors, Haberstroh (1984) inquired whether any f these art directors had ever deliberately embedded, supervised an embedding, or had knowledge of an embedding of a subliminal message in advertising artwork for a client.

His findings indicated that, of the 47 usable responses, only 2 answered “yes” to any of the questions. When he checked open-ended explanations by these two respondents, he determined there was confusion on the part of the respondents to the implied definition of “subliminal embeds” and that, apparently, none of the 47 participants had ever used subliminal messages (Haberstroh, 1984). The Affects of Subliminal Messaging Vokey and Read 1985) were unable to find any evidence to support the claim that subliminal messages affect behavior in their study.

Key is a major figure in the argument that subliminal messaging not only occurs, but is also effective. Key claims that a variety of subliminal techniques are used to capitalize upon the public’s obsession with sex. These include the obvious use of sexual imagery within the verbal and pictorial content of advertisements. Examples of Key’s research include both the Playboy ads and the rum pictorial ads. Key asserts that the subliminal sexual imagery included in a Playboy magazine advertisement epicting a naked woman effectively renders the ad more memorable.

He stated that about 95% of college males remembered viewing this ad an entire month later. It is also possible that the college students would have remembered the ad equally well without the embedded imagery. There is ample data to demonstrate that college students can likely recognize 95% of even relatively extensive sets of pictures shown to them. In the case of the rum ads, Key felt that the explanation for an overwhelming preference for a particular brand of rum is the embedded presence of the phrase “u buy” in a pictorial ad depicting four ypes of rum.

No researcher since has been able to find the message in the ad. Key claims that 80% of the subjects in his studies unconsciously perceived the backward message, resulting in a marked preference for the rum with the message. Key refuses to believe that the fact that the preferred rum is the only one with the words “extra special” written on the bottle, or that it is much darker than the others and presented in a high-status brandy-snifter in a larger bottle has anything to do with the preference.

A study by Vokey and Read (1985) was conducted to test Key’s hypothesis on the embedding of sexual essages on images. Participants in the study recognized the images imbedded with sexual imagery, random imagery, and no imagery at the same rate. Key suggested that it often takes at least a day to see the effect of the subliminal material. Vokey and Read waited two days and found that the participants who waited the two days to indicate what slides they had previously seen remembered less than those who indicated what slides they had seen immediately.

Every result in the study disagreed with Key and his ideas regarding subliminal messages. It is difficult to believe that while there has been so much esearch completed proving that not only are subliminal messages not used, but that subliminal messages are completely ineffective in changing or influencing behavior, the public so strongly believes in the influence. After all the research, the public still fears subliminal messages and the effects they could have.

Psychologists must work to educate the public in the matter of subliminal messages. It is as if subliminal messages are like superstitions. Everyone knows that it is just a superstition that if one breaks a mirror it will bring on seven years of bad luck, yet most people will ecome quite upset if they do break a mirror. Most people realize that subliminal messages do not have a strong effect, yet they are still superstitious about them.

The paranoia brought on by the idea that the brain can be influenced by subliminal messages is great. No one likes the idea that their thoughts and beliefs are being altered without their knowledge or consent. Education regarding advertising practices and the non-existent effects of subliminal messages would help to bridge the gap between the knowledge and beliefs of the industry, and the knowledge and beliefs of the public.

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