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Advertising, Subliminal - Absence of Evidence, Absence of a Systematic Framework, Absence of Public License, The Bottom Line

advertisers influence vicary claim

The notion of subliminal advertising, that is, that advertisers can influence the desirability or even purchase of a brand through using hidden, undetectable advertising stimuli, is one of the myths of twentieth-century popular culture. Martha Rogers and Kirk Smith (1993) have noted that while professional advertisers scoff at the idea and virtually no members of the academic advertising community give it credence, the general public seems to assume that subliminal advertising is widely and effectively practiced. Apparently, the initial claims in the 1950s of subliminal advertising influence, the proponents of which produced not the slightest scientific documentation or evidence, nevertheless instilled the assumption that advertisers use subliminal messages to influence individuals without the individuals being aware of it. As far as the public is concerned, it is a story that is too good not to be true.

Absence of Evidence

Examples of research reviews that conclude against the effectiveness of subliminal advertising include those by Timothy E. Moore (1982), Joel Saegert (1987), and John R. Vokey and J. Don Read (1985). One academic review by Kathryn Theus (1994) affords subliminal advertising mild plausibility, without claiming evidence for behavioral influence. While there has been much psychological research pertaining to the possibility of subliminal perception and persuasion (see, for example, Dixon, 1981), the results remain controversial as to the existence of subliminal effects, especially regarding the ability of subliminal stimuli to influence behavior. In the realm of advertising, the few academic researchers who have claimed effectiveness for subliminal stimuli are vulnerable on methodological or logical grounds (e.g., Kil-bourne, Painton, and Ridley, 1985). Moreover, after Sharon Beatty and Del Hawkins (1989) failed to replicate the widely cited early claim by Del Hawkins (1970) of subliminal effects in advertising-like conditions, the claim was retracted. In fact, no successful replication of any study offered as evidence in support of subliminal effects in an advertising-like setting has been reported. Finally, a meta-analysis by Charles Trappey (1996) of studies of subliminal effects in advertising-like contexts found that the amount of variability accounted for (i.e., differences between results for subliminal versus control conditions) is negligible.

Probably the earliest and most-cited claim of subliminal advertising influence was made by James Vicary, reported by Advertising Age in “‘Persuaders’ Get Deeply ‘Hidden’ Tool: Subliminal Projection” (1957, p. 127):

Mr. Vicary, head of the motivation research company bearing his name, said the commercial messages are superimposed on a film as “very brief overlays of light.” They are so rapid—up to 1/3,000 of a second— that they cannot be seen by the audience.

Mr. Vicary reported that he recently tested the “invisible commercial” in a (Fort Lee) New Jersey movie theater. The tests ran for six weeks, during which time some 45,000 persons attended the theatre. Two advertising messages were projected—one urging the audience to eat popcorn, the other suggesting, “Drink Coca-Cola.”

According to Mr. Vicary, the “invisible commercial” increased popcorn sales by 57.5% and Coca-Cola sales by 18.1%.

Absence of details for such a provocative claim is, of course, highly unsatisfactory and, without further information, no social scientist or advertising practitioner would take Vicary’s account seriously. For example, not only is there no mention of an unexposed control group, there is no reference to a baseline of historical data during periods where conditions matched those pertaining during the test (e.g., day of week, composition of audience, hour of day, weather conditions, season of year, and stocks of product on hand). Furthermore, the claimed demonstration has not been replicated.

Absence of a Systematic Framework

More substantively, what claim is Vicary, in fact, making? Is he claiming that people who never before, or rarely, had bought refreshments during a movie, were now doing so; that people who regularly purchase refreshments were doing so more often, or earlier; or that people who normally chose Pepsi or other soft drinks found themselves drinking Coke? The findings are so inadequately specified as to be uninterpretable from the viewpoint of marketing analysis.

Such weaknesses are not peculiar to the Vicary story among proponents of effects from subliminal advertising. If the phenomenon is to be taken seriously and developed, it should be discussed in the context of a view of how advertising is assumed to work. The absence of a plausible rationale for how subliminal advertising messages might have their effect leaves the phenomenon a conceptual orphan and leaves advertisers without guidance about how to implement the device for best return.

Perhaps the widespread (but unsupported) popular belief in subliminal advertising stems from public misunderstanding of the role of advertising. The ubiquitous presence of advertising reflects the need of advertisers to communicate the availability and special applications or features of their brands to prospective customers who are widely dispersed and with whom personal contact is impractical. In a cluttered environment, advertisers face a daunting task of registering their message with their targets. The essential advertising strategy is to rely on elements in the message finding a resonance in the target of the advertisement (i.e., those individuals in the population who experience the condition(s) for which the brand has been tailored). According to Moore (1982), attenuating the signal to a subliminal level offers no discernible advantage, given such an overriding strategy.

More likely, popular readiness to believe in the possibility, and even use, of subliminal advertising has an existence that is independent of the above critique. Without pausing to consider whether such influence is feasible, people doubtless abhor the idea of being made to act in the absence of the subjective experience of choosing to act. The depth of such distaste may explain the persistence of the belief, regardless of the absence of evidence for, or conceptual development of, subliminal influence or its relevance to the nature of the task of an advertiser.

Absence of Public License

However irritating the daily barrage of advertisements may be to some, especially those who are not “in the market” for the advertised brands, conventional advertising is largely accepted as unavoidable. Subliminal advertising, on the other hand, is not so accepted. Undoubtedly, if examples of effective or even attempted subliminal advertisements were to come to light, an outraged public would again demand that such practices be outlawed, as happened when Vicary first broached the concept. According to Rogers and Christine Seiler (1994), in general, industry professionals do not claim to use subliminal advertising and, when asked, deny that they do. Cynics who maintain that advertisers will, of course, keep successful subliminal campaigns secret fail to ask at what level and where such a decision is taken. Given the complex nature of the advertising business, the layers of approval through which an advertising campaign must pass, and the number of players (e.g., clients, advertising agency personnel, and network executives), such cynics will be hard pressed to suggest how subliminal advertising could be authorized and implemented. The chain from inception of an advertising strategy to its implementation in the broadcast medium is a long on. Presumably, the decision to insert a subliminal message would have to be made at the highest level, yet implemented down the line. The advertiser would likely have to include its corporate lawyers in the decision and then instruct its advertising agency to perform the necessary technical operations. Thus, there would be many opportunities for discovery of what was afoot. The uproar over allegations of subliminal shenanigans in the 2000 presidential campaigns serves as ample evidence that the media are more than willing to expose any promotional attempts that are deemed to be newsworthy.

The Bottom Line

Businesses are in business to achieve return on investment and do not knowingly invest resources in an enterprise that fails to promise return. In this regard, subliminal advertising has no credible evidence that it will yield return; moreover, proponents provide no rationale to guide its effective use. Finally, even if successful return on investment were forthcoming from subliminal advertisements, advertisers would quickly be precluded from attempting to use such approaches because of public disapproval. The bottom line, however, is that subliminal advertising is a myth.

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