A recent Food Network mistake caused a flurry of allegations that the network was attempting to use subliminal messaging on one of the network’s gourmet shows, Iron Chef, when a McDonalds symbol flashed across the screen (pictured below). Subliminal advertising, which plays on the theory that “one can influence behavior by secretly appealing to the subconscious mind with words, images, or sounds,” is clearly a controversial topic in the business world today, despite its widespread use for the past fifty years. Customers are frightened by the idea that their subconscious minds can be influenced, without their awareness, to respond to advertisements. Some of these adds feature sexual or otherwise-appealing hidden messages. For example, some have claimed the Starbucks Coffee symbol, pictured to the left, has sexual undertones (notice the strategic placement and suspicious number of the mermaid’s fins).
Are these fears justified, and what are the ethical implications of unconscious advertising? The first psychologist to coin the term “subliminal advertising” was James Vicary, who tested out his idea in 1957. He declared that over forty-five thousand moviegoers were subjected to images flashed briefly across the screen stating “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola,” which caused popcorn sales to increase by an incredible 57%. Although his widely publicized experiment is how many consumers and advertisers today became aware of this phenomenon, Vicary himself later admitted that his results were falsified, and there is evidence to show that he never conduced the experiment in the first place. Despite such evidence, sexually suggestive and even explicit subliminal advertisements consistently appear in television, magazine, and radio advertisements.
Recent psychological studies have begun to claim that there may be some truth to the effects of subliminal advertising. One psychologist, Hawkins, was able to show “increased thirst ratings following subliminal exposure to” Coca-Cola, which “have been used as empirical evidence that subliminal advertising can directly affect consumption-relevant behavior.” According to Jo Anna Natale of Psychology Today, companies like Potentials Unlimited are taking a new direction in admitting that their products are full of subliminal messages that will help consumers break bad habits (similar to hypnosis). Natale also cited a study in which groups were shown the same advertisement, either with or without a hidden sexual image (a naked woman). The findings supported the power of subliminal messages, as participants in the group “who saw the whiskey ad with the hidden image rated it higher…than did people who saw the whiskey ad without the image.” This is a similar concept to the picture of the flowers to the left, which contains a hidden word. Psychologist Johan Karremans was recently able to conduct one of the most convincing studies. In her article “Subliminal Advertising may work after all,” Alison Motluk of NewsScientist.com explains how his study showed that thirsty participants exposed to subliminal advertising for Lipton Ice were more likely to choose that beverage afterwards.
For each argument in support of the effectiveness of subliminal messaging, there is compelling evidence to the contrary. Follow up studies conducted on Hawkin’s study featuring Coca-Cola did not find convincing results. Another study by Trappey, which attempted to “scientifically evaluate whether or not subliminal marketing stimuli [were] an effective means for influencing consumer choice behavior” found that “… leading to the conclusion that subliminal advertising has little influence on the consumer’s decision to select between alternatives.” Potentials Unlimited tapes work like hypnosis. Individuals only claim to have been successfully hypnotized if, prior to being hypnotized, they were believers in hypnosis. Likewise, subliminal messages will most likely effect individuals who consciously think that such messages will alter their behavior. And, it is not yet clear how long the effects in the Lipton Ice experiment will last—it could easily only be a few minutes. As long as consumers are aware of why they are making their decisions as buyers, subliminal advertising will not have a harmful effect. In other words, if individuals think consciously and rationally before making purchases, subliminal advertisements will not influence their decisions. Additionally, while some ads blatantly display hidden sexual images or undertones, many of the claims made that ads feature suggestive elements are grasping for messages that are not there or were not intended by their creators.
If subliminal advertising does, however, have the potential to affect buyers’ choices, is it an ethical practice for businesses and psychologists to use and develop? Rebecca Clay’s article from the American Psychological Association gives examples of psychologists, such as Esther Thorson, who have been “analyzing ads to learn more about the art of persuasion” and make subliminal messaging into a kind of science that they can sell to advertisers. Psychologists, though, should not employ their knowledge of perception and cognition to alter behavior against consumers’ conscious wishes. In my view this would be a violation of free will. Moreover, the Federal Communications Commision does not support subliminal advertising, although the practice is difficult to prove and has not been formally defined. Realistically, subliminal persuasion is probably not going to stop, but if consumers become more educated on its methods the effects of such advertising will likely diminish.