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Subliminal advertising and the perpetual popularity of playing to people's paranoia.

Every 20 years, subliminal advertising pops back into popular culture. August Bullock (2004a) is the most recent "advocate" with his book The Secret Sales Pitch: An Overview of Subliminal Advertising. This paper reviews nearly 50 years of research on subliminal advertising and comments specifically about Bullock's more recent publication. The literature repeatedly shows that most effects are only obtained in highly artificial situations, and no research has shown an effect that changed attitudes or impacted purchasing behavior.


What is commonly thought of today as subliminal advertising began in 1957 when a movie theater experiment subliminally directed the audience to "eat popcorn" and "drink Coca-Cola." David Ogilvy, founder of the international advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, noted that "[u]nfortunately word of [this] found its way into the public prints, and provided grist for the mills of the anti-advertising brigade" (Ogilvy 1983, 209).

In a movie theater in Fort Lee, N J, psychologist and marketing researcher James M. Vicary claimed to have conducted a six-week study in 1957 that involved showing movies while at the same time projecting the words "eat popcorn" and "drink Coca-Cola" on the screen for 1/3,000 of a second. The claimed results of increased sales of popcorn and cola were widely reported in numerous news media stories. Though the study was never reported in a scientific journal and had no control group, it fit a popular paranoia of media power such that it caused a public outcry concerning psychological manipulation of consumers, which was immediate and widespread (Moore 1982). When a major research company and several academic researchers failed to replicate the original results, Vicary eventually admitted that he had invented his experiment's results in an effort to revive his then-failing research firm (Gray 2000; Rogers 1992-1993; Rotfeld 2001). His admission was widely covered in the trade press of the period, yet despite the "experiment" and results having been an exposed hoax, the concept of subliminal advertising continues to be an issue today.

In fact, the issue seems to periodically rear its ugly head with renewed vigor. In the 1970s and 1980s, Wilson Bryan Key wrote a series of books-Subliminal Seduction: Ad Media's Manipulation of Not So Innocent America (1972), Media Sexploitation (1976), and The Clam-Plate Orgy: And Other Subliminal Techniques for Manipulating Your Behavior (1980). Most recently, August Bullock, a self-proclaimed disciple of Key, has been touting his own book, The Secret Sales Pitch: An Overview of Subliminal Advertising (2004a).

Over the years, advertising scholars and psychologists have published a plethora of studies on the possibilities of subliminal communications and persuasion. Yet, regardless of the actual research findings, the general public apparently believes subliminal advertising exists, that it is actively used by advertisers, and that it is an effective business tool for generating sales. A review of the nearly 50 years of subliminal advertising research is needed, especially in contrast to the newest popular speaker and author making what is for him a profitable assault on the advertising business.


The study of sensations and perceptions in psychology can be traced to Fechner and Helmholtz in the late 19th century. From that line of research emerged an area of study--subliminal perception--that has become a controversial issue today. While there was some interest with so-called dirty words experiments in the 1940s, it was in the 1950s with Vicary's hoax that attention focused on the commercialization of subliminal perception, that is, subliminal advertising (Bloomquist 1985).

Part of the controversy of subliminal advertising concerns the misuse of the word. In psychological terms, "limen" is the threshold of consciousness. Therefore, a subliminal stimulus, by definition, is below the level of an individual's conscious awareness. However, awareness and consciousness often are used interchangeably (Hawkins 1970). For example, ACTMEDIA, a company that sold shopping cart signage, claimed such signs act in a subliminal manner (Schumann et al. 1991). There is, however, nothing subliminal in this signage; perhaps, the signs are not noticed by the consumer (awareness), but they are in no way below the threshold of consciousness.

Another example involves marketing via the Internet. Privacy advocates have suggested that subliminal advertising is used in profiling consumers (Simpson 1999). "But the advertising industry says there is nothing subliminal about marketing based on online profiling. While consumers are targeted using information collected secretly, there aren't any secret messages in the appeals themselves" (B10). Yet another example is what has been called the "new subliminal advertising" where a niche market can be targeted without alienating mainstream audiences (Kanner 2000). However, a rifle in the background to appeal to National Rifle Association supporters or a rainbow-colored reflection in a glass of beer to appeal to gays and lesbians may be subtle, but it is not subliminal.

Another example that caused an uproar was seen in the 2000 presidential election with George W. Bush's anti-democrat/bureaucrat "RATS" ad (Della Femina 2000; Garfield 2000; Melillo 2000; Rotfeld 2001; Teinowitz 2000; The Wall Street Journal 2001). What Gary Gray (2000) notes about the Bush "RATS" ads is true of many so-called subliminal examples: "If you can see it, it does not qualify as subliminal ..." (9).

Another way the word "subliminal" often is misused is to mean "suggestive" or "sexual." Wilson Bryan Key's first three books---Subliminal Seduction, Media Sexploitation, and The Clam-Plate Orgy--proved popular and have fueled the subliminal controversy by focusing on embedded symbols. That is, photographs have been airbrushed or otherwise manipulated (or embedded) with sexual or other arousing stimuli in ambiguous portions of the ads. Key continually suggests that virtually all of the advertising for some products employ subliminal stimuli (Bloomquist 1985).

One example from Key is that he maintains that 99% of ads for alcoholic beverages use subliminal embeds (Wells, Burnett, and Moriarty 1992), and he claims that the letters S-E-X are baked into both sides of each Ritz cracker. As he repeatedly asserts that major advertisers and their agencies try to seduce consumers at a subliminal level, he finds S-E-X hidden in a picture of ice cubes, and extensive lascivious imagery in the picture of clams on his restaurant placemat. He reasons that "advertising agencies would not spend billions of dollars collectively on advertisements using such techniques if there were no basis for using them" (Bloomquist 1985).

Yet, Key provides no documentation for any of the effects that he attributes to embeds other than his allegations that they exist (Moore 1982; Rosen and Singh 1992). As noted by Rotfeld (2001), "Of course, anyone might spot all types of 'buried' images in pictures, but you can also find them in clouds, cow pastures, the Chicago skyline and the dot patterns of acoustic tiles. This does not mean people intentionally put the pictures there, or that the pictures cause people to buy products" (153). In hundreds of pages on the subject in multiple books, Key does not find a single individual who admits to, or even accuses others of, being involved in subliminal embedding. Haberstroh (1984) investigated Key's Ritz Crackers allegation, concluding that charges of S-E-X embedded on Ritz crackers in particular, and of subliminal advertising in general, are "preposterous, absurd, ludicrous, laughable" (Haberstroh 1984; also see Haberstroh 1994 and a review of Haberstroh's book, Lantos 1996).

Still as an argument of faith, numerous people have read Key's books or listened to his speeches and are not open to counter arguments about the existence of subliminal embeds. They are all so convinced that they see things in ambiguous areas of pictures regardless of whether hidden messages were actually inserted. Yet, the more important question is not whether subliminal advertising exists but rather whether it could be an effective advertising tool.


Much of the research concerning subliminal advertising focuses on whether there is an effect on consumers (Moore 1982). Vokey and Read (1985) noted that some advocates of subliminal advertising have accepted the fallacy that presence implies effectiveness. That is, merely demonstrating the existence of a subliminal message is a sufficient argument for its effectiveness. However, studies that have used subliminal techniques and embeds have not been able to elicit the desired behavior. Several studies followed Vicary's theater hoax of 1957.

One study by DeFleur and Petranoff (1959) used television to test subliminal persuasion. In this five-week experiment, no evidence was found that subliminal messages had the slightest effect in persuading the mass audience, even though the actions to be carried out were simple (continuing to watch a news program following a movie with subliminal suggestions) and routine (purchasing a certain food product after exposure to subliminal stimuli). In another highly controlled buying environment, George and Jennings (1975) used a slide projector to subliminally superimpose Hershey's Chocolate over a meaningful background (a movie). They found that no one bought the candy in a 10-day period following the experiment.

Several studies have employed embeds in controlled situations to test for effects. Kelly (1979) used two dummy magazines, one with embeds and one without. The portfolio of ads with subliminal embeds did not produce significantly greater recall of brands or illustrations than did the control ads. Vokey and Read (1985), using vacation photographs, embedded the word sex, a nonsense syllable, or no embed. When tested both immediately and two days later, the photos embedded with sex were no better recognized than the pictures in the control conditions. To specifically test Key's premise in a simple, well-controlled manner, Gable et al. (1987) placed deliberate embedding on one of two sets of photographs of a camera, pen, beer, and food. They found no significant preference between photos of products with embeds and those without. A study by Rosen and Singh (1992) placed embeds on actual print ads for lesser-known brands of two products, liquor and cologne. Their dependent measure had four levels: attention to the ad, change in attitude, behavioral intention to buy, and 24-hour recall. No statistically significant effects for embeds were found at any level of advertising effectiveness that they measured.

One study that has repeatedly been cited in the literature showed that a simple subliminal stimulus could be associated with arousal of a basic drive such as thirst or hunger. In that study, Hawkins (1970) found increased thirst ratings followed subliminal exposure to the word Coke compared to a control group exposed to a subliminal nonsense syllable. However, when Beatty and Hawkins (1989) were unable to replicate the study, they concluded that Hawkins' earlier results were due to Type I error; that is, the null hypothesis was rejected when in reality (the population), it should not have been rejected. If you test something often enough you will get an unusual sample whose random variation will yield a seeming effect; in this case, we have a single significant finding that no one could repeat or replicate, not even the original researcher. In effect, their original study yielded a false positive.

Cooper and Cooper (2002) also found an effect when in two well-controlled experiments participants became thirstier after exposure to verbal and pictorial embeds in the TV show The Simpsons than those in a control group. However, those results might also be summed up by what Moore (1982) said almost 20 years earlier. In his review of subliminal perception, subliminal advertising, subaudible messages, and embedded stimuli, Moore stated that although subliminal perception does exist, the subliminal stimuli are usually so weak that potential effects are easily nullified by other competing stimuli. While some studies showed a weak emotional response to subliminal stimuli, no evidence exists to suggest that subliminal advertising is effective in persuading consumers to buy products.

After reviewing the literature (Bloomquist 1985; McDaniel, Hart, and McNeal 1982; Saegert 1979; Zanot, Pincus, and Lamp 1983), researchers have concluded that no empirical evidence exists to demonstrate that any subliminal advertising technique has an effect on changing attitudes or an impact on consumers' purchasing behavior. "The point is simply that subliminal directives have not been shown to have the power ascribed to them by advocates of subliminal advertising. In general, the literature on subliminal perception shows that the most clearly documented effects are obtained only in highly contrived and artificial situations" (Moore 1982, 46).

Two researchers have written overview papers of the research in subliminal advertising. Theus (1994), citing 128 references, extensively reviewed psychological, physiological, and behavioral (choice) response research. The last is of the most interest to advertisers. She concluded in her summary that "research on brand choice behavior, per se, seems to be subject to little or no influence by subliminal suggestion" (282). In a meta-analysis of previous research, Trappey (1996) also concluded that "the effect of subliminal marketing stimuli on influencing consumers' choice behavior or selection process is negligible" (528). That is, it is a big leap from the psychology lab all the way to the grocery store.

Such research, which overwhelmingly rejects the effectiveness of subliminal advertising, has not, however, persuaded the general public (Rogers and Smith 1993; Zanot, Pincus, and Lamp 1983).


August Bullock, an attorney, has no stated credentials in advertising, psychology, or marketing. His is more of a layman's approach. His interest in subliminal advertising dates back to his reading of Key's (1972) book Subliminal Seduction. In his book The Secret Sales Pitch: An Overview of Subliminal Advertising (2004a), Bullock says, "I discovered a copy of [Key's] book in San Francisco around 1975 and immediately became engrossed in the subject. I began collecting my own subliminal examples ..." (11-12).

Bullock's theory (2004a) is based on what he calls the Ambiguity Principle. In his words, "The essence of subliminal advertising is ambiguity [his emphasis]. Subliminal messages are most often 'delivered' with words or pictures that have more than one meaning. Both meanings are perceived unconsciously, but if one of them is psychologically threatening, it is repressed. The viewer is only aware of the nonthreatening interpretation" (179).

The Secret Sales Pitch is composed of seven chapters and two appendices with annotated notes and references at the end of the book. Numerous color ads printed on good quality paper are used throughout the book. Following are some examples to illustrate Bullock's (2004a) analyses of what he perceives to be subliminal elements.

Bullock spends several pages analyzing a Benson & Hedges ad (Bullock 2004a, 13) where a woman in a low-backed evening dress is being held close to the man's body. The copy reads, "If you got crushed in the clinch with your soft pack, try our hard pack." This message has an obviously sexual connotation--not a subliminal one. The penis, however, that he suggests has been airbrushed (embedded) into her backbone is a matter of interpretation. To others, it just looks like light reflecting off her back during the photo shoot. However, Bullock (2004a) states, "... subliminal messages of this kind have been commonly used in all forms of media for the last five decades. You probably have been exposed to millions of them in your lifetime" (14). The implication is that advertisers are placing embeds in ads, however, like Key before him, he offers no proof.

In another chapter, Bullock shows several magazine covers, the first being Health & Fitness Journal (Bullock 2004a, 37) with a woman in a string bikini sitting behind a man on a motor scooter. As he notes, the sexual content of the picture is not debatable. But it is not subliminal either. It is obvious. He points out that "the woman's right hand is massaging the man's genitals" [his emphasis] (38). Yes, they are resting around his waist as one would do when two are on a motor scooter, but it's hard to tell the action of massaging from this still picture. Similarly, in a cover for Wallpaper (Bullock 2004a, 39), two men are on either side of a woman, all facing directly toward the camera. The three models are naked standing in water that is hip deep. Bullock says that "... most viewers probably don't realize that both of the woman's hands are massaging her companions' genitals" (38), even though it is hard to say what action is happening in a still picture when you do not even see the hands.

Bullock spends a great deal of time analyzing a Smirnoff ad (Bullock 2004a, 47) where he sees a man in a woman's body, cleavage in a woman's back, and a menacing skull-like face. This is part of Bullock's analysis: "The copy, 'The Wine Sat There And The Smirnoff Flowed,' is cleverly ambiguous. The 'wine' refers to the whiney, mousy man who is the object of the women's contempt. 'The Smirnoff Flowed' literally, into his face!" (Bullock 2004a, 49). He suggests that, rather than a dinner party, unconsciously this is a heated argument where the Smirnoff will end up thrown in this man's face. The ad actually shows, however, two glasses of wine left on the table while the women are holding the glasses of Smirnoff in their hands. Bullock never substantiates that what he sees--and what fits his suggested interpretation--was put there with this intended meaning by those creating the ads.

Bullock repeatedly makes generic statements such as "delivering subliminal content through the use of pictures with multiple meanings is extremely common in media" [his emphasis] (Bullock 2004a, 50), yet he never substantiates these statements. For him, it seems that any shadow, any reflection can be made into some sort of subliminal embed. A woman's thumb becomes a man's penis. A man in a leather jacket "looks like a homosexual." Women are "sensuously touching" or "gently caressing" each other. And he offers helpful little drawings over the pictures, like Madden using a telestrator as he comments on a football game, to show us what we are missing.

Bullock cites several psychological studies done in the laboratory. It should be noted, however, that just because someone is not aware of a connection (a conditioning in an experiment), that does not make it subliminal. Bullock spends a great deal of time on psychological studies to support the cumulative effect and the long-term effects of subliminal advertising, but he does not cite the advertising and marketing research that disputes this laboratory research. He states, "Furthermore, the messages only had an effect when they were perceived unconsciously. They ceased to have an effect when they were shown long enough for the viewers to become aware of them" (Bullock 2004a, 75). This statement is not backed up by research.

Bullock also discusses research that he says is private, unlike the public research published in journals, and states: "The bulk of subliminal research, in contrast, has been conducted in secret by advertising and marketing firms. It constitutes 'intellectual property' that is rarely, if ever, revealed to outsiders" (Bullock 2004a, 105). This raises the question, of course, that if all this is so secret, how does he know about it?

Bullock does address advertising's perspective, starting with the true statement: "Advertisers deny they use subliminal techniques" (Bullock 2004a, 107). But the subhead above this statement, "Too Many Coincidences," makes Bullock's slant clear. He first addresses a Benson & Hedges cigarette campaign. The copy on the first ad looks like it came from the 1970s and reads, "If you got bopped doing the bump with your soft pack, try our hard pack" (Bullock 2004a, 107). His little drawings show the faces and penises that he suggests have been embedded in various ads. But the sexual theme in these ads is overt, not covert. Embeds are not necessary to get this sexual message across.

Bullock (2004a) suggests that advertisers are forced into the position of placing embeds in advertising: "Advertisers are not evil conspirators. They are intelligent, creative people faced with a difficult dilemma. The competitive pressures of the marketplace force them to use subliminal techniques, and at the same time require them to deny they do so" (123). He even brings the media into this great conspiracy: "... market forces have also restrained the mainstream media from exposing the use of subliminal techniques.... Most newspapers, magazines, and television stations rely on advertising revenues for survival. They are naturally reluctant to criticize advertising because advertisers provide their income" (124-125).

Even when Bullock (2004a) quotes advertising professionals who say that they do not use subliminal advertising, he couches it with a subhead "Protesting Too Much" (130). He does the same with the subhead "Scientific Disinformation" (131) when reviewing the literature that does not support his claims. Bullock is very dismissive of this research. "A few supposedly scientific studies have purported to 'prove' subliminal embeds and other techniques don't affect consumer behavior" (131). He specifically dismisses the Moore (1982) study because the embed was irrelevant or not emotional. Other studies he suggests are "misleading and use flawed methodologies," even though these were refereed papers in the Journal of Advertising. For example, he suggests that the control ads might have had embeds in them that the author of the study just did not see. "The experiment is invalid because the 'control' ads probably contained subliminal devices the author had not detected" [emphasis added] (132). It seems that finding embeds is a gift that has been given only to Key and Bullock. It should be noted that he accepts what Key sees at face value, even though it was never substantiated.

Bullock (2004a) analyzes other ads on taboo themes and suggests the ads portray pedophilic fantasies, incest, and models representing dead women (even though their eyes are open). Even a Dodge Quad Cab truck has homosexual implications. This is Bullock's analysis: "'Highways' refers to free and uninhibited lifestyles. 'Four big wide opening doors' refers to the two mouths and two anuses involved in homosexual sex. 'Full sized bed' requires no explanation, and 'hangs out' refers to exposed genitalia" (147). It is hard to believe that Dodge would purposefully use homosexual images to sell a vehicle that they have positioned as a "man's truck." But the most offensive analysis is of a news photograph (165) taken of one of the towers at the World Trade Center on September 11. Bullock sees an attacking monster in the billowing smoke.

Bullock takes a Freudian turn by suggesting that the real reason no one admits to using subliminal techniques is that we do not want to accept the truth about ourselves. Again, he goes through some classic psychological experiments, including the one where a cohort lies to see if the actual participants would change an obviously fight answer to the wrong one. He again talks about the billions of dollars spent studying subliminal perception in psychology since the 1950s (172). With that kind of money he may be confusing subliminal studies with motivation studies, which have been done.

Bullock includes a "How to Use Subliminal Techniques" section in his book. But before getting into the techniques part, he notes that the Federal Trade Commission has declined to take action against advertisers who have allegedly used subliminal techniques, even though Wilson Bryan Key presented "innumerable examples of subliminal techniques ..." (174). He says that government agencies have good reason because of severe political and economic consequences. He does not consider the option that no one has been prosecuted because these subliminal embeds do not exist. Bullock considers the greatest problem is the denial by society rather than the actual use of subliminal techniques. And with that, he segues into his how-to section.

He notes three possibilities regarding the illustrations in his book (Bullock 2004a, 193 [his emphasis]):

* The artist deliberately created the subliminals to psychologically manipulate the viewer.

* The artist unconsciously created the subliminals without realizing that she or he was doing so.

* The appearance of the subliminals is entirely coincidental.

Therein lies the basic problem in that the public fear of subliminal advertising all requires them to believe there exists a deep, dark conspiracy of secrecy. With so many products, so many clients, and so many people involved in the approval and production of an ad, it is not even possible that everyone has kept this dirty little secret for decades and decades in an industry where everyone talks. As noted by Rotfeld (2001) on subliminal advertising in general, "The preparation of every ad or commercial involves many people, and it is difficult to conceive how any advertiser could keep the inclusion of subliminal messages secret. The advertising managers would have to know about it. The copywriters and art directors, the people who plan the ads, would have to work out how the subliminal messages would be hidden. The people who produce the ad would have to be informed, since they put it in final form and need to make certain the hidden messages are properly reproduced. All it would take would be one person to stand up and say, 'Look at what we did!'" (153).


Bullock has a disclaimer dropped throughout the book: on the copyright page, at the beginning of the annotated notes, and throughout the notes when referring to specific ads. The full disclaimer reads
 My analyses of all the illustrations in this book are based solely
 on the appearance of the pictures. I can only speculate as to how
 the creators of the illustrations intended them to be perceived.
 Furthermore, I am not inferring in any way that the models
 portrayed in the pictures had any knowledge or understanding of the
 "secret" meanings articulated in my hypotheses. (Bullock 2004a, 235)

So not only did he not ask permission to use these ads, but Bullock also did not talk to anyone on the agency or client side to see if what he suggests was part of the strategy in creating the ads. He does note on the copyright page where he lists all the trademarked names that "none of the companies referred to herein have endorsed this book or are affiliated with it in any way." Bullock makes it very clear, at least in the "fine print" (that is, in places other than the main text of the book) that these are his opinions and that they are only opinions.

Bullock also cites and quotes heavily from the psychology literature but is very dismissive of research more directly related to advertising and marketing. All the psychology studies are assumed to be pristine, while those against subliminal advertising are somehow flawed. One might also note that laboratory experiments often do not reflect real life.

Bullock relies heavily on psychodynamic theory of repression, which can be and is debated even among psychologists. He talks about how viewers of ads block/distort/sanitize the sexual embeds in the ads. But this assumes that there are nasty negative things airbrushed or manipulated in the ads. Many in advertising would adamantly contend that this is a wrong assumption (Haberstroh 1984).

The back cover of Bullock's (2004a) book states, "August Bullock is an attorney who presents the evidence of subliminal advertising as though he were addressing a jury. Even skeptical readers will not be disappointed." His writing is peppered with phrases such as "makes perfect sense" or "it is perfectly logical to think" or "implied in the picture" or "it is perfectly reasonable to conclude." And his trump, sent in a letter to the author, "If optical illusions are perceived unconsciously, it's quite logical to think they are employed in advertising" (Bullock 2004b). Perhaps this non sequitur is logical to him, but he certainly has not proven that to be a fact.

In Bullock's "how-to" section, he points out something that advertisers and their agencies could do, but they do not. Bullock also notes that the study of subliminal techniques is not included in most curricula. For those of us in academe, there is a good reason: subliminal techniques do not work because they do not work they are not a business practice and, perhaps more importantly, it would be wrong to teach something that is unethical even if it did work and was used.

Innuendo isn't the same thing as subliminal. There is a difference. With innuendo, no one is trying to hide anything. With subliminal, they are trying to sneak something past the reader. In fact, when writers use double entendres, they want the reader/viewer to get both meanings. The copy does not work and loses its cleverness if the reader does not "get it." But there is nothing subliminal about it.

Bullock would probably say that I am repressing the true facts. That is, he blames those who do not see the ambiguity and the subliminal messages as being threatened by the idea. But then, I think he is seeing things that are not there.

Perhaps, it is the ethical implications, as mentioned above, that makes subliminal advertising a sensitive subject for those working in the advertising business. It reduces the credibility of both advertisers and their agencies, not to mention that of the people working in the media whose cooperation would also be needed to make certain that the hidden images stay hidden during publication or broadcast. The public perception of subliminal advertising and the reduced credibility by the advertising industry has been a concern of advertisers for decades.

As far back as 1984, the American Association of Advertising Agencies produced ads to help in an image-building campaign (Higgins 1986). One ad, which was mailed to magazines and newspapers, focused on subliminal advertising by showing a cocktail glass with ice cubes and the headline "People have been trying to find the breasts in these ice cubes since 1957" (Levine 1991).

Just as the advertising industry reacted negatively to the suggestion of subliminal advertising 20 years ago, a similar backlash occurred when Bullock (2004a) promoted his book on a listserv discussion line. Various comments came fast and furious from advertising scholars, many of whom had worked professionally in the advertising industry.

Jim Goodnight, former Executive-in-Residence at a private university, stated that the reason he thinks the subliminal advertising topic created such a furor is because it is so anti-intellectual. "It is like having someone publish a book for the Flat Earth Society as a serious scientific study.... When you've looked at as many recall scores as most of us have, you know that advertising is the art of the blatant message, not the hidden one." Jim Avery, an author of a campaigns text book, suggested this simile: "... the comparison of studying subliminal advertising was like a chemist giving serious discussion to alchemy." Tom O'Guinn, an author of one of the major introductory texts for advertising, commented, "I certainly understand people's fear of having yet another book on this fiction that will not die. If I had a $ for every time I've had to convince someone that they are more likely to find BIGFOOT than produce a working subliminal ad, I would be a very rich man."

Why This Is Important

The concern for credibility is always an issue with advertising. The perception of the public affects that credibility. Conducted as a comparison of two earlier studies of consumer awareness and perception of subliminal advertising, a survey of students in a Mass Communication and Society class produced similar results to those of Rogers and Smith (1993), which replicated many of the findings of an earlier study by Zanot, Pincus, and Lamp (1983). All three showed that a large majority (74%-84%) had heard of subliminal advertising. Of those who had heard of subliminal advertising, a large number (68%-85%) thought that advertisers used it and most (68%-78%) thought that subliminal advertising was effective (see Table 1).

Over a span of more than 20 years with different samples the results held up, so it is still a valid statement that "subliminal advertising has become [and continues to be] a recognizable part of the culture, despite the lack of scientific evidence that it is practical or even possible" (Rogers and Smith 1993, 16).

It is important to remember that people do not act on reality but rather on their perceptions of reality. Therefore, these beliefs--valid or not--will affect the consumers' attitudes toward advertised products and the advertising industry. "Academics have also scoffed at the lack of scientific evidence and documentation for the existence of the phenomenon as provided by popularizers such as Wilson Bryan Key. Apparently the general public believes differently" (Zanot, Pincus, and Lamp 1983). The public likes to believe the worst about advertising, and that makes it difficult to refute subliminal advertising charges.

What Does This Mean for Consumers?

As long as popular authors bring their road show on subliminal advertising back to the front of consumer awareness, they needlessly scare consumers into believing that they are being psychologically manipulated.

Consumers already have a collection of fears of advertising's power (e.g., see Rotfeld 2001, chap. 10), and this is yet another area of needless consumer paranoia.

What was correct when first stated by Klass (1958) almost five decades ago is equally true today: "Fears about the ability of subliminal stimulation to influence behavior markedly are grossly exaggerated.... subliminal advertising is not the technique that will revolutionize the principles and methods of the mass communication industry" (150). That has certainly proven to be the case.

The bottom line is that consumers need not worry about psychological manipulation from subliminal advertising. Maybe somewhere, somehow, there is an advertiser willing to waste money in this manner, but no consumer should care. Subliminal advertising just is not effective. Therefore, when someone tries to read too much into an advertisement, consumers should trust their own eyes. As a final thought, because these men who see the sexual images in so much advertising reference Freudian psychology, it seems appropriate to dismiss their ideas of subliminal advertising with the most-often repeated quote from Freud: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."


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Sheri J. Broyles is an associate professor of advertising at the Department of Journalism and Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism, University of North Texas, Denton, TX (
A Comparison of Awareness and Perceptions of Subliminal Advertising

 Pincus, Student
 and Lamp Rogers and sample
 (1983) Smith (1993) (2004)

Familiar with concept of 81% 74% 84%
 subliminal advertising
Of those who are familiar 81 68 85
 with subliminal advertising,
 those who believe advertisers
 use it
Of those who believe advertisers 68 72 78
 use subliminal advertising,
 those who believe it is
Sample size 209 400 266
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Author:Broyles, Sheri J.
Publication:Journal of Consumer Affairs
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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