Subliminal Messages Essay Research Paper Subliminal Messages

Subliminal Messages Essay, Research Paper Subliminal Messages in Advertising: The Case For and Against Lisa Caswell Syracuse University Running Head: Subliminal Messages Subliminal

Subliminal Messages Essay, Research Paper

Subliminal Messages in Advertising: The Case For

and Against Lisa Caswell Syracuse University

Running Head: Subliminal Messages 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

they 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

claimed 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

of 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

would 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

educated 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

conducted 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

from 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

firm 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

ridiculed 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

researched 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

on 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)

asserts 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

of 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

depicting 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

types 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

messages 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

research 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

become 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. References Townsend, J. M.,

Levy, G. D. (1990). Effects of Potential Partners’

Costume and Physical Attractiveness on Sexuality

and Partner Selection. Journal of Psychology.

371-379. Block, M. P., and Vanden Bergh, B. G.

(1985). Can You Sell Subliminal Messages to

Consumers? Journal of Advertising. 59-62. Dixon,

N. F. Subliminal Advertising: The Nature of a

Controversy. London: McGraw-Hill, 1971.

Greenwald, A. G., Klinger, M. R., and Liu, T. J.

(1989). Unconscious Processing of Dichoptically

Masked Words. Memory and Cognition. 35-47

Haber, R. N. (1959). Public Attitudes Regarding

Subliminal Advertising. Public Opinion Quarterly.

291-93. Key, W. B. (1972). Subliminal

Seduction: Ad Media’s Manipulation of a

Not-So-Innocent America. New York: Signet.

Moore, T. E. (1982). Subliminal Advertising:

What You See Is What You Get. Journal of

Marketing. 38-47. Packard, V. The Hidden

Persuaders. New York: Pocket Books, 1957.

Rogers, M., and. Seiler, C. A. (1994). The

answer is no: a national survey of advertising

industry practitioners and their clients about

whether they use subliminal advertising. Journal of

Advertising Research. 36-46 Rogers, M., Smith,

K. H. (1993). Public perceptions of subliminal

advertising: why practitioners shouldn’t ignore this

issue. Journal of Advertising Research. 10-19.

Vokey, j. R., and Read, J. D., Subliminal

Messages: Between the Devil and the Media.

American Psychologist. 1231-1239. Zanot, E. J.,

Pincus, J. D., and Lamp, E. J. (1983). Public

Perceptions of Subliminal Advertising. Journal of

Advertising. 39-45.