The New Subliminal Advertising


If you have ever walked through a supermarket, fast-forwarded through commercials or surfed the Web, you’ve probably been bombarded with more subconscious advertisements than you can imagine.

In recent years, many businesses in the U.S. and around the world have turned to new and unusual marketing techniques. Their aim is to influence customers’ purchase decisions with music, metaphors, flash advertising and other tricks that can affect us without even knowing it. While these advertisements are not considered subliminal — particularly because subliminal ads are banned in several countries and frowned upon in the U.S. — they do rely on many of the same tactics.

“Companies are reaching a point where conventional advertising no longer works,” says Martin Lindstrom, a branding consultant and the author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy. “Our attention is just gone. People don’t look at a full TV ad anymore, so companies need to find other avenues to stand out.”

According to Lindstrom, retailers are beginning to rely on subtle cues, like inserted sounds and other sensory information. Fast food and beverage companies, for example, are more likely to include the sound of a sizzling steak or a beer can popping open in order to impose a more visceral desire in the viewer’s mind.

“These sounds generate cravings, and cravings are one of the most powerful factors you can activate in our behavior,” Lindstrom says. “If you can put cravings into commercials strategically, people won’t even hear what you’re talking about, they’ll just go out and buy.”

Likewise, Lindstrom notes that some flower shops in Europe will play old love songs to make shoppers feel nostalgic or guilty enough to buy a dozen roses, while supermarkets in the U.S. often pick music with a certain beat that causes the consumer to want to keep shopping.

But the subconscious cues don’t end there. Even when you fast-forward through television commercials, you are likely influenced by advertising without being aware of it.

“You’ll have a brand logo pop up as you fast-forward through the commercials, and we have found this does actually change your purchase behavior,” says Gavan J. Fitzsimons, a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University. “I can say with certainty that firms are very much aware that people are fast-forwarding past these spots and trying actively to figure out how to have an impact.”

Subconscious Ads on the Web

Fitzsimons believes online advertisers make use of these tricks as well.

Initially, Internet advertisers favored the use of large pop-up ads that annoyed consumers. But now, some have deliberately shifted to a more unobtrusive and subtle ad placement.

"We’re seeing page placements that are off to the side, in places where you might not notice yourself gravitating toward one place or another,” Fitzsimons says. “Those very subtle cues are much more effective than the pop-up variety.”

In fact, this may become more of an issue in the coming months, thanks to the recent release of Google Instant, a revised version of the search engine that shows search results as you type. Each time you type a new letter in the search bar, the page refreshes and so do the advertisements.

According to Fitzsimons, even though the ads pop up so quickly, your brain is able to register them, though you’re not consciously paying attention. And in a way, these brief “flash” advertisements could affect you more than if you paused for a moment to absorb them fully.

“As consumers, we watch ads with a defensive screen up telling us ‘this is trying to sell us something, watch out.’ But with Google Instant, your defensive screen is not up, and these things could fire through and have an impact. That’s exactly the kind of scenario where I think you could be influenced,” Fitzsimons said.

At the moment, there are no studies to support this conclusion, since Google Instant is still brand new. And Google, for their part, said they did not notice this effect when testing Instant before launch.

“As far as the flashes of advertising, we haven’t seen any effect from that,” a Google spokesperson tells MainStreet. “Our research shows it takes three seconds for users to recognize and interact with advertisements.”

Still, even three seconds seems pretty quick to be influenced by an advertisement. It remains to be seen how this will influence marketing agencies down the road, but one thing seems clear: We are in many ways witnessing a new and slightly more acceptable version of subliminal advertising. While subliminal ads imply that you can be influenced by something that you might never normally be able to notice (like a figure that flashes on screen for a tenth of a second), the new breed of advertisements incorporate small details like music that can appeal to your subconscious even though you are fully capable of noticing it after the fact.

The Birth of Subliminal Ads

Subliminal advertising as we know it began with a hoax.

Back in 1957, a marketing executive named James Vicary made an incredible claim.  By flashing the words “eat popcorn” and “drink Coca Cola” onscreen in a movie theatre for a split second, Vicary said he had managed to boost sales of popcorn and Coke that night.

Vicary had long been interested with the notion of influencing people’s behavior through subconscious marketing tricks, and is in fact credited with coining the term subliminal advertising. However, five years after the experiment, Vicary admitted in an interview that he didn’t have enough data to make the claim that it worked, and in fact, he was never able to recreate the results.

Despite this dubious beginning, subliminal advertising has continued to captivate consumers, psychologists and even legislators.

In the years since Vicary’s initial experiment, some have suspected the presence of subliminal messages in everything from tobacco advertisements to Coke. In one famous print ad for Gibley’s Gin from the 1970s, some readers spotted the word ‘sex’ written on the ice cubes.

Perhaps the most notable recent example was an advertisement placed by the Republican National Committee during the 2000 presidential election. At one point, the ad cuts off part of the word ‘Democrats’ and simply flashes the word ‘rats’ on the screen.

This incident prompted an investigation from the Federal Communications Commission and in the process, shed light on the gray legal area that subliminal ads fall under.

After the political ad appeared, the FCC sent out inquiries to more than 200 TV stations who had aired the advertisement, and found that the stations either did not notice the subliminal message and therefore were not doing anything malicious, or alternatively, the stations did notice the message and therefore argued it was not considered subliminal, meaning they too did nothing wrong. Nothing more happened with the case.

According to the FCC’s website, its official policy is that subliminal ads are considered “deceptive” and does not “serve the public interest,” but there are “no formal rules” on this form of advertising. And in fact, the FCC had only responded to one other complaint about subliminal messages prior to this, which stemmed from a Dallas radio station’s anti-smoking ad campaign.

Yet, for all the controversy, it’s unclear how often, if ever, subliminal ads have actually been used commercially.

“There is almost no documented evidence of successful subliminal advertising done by anybody,” said Fitzsimons, the marketing professor. But one reason that we continue to be captivated by these ads is because there is a surprising amount of evidence proving their potential to be effective. “We know now that if someone were to run such an advertisement, consumers could be influenced.”

Each year, another study seems to come out proving the effect of subliminal messages to various degrees. In 2007, researchers found that subliminal ads will influence decisions, but only if you’re paying close attention. Two years later, another study came out arguing that subliminal ads work regardless of whether you’re paying close attention, and these ads may actually work better if the message is negative.

Likewise, there are multiple studies highlighting the impact that background music can have on consumers. Fitzsimons points to one study in which one set of shoppers heard secular music while another set heard religious music. Those who heard secular songs were more likely to spend money, while those who listened to religious music were more likely to spend less and put money in the store’s donation box.

It’s this kind of technique that businesses will likely continue to rely on in the future.

What Consumers Need to Know

As consumers, we like to believe we decide when and whether we buy a product, but the rise of these new marketing campaigns may make it more difficult for us to assert complete control over our own buying decisions.

However, according to Lindstrom, just like those doing the marketing, there are some simple tricks that we can use to protect ourselves.

First and most importantly, the key is to minimize the amount of time you spend in the store.

“As soon as you go into a retail store you go into the zone of seduction. The longer time you spend in a retail store, no matter how clever you may be, the more money you’ll spend,” Lindstrom said. “I advise a lot of consumers to just put $1 in the parking meter so the time is limited, or at least don’t bring credit cards with you and just spend cash.”

Aside from that, Lindstrom emphasizes that consumers should opt for a smaller shopping cart since we have a natural tendency to want to fill it up, and also, you should never shop while hungry, as it not only increases your appetite for food, but for everything.

Lastly, he says you should try not to bring your kids with you when you shop, as they will only pressure you to buy more. Of course, we’re not sure this last one really qualifies as a subconscious tactic. After all, kids are never very good at being subtle.

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