Consumer Basics

The Subliminal Ad

Was that an ad that flashed by?

Subliminal ads are ads that contain messages that, supposedly, bypass our conscious minds and enter the brain through the unconscious back door.

This type of advertising got a lot of attention in 1957 when market researcher James Vicary did an experiment with very quickly flashing messages in a movie theater in New Jersey.  Specifically, moviegoers were repeatedly shown 0.03-second ads for Coca-Cola and popcorn, like the one below:

Vicary then claimed that the flashed ads, which no one consciously noticed, significantly increased product sales.  Unfortunately, Vicary didn’t keep many records of his experiment and many have called his study a gimmick. That said, the ultimate message that came out of Vicary’s exercise (i.e., that subliminal messages could affect people’s conscious thoughts and actions) spread like wildfire.

As a result, in 1958, the National Association of Broadcasters banned subliminal ads. The FTC also views these ads as inherently deceptive and therefore illegal. Cynics and the paranoid among us might wonder, though, how it is you effectively prohibit a practice that, by its very definition, isn’t detected by the conscious mind?

We’ll leave it for you to decide whether or not The practice of displaying images or words within an ad in a very subtle manner that is somehow concealed from the audience’s consciousness, yet still manages to have the effect of influencing members of that audience to act in some desired way, or not. is really a fact or fiction.  But while you’re left pondering, just know that there are lots of people out there who are constantly claiming to have found “hidden” symbols, text, or pictures in ads. But whether or not the material was purposely hidden in the ad can only be answered by the advertisers.  And we can guess what their answer will be, can’t we?

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