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Subliminal Advertisements: What should we know about them?

S. Shyam Prasad

The US public is made aware of subliminal advertisements due to much hue and cry raised by James Vicary’s experiments and its reporting  The effect of subliminal perception is a established fact in medical science. However, the effect of subliminal advertisements is controversial. The purpose of this article is to increase the awareness of subliminal advertisements among its readers.
In India if one were to watch a cricket match, one would end up watching more advertisements than the cricket match. Advertisements have become a part of our lives. It is no wonder that many people describe marketing as being synonymous with advertising and the other way[1]. This clearly goes on to show that advertisements have a major role to play in the modern society. Advertising data in India shows that                     . If this is so, how much do we know about the effects of advertisements? This article however is not about advertising but discusses only on a small aspect of advertisement known as subliminal advertisement.
Subliminal Advertisement
Subliminal, literally means ‘below threshold’. This is contrary to supraliminal or ‘above threshold’.  Subliminal stimuli are any sensory stimuli below an individual’s threshold for conscious perception.[2]Some studies on humans have shown that subliminal inputs do not produce strong or lasting changes in behaviour.[3]Recently in 2012, a review of functional magnetic resonance imaging studies shows that subliminal stimuli activate specific regions of the brain despite participants being unaware.[4]In order to produce subliminal perception, Visual stimuli may be quickly flashed before an individual can process them, or flashed and then masked, thereby interrupting the processing. Audio stimuli may be played below audible volumes, masked by other stimuli. A subliminal advertising is that where an image or a message is embedded in print, audio or video messages so faintly that they are not consciously perceived. This has drawn attention of the advertisers, academicians, public and the governments for the past three decades.
James Vicary, a New Jersey marketing researcher popularized the term “subliminal advertising”. He claimed that in an experiment in which the movie goers were repeatedly shown 0.03 second advertisements of ‘drink Coca-Cola’ and ‘eat popcorn’ resulted in significant increase in the product sales. His findings struck fear in public’s mind. As a consequence, CIA produced a report on “The operational potential of subliminal perception” based on his reporting.  In 1958, this led to subliminal cuts being banned in US. It was thought that “certain individuals can at certain times and under certain circumstances be influenced to act abnormally without awareness of the influence”.  As recently as in April 2006, the respected magazine New Scientist carried an article entitled “Subliminal Advertising May Work After All”. Based almost entirely on a study called: “Beyond Vicary’s fantasies: The impact of subliminal priming and brand choice”. It showed that the words ‘Lipton Ice Tea’, screened subliminally, seemed to influence a later choice of beverage. Leaving aside the methodological limitations (like confounding brand name and product type), the audience had to be in a high need state (i.e. already very thirsty) for the effect to occur. 
Marketing’s major arm is advertising and is a prominent industry in itself. However, it is accused of engaging in deceptive subliminal advertising which most us are unaware of. They are blamed for bypassing our unconscious mind using subliminal techniques, and tap into the weakness of our unconscious mind. They are thought to manipulate and control us in many ways. It is presumed that sex appeals to both the conscious and subconscious mind by attracting attention and influencing the behavior through drive
control. Moog writes: 
Some of the most pervasive, sexual imagery in advertising is more symbolic than blatant, although the connotations are far from subtle. The imagery sends a message to the unconscious, granting permission to fulfill sexual wishes and points the way to an attractor that can facilitate the encounter. 
What is soothing to our disturbed mind is that none of the accusations have been proved beyond doubt. The experiment of subliminal advertisement was repeated and it failed to produce the result. In a 1962 Advertising Age interview, Vicary admitted that the original study was “a gimmick” and that the amount of data was “too small to be meaningful”. Yet the fear has not died down.
Because perception is a “function more of active construction on the part of the perceiver than of the existence of the messages themselves” (Vokey and Read, 1985), advertiser have to take into consideration the peoples concern. Even though the advertisers know that subliminal advertising doesn’t produce the desired effect and that they don’t use it, they have to be treat advertisements more carefully to dispel any doubts in the consumers mind. 
Take the following advertisements of Vodafone and Cadbury
  1. Vodafone advertisement where the pug plays cupid between two kids on a playground and
  2. the Cadbury advertisement where a young boy and girl share a chocolate while the father walks on nonchalantly.
These advertisements are not in good taste. I am afraid of these kinds of advertisements (there are many more of similar nature) may have subliminal effect on children that the childhood romance is encouraged in our society.
On the other hand, take the example of an advertisement where Dhoni appears for Ashok Leyland, shares lassi with the truck drivers and mechanics. This too may have the effect of raising the status of the truck drivers. In other words, this advertisement may have subliminally a positive or  a good effect.
It is not established either way about the effect of subliminal advertisement. However, as we all know that prevention is better than cure; it is advisable for the society to be alert and nip the move in bud. Being knowledgeable about the existence of subliminal advertisements is half way in preventing its unwanted ramifications. The other half would be if the advertisements themselves are either banned are at least ignored. This article is directed to achieve the first half.   
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[2] Loftus, Elizabeth F.; Klinger, Mark R. (June 1992). “Is the unconscious smart or dumb?”. American Psychologist 47 (6): 761–765. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.47.6.761 .PMID 1616173.
[3] Pratkanis, A. R.; Greenwald, A. G. (1988). “Recent perspectives on unconscious processing: Still no marketing applications”. Psychology and Marketing 5 (4): 337.doi:10.1002/mar.4220050405 . 
[4] Brooks, S.J.; Savov V, Allzén E, Benedict C, Fredriksson R, and Schiöth HB. (February 2012). “Exposure to subliminal arousing stimuli induces robust activation in the amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulate, insular cortex and primary visual cortex: a systematic meta-analysis of fMRI studies.”.NeuroImage 59 (3): 2962–2973. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.09.077 . PMID 22001789.