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  • Colter Keathley

Subliminal Advertising


During the last three years of my advertising courses, a few professors brought up the topic of subliminal advertising. The general consensus among them was that ad men in the 60’s tried it and failed. We define subliminal advertising as “The use by advertisers of images and sounds to influence consumers’ responses without their being conscious of it.”

The primary example for this definition is James Vicary. In 1957 he proclaimed at a press conference that flashing the slogans “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat Popcorn” increased sales by 18.1% and 57.7% at a participating movie theater. Later the Manager of the cinema told Motion Picture Daily that the experiment had no impact on sales--sending Vicary and into disgrace. Several other studies have also suggested a similar lack of results for this particular definition of Subliminal Advertising.

For me, a big part of college has been about becoming a problem solver and free thinker. I felt like the common definition and examples of subliminal advertising was far too narrow, so I’m using this platform to make this claim: Advertising is subliminal, it just hides in plain sight.

Modern Americans see about 5,000 ads/brand exposures daily. However, we only recall around 12 advertisements a day. Plus, the internet has further diluted advertising messages with thousands of available comments, reviews and other information that diverts from a marketing team's original message. With such astoundingly low recall numbers, it’s interesting that a whopping $95.35 billion a year is spent on advertising in the U.S.

To the left is an image of 5,000 dots. Let’s imagine that each dot is an advertisement, backed by planning, research and creative.

Each dot will try it’s best to reach you and catch your attention throughout the day. However, the part you don’t know is that tomorrow someone will ask you to recall a few of your favorites?

How did you do? You might remember a few of the extra outlandish ads, but most of them probably scrolled past your screen, went unnoticed by the highway or were instantly clicked away. There are thousands of marketing messages out there getting less time and attention than you give to zipping up your pants. They aren’t hiding or textbook “subliminal”, but at the skyrocketing rates of ad impressions, they seem to be.

While writing this blog, another example came to me. I went through my room and found all the objects that were branded. There were over 25 brands sitting around my room ranging from last night’s Whataburger cup to a Bic lighter. Without a message, they simply sat in my room as a reminder that their company existed.

This train of thought led perfectly into my next example, product placement in movies. By writing products into a story line, brands can quietly integrate themselves into content that people are actually choosing to watch. The image below has a few examples of these practices.

With so many advertising messages out there, advertisers have begun hiding behind each other. We aren’t splicing a call to action into the frames of movies, instead we’re pumping out incomprehensible amounts of content into every section of american life. People either don’t notice us or just don’t notice that they’re noticing. Advertising is subliminal, it just hides in plain sight.


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