How did the uproar over subliminal advertising affect the ad industry? (Hint: it's not what you think.) Carrie McLaren studies the paradox of ad criticism.
In the annals of advertising few strategies are more notorious than subliminal persuasion. If you asked your average Joe to name the advertising practices he objected to, somewhere after spam and before tampon commercials he'd probably mention subliminals.
The public uproar over subliminals took place over two key periods. The first, in the late 1950s, focused on James Vicary's claims that he had inserted split-second, invisible ad messages into movies. In the 1970s, Wilson Bryan Key rekindled the frenzy with his book Subliminal Seduction, which purported to reveal that ads for liquor and other everyday products were riddled with hidden skulls and humping donkeys.
Experts have long since debunked the subliminal hoaxes, and many people with more than a passing knowledge of advertising know not to take this nonsense seriously, but I can't help but be fascinated with the subliminal myth, particularly as a critique of advertising. Of all the people who have criticized advertising over the years, the men who popularized subliminal advertising seem to have gotten the most mileage. Books on the topic (Key's as well as Vance Packard's Hidden Persuaders) were best-sellers, and their ideas circulated far more widely than other social critiques. In the late 1950s and again in the 1970s, the outcry over subliminals even inspired legislators to draft laws banning the practice.
For Vance Packard, the critique of subliminals was a minor part of his larger concern that industrial psychology was manipulating the public. Key, on the other hand, focused almost entirely on subliminal manipulation. Though Packard and Key had very different approaches--Packard backed his claims with industry sources, while Key ignored whatever the industry said and essentially made things up--both authors tapped into deeply entrenched Cold War--era fears of brainwashing and mind control. Two decades may have separated the subliminal scares, but the popular critique was essentially the same: secret, hidden messages in advertising manipulate an unwitting public into buying things they don't need.
With all this conspiratorial talk, I can't help but wonder what effect it has had in the end. Advertising has long proved itself adept at co-opting critiques of consumer culture (think Nike, Sprite, Diesel, and other brands built on the mocking of advertising). In other cases the industry hasn't even needed to co-opt its critics, because the criticism was ambiguous or misguided at the outset. And that, I suspect, was the case with the attack on subliminals: the effort to expose advertiser manip-ulation ironically benefited the ad industry, at least in the short term. How and why that happened is what I hope to show below.
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In 1957, Hidden Persuaders detailed the "strange and rather exotic" techniques of motivational research, exposing the marriage of psychology and advertising. While we now take it for granted that professional persuaders are hired to reach us through our emotions, this idea caused quite a stir in the late '50s. Packard became a media sensation, and his book topped the best-seller list, remaining there for a year.
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Packard never used the word "subliminal" in his book, but he made passing reference to a New Jersey cinema that flashed split-second ads during regular screenings. These ads--exhortations to "Eat Popcorn" and "Drink Coca-Cola"--were invisible to the naked eye but supposedly influenced viewers subconsciously. To his chagrin, Packard couldn't verify the theater. When he contacted the newspaper that had run the story, a spokesman told him that "although the facts we published are well attested, the authorities in question are unwilling to come any further into the open."
James Vicary, a motivational researcher mentioned several times in Packard's book, smelled gold. Hoping to ride the Hidden Persuaders hype, Vicary stepped forward and took credit for a practice he called "subliminal" projection. Clearly, he wasn't one to hide from publicity, and so it's unlikely that he was the authority the newspaper contacted. Nonetheless, he churned out press releases claiming that he flashed hidden messages during films--an effort to promote his consultancy business. To add credibility to his claims of manipulating unwitting viewers, Vicary cited studies showing that subliminal advertising had increased popcorn sales by precisely 57.5 percent, and Coca-Cola sales by 18.1 percent. Needless to say, the ploy worked. The press homed in on Vicary's subliminal scheme. The New Yorker, Newsday, and the Saturday Review, among others, deplored the subconscious sell (the most alarming invention since the atomic bomb, according to Newsday). Representative William Dawson of Utah said subliminal advertising was "made to order for the establishment and maintenance of a totalitarian government if put to political purposes." The National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters banned the use of subliminals by its members. And the New York State Senate unanimously passed a bill outlawing the technique.
Such vitriol made Vicary a rich man. Far from shunning the controversial new practice, corporations clamored for his services. Movie theaters and television and radio stations across the country began trying out subliminals. Television stations in Maine, Los Angeles, and Canada ran subliminal spots. Radio station WAAF in Chicago sold subaudible advertising time, after testing whispered messages like "Drink 7-Up" and "Buy Oklahoma Oil."
The more cautious promised to use subliminals as a "public service tool." Radio station WCCO in Minneapolis ran "phantom" messages warning of "slippery roads" during icy weather, "mail cards now" at Christmas, and "Ike Tonight" when President Eisenhower was scheduled to speak. Precon Process and Equipment, another company that sprang up to hawk subliminal services, told the Wall Street Journal that it was seeking financial backing to study whether or not subconscious projection could teach kids their multiplication tables. The U.S. Army also jumped on the bandwagon, directing its Human Factors Research Division to examine if the process could be used for education.
Before long, however, media professionals grew suspicious, questioning whether the tactic actually worked. To resolve the matter, the FCC held a demonstration in January 1958, limited to government officials and the press. At that session, the phrase "Eat Popcorn" was flashed at five second intervals during a television program. When no one found themselves unexpectedly craving popcorn, the dignitaries seemed placated. The only reported response was that of Senator Charles E. Potter: "I think I want a hot dog."
Gradually, people in advertising stopped pumping money into subliminal snake oil, and by June 1958, James Vicary's Subliminal Projection Company had closed up shop. Corporate advertisers, presumably ashamed of having been fooled, stopped talking about subliminal advertising, except to deny ever having used it.
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Almost two decades after the first subliminal sensation, Canadian professor Wilson Bryan Key stormed the press with Subliminal Seduction: Ad Media's Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America (1973). Unlike Packard, Key had little use for nuance or subtlety, and his book hammered home a single premise--that sinister hidden "embeds" lurk behind everyday commercial messages. Unintelligible to the conscious mind, embeds were said to ride the fast lane to the id, luring unwitting consumers with appeals to their primal instincts. The word sex, according to Key, was emblazoned on everything from baby-doll ads to Las Vegas travel guides. In a single whiskey ad, Key found a volcano, a mouse, a skull, scorpions, three wolf faces, the head of a rat, a lizard, a shark, a white bird, various masks, fish, a swan, a cat, and dozens of sex's. The "carefully calculated banality" of soap commercials and beer ads was said to prevent members of the public (with the exception of Key, of course) from seeing media images for what they really were.
Like Hidden Persuaders, Subliminal Seduction ignited a media frenzy. Government officials, religious leaders and important people everywhere spoke out against the conspiracy. Politicians introduced legislation, and government agencies established policies against subliminal selling.
Controversies over subliminal campaigns erupted throughout the 1970s and 1980s. During this period, Key wrote three more books with the same premise (Clam Plate Orgy, Media Sexploitation, Age of Manipulation), spreading the word about embeds ever more widely. In doing so, he not only earned himself millions of dollars in royalties and lecture fees, he also accomplished what he considered a social mission: increasing public awareness of subliminal persuasion.
By 1989, however, Key seemed to have grown uncharacteristically apprehensive. Perhaps he suspected that his efforts had helped the advertising industry as much as they harmed it. Key prefaced his fourth and final book, Age of Manipulation , with an "Author's Warning." Readers, he observed, could make practical use of the book in two ways. First, they could use it to defend themselves against "exploitation by picture and word symbols." But, he noted with dismay, readers "preoccupied on-ly with media-propagated self-indul--gence" would use the book to "prepare them for profitable careers in advertising and public relations." He based this observation on the experience of his previous books:
Since Subliminal Seduction appeared in 1973, subliminal techniques have become far more pervasive, sophisticated, technologically advanced, and more profitably applied to anesthetize the U.S. population against the intrusion of reality into their daily lives. Few advertising or media people are unfamiliar with my earlier books. Many appear so informed that they would pass rigorous examination of the subject. In public, however, they steadfastly maintain innocence, repeating ad nauseam that subliminal perception does not exist.
It's hard to draw conclusions from Key's observation because he was somewhat of a crackpot. Yet his concerns about the ways people used his books were partly justified. Advertising educators used them in class, PR specialists studied them, and entrepreneurs read them in the search for new opportunities. Though none did so in quite the way that Key imagined, they nonetheless took advantage of the subliminal controversy.
New Woman magazine, for example, created a system called "subliminal synergism," which it claimed made more readers look at its ads. Placing an ad's dominant colors behind the headline of an adjacent editorial page would prompt readers to move their eyes from the article to the ad, New Woman told potential advertisers.
Copywriter and audio guru Shelly Palmer made a name for himself by employing "subliminal" frequencies in broadcast commercials. Although the FCC bars TV commercials from depicting the consumption of alcoholic beverages and airing the sounds of a "gambling environment," Palmer touted his subtle sound waves--of crackling ice and clanging bells--as a way for clients such as Bally's and Seagram's to avoid government restrictions.
Yet Key's books did not quite do for subliminals what Vicary's effort did. Most advertisers who read Key's books were reluctant to try subliminals--not because they thought the tactic was unethical--but because they thought it didn't work. Admen mocked the supposedly widespread practice as ridiculously inefficient, while contending that no one in advertising actually used it. Why bother hiding naked breasts and rippled torsos, they reasoned, when you could show them? For admen in the '70s, subliminal advertising was not a social threat but--worse!--a waste of money. (Just to be sure it was a waste of money, Madison Avenue continually tested subliminals' effectiveness long after the technique was considered unethical.)
Advertisers' responses to Key's books were, then, a product of well-founded skepticism. Regardless of the extent to which advertisers seriously tried to use subliminals, Key's books were a boon for business--because the way Key said subliminals worked had next to nothing to do with how they actually did work. If there were any results from embedding messages and images into media, they were, as one psychologist wryly put it, "as subliminal as the stimuli.'' There were, however, other clear and visible signs of subliminal selling for anyone who bothered to pay attention.
First, Subliminal Seduction overstated the power of subliminal influences, and in so doing inspired an audience to use it on themselves. The hubbub inadvertently created a market for subliminal media, mostly self-help tapes consisting of music, over which "affirmations" had been recorded at a low decibel level. Listeners could not hear the messages, but were supposedly subliminally influenced--as one subliminal publisher put it, like "a dog whistle going straight into your brain." There was no evidence that this worked; it more than likely did not. Nonetheless, tens of thousands of consumers bought subliminal tapes and, later, videos and computer software. Originally sold only through direct mail, subliminal products began cropping up in retail stores by the late 1980s. At their peak, cassette sales alone brought in an estimated $50 million annually.
Unlike the subliminal media Key criticized, self-help subliminals were voluntarily embraced. Consumers wanted to be subconsciously influenced in a manner they considered desirable. It just so happened that the qualities consumers desired were those promoted by the market. "Prosperity/Living the Dream" was typical, inspiring listeners with messages like "I attract money," and "I deserve the good life." Kids' tapes (or, rather, self-help tapes for parents) were also popular. "Positive Thoughts for Children" offered the sounds of a seashore and, somewhere in there, the assurance "I am loved." "I Am a Great Reader" was designed for tots and even, for consumers with particularly active imaginations, fetuses. The owner of a self-help store in Salt Lake City told a reporter for the Bergen, New Jersey, Record that pregnant women listen to such tapes because "kids come out more intelligent and walk sooner."
Other winners in the subliminal gold mine included "Freedom From Acne," "Winning at the Track" and "I am a genius."
Institutions bought into the subliminal cure as well. South Point Prison in Utah used one called "Pedophilia" to quell criminal impulses. Sound Threshold Systems sold subliminal anti-theft systems to stores. Department stores and grocery store chains would play messages like "Stealing is dishonest" under background Muzak.
Whatever their particular message, subliminal tapes offered easy answers to a host of modern problems. Although the mainstream press usually traced the tapes' roots to get-rich-quick schemes and mail-order scams, the underlying message of these tapes was the same as that of any TV commercial. In a world where the right fragrance brings true love, household cleansers cure fatigue, and carbonated beverages solidify family ties, the subliminal pitch fits right in: buy this and your problems will be solved; listen mindlessly, and you'll be cured.
Outside self-help, subliminal media was comparatively scarce. Yet as any self-respecting marketer knows, scarcity can mean novelty. This brings us to another way the subliminal controversy served what it attacked: "subliminal" became a marketing gimmick, a way of drawing media coverage. In the mid-1980s, as new technologies created vast markets for electronic media, marketers found that subliminal features provided a hook for distinguishing products and services from the glut. Time Warner promoted a video game, Endorfun, by touting the sub-audio messages programmed into the background ("I am powerful," "I am at peace"). The game tanked, but not before receiving widespread press coverage. Around the same time, computer companies began using subliminals in screen savers and other software.
As the arrival of these products indicated, subliminal persuasion was seen as a neutral technology. It's a safe bet that even the form of subliminal persuasion that Key attacked--namely, advertising--didn't offend the public as much as it offended government officials, intellectuals, journalists, and businesspeople. A 1959 public-opinion study found that half of the respondents who professed awareness of subliminal advertising considered the form unethical, yet most of them said they would still watch a TV program that used subliminals. After all, people were curious about subliminals. Still more telling were the numerous spoofs that cropped up, mocking the uproar over subliminals as much ado about nothing. Not long after the first subliminal brouhaha, several radio stations began broadcasting subaudible messages such as "TV's a bore" and "Isn't TV dull?" WAAF in Chicago began offering advertisers subliminal radio commercials: 500 radio spots no one could hear, the station boasted, for only $1,000! Around the same time (1959), comedian Stan Freberg produced a TV commercial for Butter-Nut coffee that featured a cartoon man warning viewers that they were watching a subliminal commercial. As he's speaking, the word subliminal flashes onscreen while fireworks and elephants trumpeting Butter-Nut parade about in the background, eclipsing his speech. Subliminal? Hardly, and that was the joke. The commercial helped launch Butter-Nut nationally and earned several advertising awards.
Even more to the point, in 1990, Seagram's Gin, one of the companies fingered in Subliminal Seduction, devoted its "Hidden Pleasures" campaign to subliminal advertising. Ice cubes appeared airbrushed with clearly outlined golfers and tennis players, air bubbles whispered sweet nothings, and fornicating gin bottles cleverly played up the absurdity of such devices. Seagram's, the ads implied, was so sure of its quality that it had no need for such nonsense. Neither, presumably, did Toyota, whose television commercials promised not to use "cheap advertising tricks to play on your emotions"--while the words exciting and sexy flashed onscreen.
Not everyone in the ad industry thought subliminal advertising was something to make light of. In 1986, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) launched a perfunctory campaign to debunk the subliminal myth and counteract "misperceptions which are sullying advertising's reputation." But what defenders of the ad industry perceived as a threat, individual advertisers saw as an opportunity. Seagram's agency, Ogilvy and Mather, actually commissioned a poll confirming the belief in subliminals in order to promote the "Hidden Pleasures" campaign. Of 800 respondents polled, 61 percent believed advertisers used subliminals to manipulate consumers. By promoting these ostensibly negative findings, Ogilvy and Mather correctly sensed that it would earn free media coverage for Seagram's. The apparent taint of public criticism made the campaign seem ballsy. But the risk was strictly illusory: if 61 percent of the public believed in subliminal advertising, Seagram was shooting for the other 39 percent--for the upscale, cynical adults who "got" the joke. To this audience, the poll results suggested only that 61 percent of respondents were buffoons. The ads flattered the audience, who kindly returned the favor. Seagram's sales increased noticeably after the spoof campaign.
Criticism of subliminal advertising benefited sellers in yet a third way. By suggesting that the only kind of advertising manipulation was subliminal manipulation, the controversy deterred more meaningful discussions of advertising influence. The advertising industry couldn't have asked for a better straw man. Once the idea of subliminal advertising could be revealed as bogus, advertising manipulation could be considered fictitious, too. A 1989 New York magazine article mocking subliminal-phobia was typical of the "enlightened" response to the subliminal critics: "People don't walk around in a semi-trance; buying is a rational, cognitive process." Yet, as any marketer knows, buying is not simply a rational, cognitive process. Despite his shortcomings, Key was quite correct on this count. The power of advertising, he argued, lay in controlling cultural symbols, in linking virility to hard liquor and soap to safety. Such subtle twists of meaning, he argued, shape the cultural environment and, in doing so, influence people's subconscious. Many scholars of advertising would agree. Indeed, there is a great deal of truth to Key's statement that "It's What You Don't See That Sells You"--so long as that claim is read figuratively. It was Key's bizarre, literal interpretations that made it difficult to take anything he wrote seriously. When Key got it wrong, he got it really wrong. The title of his third book (Clam Plate Orgy ), for example, was inspired by the following incident:
After a University of California lecture in San Diego, several students and I dined in a nearby Howard Johnson's restaurant. Our heated talk, which had begun at the university, continued as we squeezed ourselves into the booth. As we chatted, several students casually glanced through menus. When the waitress finally materialized, four out of the six of us, including myself, ordered clam plates. Shortly after the waitress had taken the order and disappeared, I incredulously recalled that since childhood I have loathed clams in any form.... I was extremely annoyed with myself for ordering something I really didn't want to eat.
Key then suggested to the group that someone had "put something into our heads" to eat clams. Could it be the background music? They listened but couldn't detect anything. After more searching, one student pointed to the place mats on the table. The group began studying them, looking for clues. The place mats featured a plate of fried clams under the headline "Dig Into Our Clam Plate," a fact that inspired little interest in itself. Key noted that the text for the copy was modestly suggestive, describing "a batch of succulent tender clams . . . They always COME . . . out crispy and crunchy . . . piled high and crowded with creamy cole slaw."
Nothing illegal, and nothing particularly salacious, Key wrote. But, he added, copy usually only reinforces the imagery. Turning his attention to the image, a plate of fried clams, Key employed an "effective technique of media analysis": he compared the media representation with the actual clams. After ruminating over the camera angle and a lengthy list of discrepancies, his analysis ultimately boiled down to this:
The place mat illustration is not a photographic representation of actual clams, of course, but an airbrush painting. It includes nine caricatured human figures as well as a donkey astride a human figure. The donkey seems to be licking the stomach of the figure upon whose lightly shaded face is a long mustache. To the left of the prostrate face-up male figure appears a female figure with a highly piled coiffure. A head can be seen between her legs. Who would believe a sexual orgy, oral sex, and bestiality could be so deftly incorporated into an innocent restaurant placemat?
Who, indeed? From this anecdote, we might ask the following: is Key, an expert in the power of suggestion, unaware of the power of his own suggestion? Why would anyone attempting to seduce the Howard Johnson's clientele use sex scenes with donkeys? (Why not throw in a few mules? Or puppies, even?) And, more importantly, why should this donkey orgy explain the clam orders when perfectly reasonable explanations go unremarked? For starters, it is quite natural for a group of people engrossed in conversation to give little thought to ordering. Studying the menu would mean missing out on the discussion, so naturally members of the party would listen to what their peers had ordered and leap at the first thing that sounded appetizing. The cue could have been any number of things, but it is certainly worth noting that place mats (essentially print ads) for clam plates could have themselves--sans stomach-licking donkeys--inspired the orders. Advertisers, after all, have developed quite a number of mechanisms for effecting impulsive, split-second decisions. The calculated use of color, typography, emotional appeals, and graphic devices all do their part in "manipulating" consumers. But Key never really takes such mundane details seriously. It's as if something so pedestrian as a picture and a headline couldn't possibly influence anyone; as if, in order to work, advertising must have nudie pictures and death symbols.
Similar episodes are repeated ad nauseam in Key's books. In Subliminal Seduction, Key explains the success of a Bacardi ad by claiming that if a mirror is held above the pictured brandy glass, the mirror image (which is upside-down, mind you) reads u buy. Never mind that the ad itself already implies that message. Similarly, Key takes note of a Virginia Slims ad only for its subliminal cues. Key translates the slogan as "You've Come a Long Way Baby" and claims that the model's right hand "could be touching her genitals--likely her clitoral area." In another ad, a shaggy dog (or a polar bear--the author is not sure which) and a woman have sex in a glass of Sprite. Quips Key, "Bestiality may be illegal throughout most of the world, but, at the symbolic level, it appears to have sold a lot of Sprite." One imagines the man would gaze at a fully nude model, slathered in oil and spread-eagle on a canopy bed, then point out a tattoo on her upper left forearm as suggestive. (He actually goes so far as to claim that men masturbate to Playboy not because of the blatantly pornographic photos but because of the subliminal embeds.)
Key's books might have worked as novels; the embeds could have served as metaphors for the power of advertising--a physical manifestation of advertising's unconscious influence. Alas, readers were not so fortunate. Embeds were not considered metaphors for persuasion--they were the manipulation. The books were therefore easily positioned as self-help guides, for they simplified both media manipulation and the process of combating it. The books argued that there was a relatively quick and easy way of immunizing oneself against advertising persuasion--namely, spotting subliminal embeds.
Ultimately, the particulars of Key's texts are less important than this self-help mission. Even if no one actually read Key's book, people turned the hunt for ad manipulation into a parlor game. Lessons in subliminal advertising became common at civic groups and schools, where the uninitiated were taught how to spot embeds. (Many of us who were in middle school in the late 1970s can remember classroom exercises devoted to finding skulls in liquor ads and deconstructing fashion spreads.) This practice supposedly made people more discriminating, critical media consumers.
The critique of subliminals--in both the 1950s and 1970s--rested on the premise that ads are designed for emotional, not intellectual, impact; for the unconscious rather than the conscious. Key bemoaned the fact that people, particularly Americans, refused to acknowledge the power of the unconscious. He hoped to convince readers that advertisements influenced them without their knowledge. But if ads worked emotionally and unconsciously, why urge people to defend themselves rationally and consciously? Well, because there was no way of shutting off natural responses, so defending oneself consciously, through increased awareness, was the only available option--or so critics like Key professed. Paradoxically, by encouraging readers to defend themselves solely through their own know-how, the books actually deterred them from acknowledging advertising's influence. If unconscious influences can be prevented through awareness, why bother taking the unconscious seriously? By claiming that awareness easily foiled manipulation, the books contributed to the popular delusion that other people were affected by advertising--not oneself.
Even when one grants that Key had a point, he advocated a dubious form of awareness. Contrary to the "seduction," "sexploitation" and "orgies" implied by his titles, real advertising manipulation isn't particularly sexy, nor is it easy to grasp. You can't find it in a mirror or hidden in the shadows or fucking polar bears in ice cubes. So when everyone started hunting for dog heads in Scotch bottles, the reality--that advertiser influence is everyday, ordinary, and infinitely more subtle--became more remote. The hunt for embeds, by presenting itself as advertising education, prevented more substantive discussions of advertising from taking place.
Although it was uncertain how analyzing subliminals helped members of the public, it clearly encouraged them to spend more time gazing at ads than they would have otherwise. Hunting for subliminals made advertising intriguing. Even if scrutinizing ads took the guise of criticism, any advertiser with a brain would have preferred that to having his message ignored. At a time when ad clutter was reaching new heights, getting the brand name across was a victory in itself. Studying subliminals also linked ads to those forbidden pleasures that Key claimed were so nefarious. Key's popularity ensured that these brands became known forbidden pleasures. Benson & Hedges became the cigarette for "extra-long penises," whereas Kent stood for vaginas (replace the E in the name with U, says Key), masturbation, and "good horny feelings." The Sears catalog was filled with "fascinating perversities." If, as Key argued, such imagery affected people through subliminals, would it not also affect them through criticism and analysis?
The image that comes to mind when reading Key's books is of the author sitting quietly in his library, fully naked and gazing lustfully into magazines, using his sole free hand to wipe sweat off his brow and, every so often, turn the page. At any rate, the vivid scenes Key conjures suggest that he gets a visceral charge out of their recounting. In this sense, he is again reminiscent of Packard in his book The Status Seekers. As an astute reader observed, Packard's details of wealthy lifestyles belied the author's true relationship with them. Status Seekers's critical stance, the reader suggested, was but an illusion:
It seems to me as if you yourself are a little fascinated among all the vast million-dollar figures . . . just like most of the gangster-movies, in spite of the gangster's violent death, provide most youngsters with a feeling that gangsterism is a hell of an exciting way to live.
Where Packard was cautious and genteel in his critique, Key was extreme and lurid. But in both cases the pretense of criticism allowed the authors to have their cake and eat it too.
Perhaps Packard and Key secretly craved the very objects they critiqued (Key, it has been claimed, once told a colleague that he wore his hair closely shaved "to make himself look like 'a giant penis.' ") Regardless of the authors' inner workings, devoting oneself to exposing wrongdoing requires a strong interest in that wrongdoing. This contradiction, or love/hate relation-ship, is a fitting corollary to the ways criticism and promotion work hand-in-hand. Even at the personal level, the line between criticism and appreciation isn't easily drawn.
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If there were any signs that the cri-tique of subliminals posed a threat to the advertising industry's health, they were easily dispelled by the end of the twentieth century. An incident during the 2000 presidential race is telling. In the fall of that year, the Republican National Committee ran a television commercial attacking Democratic candidate Al Gore. As the commercial discussed the Democrats' health care policy, the word rats flashed, subliminal-style, onscreen. When the story first broke, there was nary a shrug. But a week later (slow news day?), media outlets started asking questions. Republicans leaped to the defense, insisting the rats bit was an accident. The producer of the commercial initially denied the subliminal slip ("I'm not that clever") but eventually came clean. By then, however, few cared. The Democrats, who had earlier expressed shock and disbelief, moved on to other concerns. The FCC investigated, but the presidential horse race proceeded business as usual. The event merited no more pause than when Bush was accidentally caught on microphone calling a reporter an asshole.
Ironically, though the controversy over subliminals had subsided, the technique itself had not. By the time advertisers had found a way to make split-second flashes actually work in a commercial, they were no longer considered subliminal.
In the 1990s, subliminal advertising--or what was formerly known as subliminal--had returned. In the revamped lexicon, a subliminal message was now known as a "prime" or "visual drumbeat." These primes were generally quick bursts of images lasting one to three frames and were used in commercials to convey edginess and mood.
The roots of the technique is often traced to Music Television (MTV), which inspired a vogue for rapid-fire-editing in the 1980s. MTV aimed to influence viewing less through the content of primes than through the style of editing, a signature for the network. The young audiences that MTV targeted--raised on television, video games, and thirty-second commercials--were said to require extra stimuli to remain attuned. Once the audience adjusted to the quicker pace of images, that then came to be the norm, requiring a quicker pace still.
It wasn't long before MTV's strategy caught on with the networks. A television spot for NBC's The Pretender quick-cut a flurry of images--two frames of a sign saying "Wall Street," two frames of a man sitting behind a desk, and two frames of a Greek statue. None of this was apparent when viewed at normal speed. In another ad, for Reebok sneakers and Lady Foot Locker, an exhausted woman collapses after an apparently grueling run. Suddenly, a flash of light appears. Although the viewer sees nothing in the flash, slowing the scene down frame-by-frame reveals an image of the woman standing confidently, comfortably, serenely gazing in the distance.
According to the creators of such ads, quick cuts make the spots more interesting, even mysterious. The general sense is that these image bursts have nothing to do with the subliminals of yore. As one MTV director put it, editors were "just punching images into the [editing] machines, to see how fast we could get them to go." But such aesthetic explanations belie the fact that these images convey textures and moods that reflect favorably on the brand. In other words, they do what any commercial technique purports to do: they help sell products.
In a way, visual drumbeats have less in common with subliminals than other, far more common sales strategies. Packaging design capitalizes on intuitive responses to color, typography, and word choice. Background music in stores and restaurants influences the amount of time people linger. Product placements are among the many ways of marketing "under the radar" by fusing ads and entertainment. Though by no means guaranteed, these time-worn strategies continue to influence people's subconconscious. And they are not alone. In fact, it could be argued that most every advertisement is subliminal. The ubiquity of advertisements means that people tune out the vast majority of them, only to experience them unconsciously. Yet, like visual drumbeats, everyday embed-free ads are not considered subliminal. It's as if, in order for something to be considered subliminal, it can't be effective!
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In the end, the subliminal scare could be lumped in with JFK assassination lore and the fluoride controversy as a conspiracy theory that assumed mythic proportions because it resonated with the public--a public eager to under-stand advertising's influence. People, after all, have no idea how advertising truly affects them. A theory that appeared to explain it all, that cast consumers as victims of a secret plot, held tremendous appeal.
Before moving on, I can't help but add one final note of irony: not only did the critique of subliminal advertising serve what it purportedly attacked, but the critique of Key's books backfired as well. One of the reasons the fervor surrounding subliminals lasted as long as it did--and one of the reasons why Key was able to publish essentially the same book four times--stemmed from its critical use in education. As suggested earlier, Key's claims about subliminal advertising were commonly taught by advertising educators, particularly at universities. According to Jack Haberstroh's account of the subliminal controversy, Ice Cube Sex (1994), the majority of university professors who taught Key's theories considered them ludicrous. Haberstroh contacted the heads of advertising departments at thirty accredited universities and found that not one of the instructors thought Key's ideas persuasive. These educators taught his work not to promote or refine the use of subliminal advertising but to debunk it.
Haberstroh himself argued that "those of us who teach future advertising professionals have an enormous stake in the public invalidation of Dr. Key's subliminal theories." In a 4,000-word cover story for Advertising Age, Haberstroh urged the industry to join him in loudly denouncing subliminal quackery.
The response from advertising practitioners to Haberstroh's article was overwhelming--overwhelmingly negative. Rather than joining Haberstroh in denouncing Key's work, the majority of letter-writers blasted Haberstroh for his naiveté. An ad man at a Chicago agency summarized the sentiments of many practitioners in a letter to the editor:
[Haberstroh's] pleas for ad people to speak out against such charges seems a little misguided. By doing so, we as ad professionals will only add credence to Wilson Bryan Key's silly theories. Even worse, we'll make the public believe we have something to hide.
Jack Elliott Jr., former chairman of the board of Ogilvy and Mather, echoed this charge beautifully:
The solution to the perpetuation of this myth is not for the advertising world to speak out but for the academic world to shut up! Prof. Haberstroh writes, 'I discuss his theories every semester in my large advertising classes.' Why, one wonders.
Another advertising professional offered some insight into that "why":
As a guest lecturer at communications or advertising classes of several universities, I have found myself before students who have been assigned W.B. Key's subliminal seduction as required reading. In addition, conversations with communications students from other universities have confirmed that they are not isolated instances, that the book is commonly employed as course reading. Discussions with faculty members have led to admissions that the book is used not because of the validity or merit of the content, but simply because of its prurient and controversial nature. One professor openly admitted, 'it helps keep the kids interested, if nothing else.'
What Haberstroh and his colleagues failed to grasp was obvious to ad professionals: rather than debunking Key's claims, the academics were promoting them. A survey Haberstroh conducted of his own students revealed that even after listening to thorough, point-by-point repudiations of Key's claims, many students nonetheless believed that the use of subliminals was rampant. Yet Haberstroh refused to accept any responsibility for helping to spread the subliminal myth.
SO WHERE ARE WE NOW?
In a media class I recently taught, every one of my teenagers was familiar with the term subliminal advertising, if not its historical roots. I go back and forth about whether to blame guys like Wilson Bryan Key for this. I suspect that if the subliminal brouhaha had never happened, the public's concerns about advertiser manipulation would not be so grossly misdirected. But even though Key and his cronies disinformed legions of consumers, there's hope yet, and my students illustrate why.
My students were urban, middle-class teenagers. They derided advertising for being annoying, incessant, and boring, while proudly sporting Nike logos and Gap sweats. These kids weren't around in the 1970s. They've never heard about the flashing popcorn ads or the ice cube sex. We never discussed subliminal persuasion in class. But when these students used the term subliminal advertising, they did so in a way that is quite revealing. For example, one twelfth-grader, Ben, titled a homework assignment focused on alcoholic beverages "Subliminal Advertising." His brief illustrated essay did not, however, examine ice cubes for death symbols or vodka labels for embedded donkey dicks. Rather, Ben pointed to the phallic shapes of liquor bottles, to a Guinness ad that equated the "power" of drink to sexual performance, to Coors' juxtaposition of a scantily clad female body with a similarly shaped beer bottle. Having never had learned the earlier claims about subliminal advertising, Ben defined "subliminal" in a way that actually makes sense: as an adjective for images designed to appeal to us unconsciously, in ways we usually don't recognize or rationally comprehend. Ben was a particularly sharp thinker, but most of the kids who referred to subliminal advertising used the term in this way.
It's true that, during its heyday, subliminal advertising helped the ad industry more than it harmed it. But with the coming of a new generation, the definition of subliminal has shifted to a more practical meaning. Once a source of dangerously misguided claims, the subliminal myth has given the world a term that may very well help identify advertising tactics it formerly concealed. Vance Packard, at least, would be proud.