Subliminal advertising can be defined as the process by which producers send consumers hidden, subconscious messages which link their products to power, sex, and other desirable stimuli. In her recent Psychology Today article, “Subliminal seduction gets a second glance,” linguistics professor Julie Sedivy discusses the history of subliminal advertising: its origin, its relationship to mind control conspiracies, how it became brushed aside, how it reclaimed public interest, and why it could actually be effective in changing people’s opinions.
The term “subliminal advertising” originated in 1957 when a marketing researcher named James Vicary flashed the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” into a movie, and found that this increased sales of these products. Shortly after, the experiment was found to be a hoax, which led people to disbelieve and brush aside the topic of subliminal advertising. It wasn’t until the recent Bush/Gore election that the topic was widely revisited. What sparked this interest was a George Bush commercial in which the word “RAT” was briefly flashed while describing Bush’s political opponent, Al Gore.
Although both Bush and his advertiser denied that they intended to send any subliminal messages, Sedivy explains that this method could work; humans have the capability to process the meanings of words that are flashed, and that these meanings can even change their cognitive responses. Sedivy points to a 2008 experiment by Joel Weinberger and Drew Westen, which proved that flashing the word “RAT” triggered more negative responses from viewers than flashing other words or symbols. The Weinberger/Westen experiment, Sedivy states, is just one of many which show that “people’s attitudes and behavior can be swayed by cues that they have no awareness of,” and Sedivy goes on to give multiple examples of said experiments.
The article “RATS, We Should Have Used Clinton: Subliminal Priming in Political Campaigns” describes in detail the Weinberger/Westen experiment to which Sedivy referred. The experimenters used a sample of 91 people, and flashed both a control word—STAR—as well as the words “RATS,” “ARAB,” and “XXXX.” They found that their hypothesis was correct; while flashing the control words did not produce a significantly positive or negative effect, flashing the word “RATS” elicited uniquely negative ratings of the hypothetical candidate. Based on these results, Weinberger and Westen concluded that “subliminal stimulation presented via the Internet can affect subsequent evaluations of a neutral other.” In other words, subliminal advertising in the form of flashing words can in fact change people’s attitudes!
A common form of subliminal advertising today, although it is often more blatant rather than settle, is “food porn.” In these ads, producers choose to portray their menu items in erotic ways so that consumers will associate them with the positive feelings of sex. Sometimes, these advertisements will objectify women to add to the enticement of the food. One particularly demeaning example is the 2013 Carl’s Jr. commercial, in which the scantily clad Katherine Webb eats a burger on bleachers, while aroused reporters ooh and ahh at her every move. In my opinion, this subliminal advertisement is ineffective, because although the producer’s not-so-hidden nod to sex is supposed to attract people to buy the burger, the negative portrayal of women has caused a major backlash against the restaurant.
“Katherine Webb Carl’s Jr. Commercial – Buffalo Blue Cheese Burger.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.
Sedivy, Julie. “Subliminal Seduction Gets a Second Glance.” Editorial. Psychology Today 26 Jan. 2011: n. pag. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.
Weinberger, J. and Westen, D. (2008), RATS, We Should Have Used Clinton: Subliminal Priming in Political Campaigns. Political Psychology, 29: 631–651. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9221.2008.00658.x