The history and mordern uses of subliminal advertising

Subliminal advertising as a term has become synonymous with shady business practices and marketing tricks that had best be forgotten. However, in many ways the ethos and practices of subliminal messages hasn’t gone away – it’s just been developed, tweaked and made even less conspicuous. With that in mind I decided to look at the changing nature of subliminal advertising and how it is used in modern marketing practices.

The most widely publicised form of subliminal advertising was the use of advertisements in films. An image was flashed in front of cinema patrons for a fraction of a second during a film in the hopes it would encourage profitable behaviour in the recipients. Perhaps understandably this practice was banned in the 1960’s as was tobacco advertising – one of the chief culprits of subliminal marketing programs.  This old method perhaps represents what most people think of as subliminal advertising. However, it is really only a part of the parcel and this form of subliminal messaging is perhaps the most basic and not particularly effective. So with that in mind let’s look at the two real forms of subliminal advertising we see in the modern context.

                Firstly we have the type of advertising that is both subliminal and readily viewable. Advertising has become all pervasive and we tend to consciously ignore it in our day to day lives. Advertisers have responded by placing many messages innocuously in our surroundings knowing that, for the most part, it will only be our sub-consciousness’ that integrate the message. Take for example a billboard. Now a billboard is a large advertisement that we will see when we drive or walk past. In one way this is a direct form of advertisement – it has a clear message in large writing. However, while we may read the message once we are likely to ignore it a second time – or completely if we are engaged in another activity such as driving. So in this sense the message is subliminal – it is not necessarily intended to be read in great detail but simply to push an idea into your mind. Now if we think of the small scale advertising that goes on and consider how often you see, for example, the Coca-Cola logo in a day you will notice very few instances – maybe ten or so. However, this simple exercise of trying to count them means that tomorrow you will notice them all the more clearly (sorry about that). What you need to realise then is that this IS subliminal advertising in its purest form – the continual association of a brand and a message within our day to day lives.

                However, subliminal marketing has come on a lot further than this and many slightly “shadier” practices are now commonplace. Product placement has become increasingly commonplace and can be used in a number of ways. The most common and widely understood form of product placement is within TV and film. The use of certain laptops, iPods, a particular kind of beer, a certain car – all are paid for advertisements that are trying to create a subliminal association with a particular product. James Bonds car of course epitomizes cool while the designer labels featured in shows like Sex and the City define what is chic for the day. These product associations are, of course, entirely intentional but represent a very effective way of subliminal advertising – you relate to the character, or want to relate to the character and consequently you relate to the product. 

This clever use of messaging though is not the really tricky techniques that are being employed in subliminal advertising. No these techniques have become more advanced and now the majority of product placement isn’t in our shops or on TV it’s in our day to day lives. It’s the person drinking coke on a hot day outside the shop, it’s the pile of FedEx boxes outside the corporate office, it’s the attractive blond at the bar drinking a clearly labelled bottle of Bacardi and it’s in many more places beside (Those are all real examples from the last decade by the way). This form of subliminal messaging is becoming more and more commonplace as advertisers seek to find our weak spots or simply to get themselves noticed in an increasingly competitive and ineffective advertising space.

Subliminal advertising clearly has a role to play in marketing programs and it can be very effective. We can’t control what slips into our sub-conscious and advertising can utilise this. There is some consternation and protest from people who become aware of these practices and some companies may consider the ethical and moral implications of employing these techniques to be too serious but, overall, this form of advertising has a place in modern marketing and it is one that is unlikely to decline.