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Subliminal Advertising: Definition and Description



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    Subliminal advertising: A collective term for public announcements designed to promote the sale of specific commodities or services while being integrated below the threshold of perception or awareness.

    To sell products, merchants consciously use subliminal advertising as a basis for general consumerism. This seems like an unnecessary task, but when taken into consideration all the people, who have expressed their disbelief in its effectiveness, it is obvious to see how vital and necessary such a task commands. Through this, corporations must take on new strategies and methods of persuasion and justification. The importance is that advertisers rely on a trust relationship with consumers in order to successfully subliminally sell products. In other words, those who don’t believe in subliminal advertising, are its likely victims.

    The effect of subliminal advertising on the individual and the culture has been influenced and promoted by many different elements. Let it be magazines, newspapers or radio; but the most prominent in this field is television. Television advertising influences the choices we make, perhaps more so than anyone cares to believe. It may not be so obvious, but even teachers face competition with advertising. Television stations, for example, have some four billion dollars a year from industry to spend on programming for the same students that teacher’s face. Nicholas Johnson, a former Federal Communications Commission Commissioner from 1966 to 1973 writes that television is diametrically opposed to almost everything a teacher tries to do:

    TV tells them that the only thing necessary to give them all the joys in life and the values that are important is the acquisition of yet another product. TV is telling them to sit still and don’t think. TV is telling them that they are to be treated as a mass.

    He writes that it is extremely important to understand this force in our society if a teacher is to deal with it. He writes the most important thing to know is that advertising is a business. Johnson continues:

    It is the business of selling. But what it is in the business of selling is you and your students. You are the product being sold. Who are you being sold to? You’re being sold to an advertiser. It is the advertiser who is the consumer in this equation. The advertiser is buying you. The advertiser is buying you from the broadcaster. And why the advertiser is buying you is because he wants you to look at his message; his billboard, his magazine ad, and in this instance, his TV commercial.

    But in any study of advertising and advertising effects it is difficult to agree on what are clearly examples of advertising and what are clearly not. This is more difficult to do than it seems. Television is an excellent example of why this is so difficult in their attempt to influence purchasing decisions. He writes that the sole purpose of the television programs between the commercials is to act as an attention getting device. The scripts are written to build tension before the commercial to hold the viewer’s attention during the commercial. He writes that once they have that attention,

    … what is the advertiser trying to sell you? Products? No. He’s trying to sell you a religion. What is it? It’s the philosophy known as materialism. If you watch television closely, you’ll see that there’s no real difference between the programs and the commercials. Indeed, if you turn on a television set you often can’t tell what it is that you’ve just turned on. Is it a commercial or a program? Suppose you tune into a Hawaiian beach scene. All right, there’s a big hotel in the background and palm trees and there’s this brand new car on the beach and this couple strolling across the beach. Now you don’t know whether that’s going to turn out to be a scene of one of these cops-and-robbers programs or whether it’s a commercial. It is even more important to note, however, that you don’t know what it’s going to be a commercial for. That’s because every commercial is a commercial for all products.

    Most of us are aware of the huge amount of sophisticated research generated by the advertising industry to refine its persuasion techniques. We even feel comfortable admidst our advertisement-plagued society. Although subliminal advertising may be effective, the most difficult factor is relaying the message to possible consumers. Such advertising techniques include flash messaging, buzz words, celebrity endorsements, emotion targeting, fear and the oh-so common bandwagon method.

    Flash messaging is a common technique where a viewer is influenced by quick images and messages for a very short period of time. The subconscious registers this almost like it never occurred. All of this is pleasing to the eye; flashy colour, or a picture with a sexual innuendo. Another factor would be KISS (Keep It Sweet & Simple). All of these affect the success of the ad and the final result for the product at hand.

    A more cunning way to influence the buyer is to target your emotions. To question yourself is most successful for an advertiser. Although seeing sick hungry children living in a run down village in some 3rd world country may lead to your donating money, there are some ethics involved in purposely tampering with one’s emotions. Through all of this, this method of persuasion is most effective.

    A technique usually described as using “buzz words” is found more in prints than on television or radio. If we are scrolling through a newspaper and we see an exciting flashy word, our eyes tend to draw towards it. Companies are entirely aware of this, so that is why they flash words on their ads like, “FREE,” “NEW,” “HURRY.” Something about these words makes the reader want to see what the fuss is all about, and to read the company’s ad. Not always will there be “buzz words” embedded into the ad that look flashy. They may not have any significant meaning, but they are added in and seem successful in relaying the message. Words like, homemade, improved, 100%, tasty, and the list goes on

    Endorsements by celebrities have through the years lost their edge and have mostly looked down upon the endorser. Michael Jordan is selling you Gatorade, Jerry Seinfeld is backing up American Express, and Paul Reiser wants you to use AT. The purpose is to subliminally give the product traits that it never even deserves, like wealth, fame, and success. When Michael Jordan is seen drinking Gatorade and then going for a 360-slam dunk, the company wants you to think that you as well are capable of the same feats. Besides the less obvious, there is simply the fact that a company wants a famous celebrity to present a product, rather than some common person.

    “Everybody else is doing it, so why aren’t you?”

    Using the bandwagon technique for many already established corporations has been quite successful. Companies that have already achieved marvelous success will start using advertisements, suggesting it is second nature to buy the product. As if it had such a high demand rate that without it, life would be dysfunctional. For instance, the new saying from McDonald’s is, “Did somebody say McDonald’s?” There is so much behind that quote than what it actually says. It gives you the idea that they are the best, the tastiest, and the most popular, without really even telling you without being up front about it. McDonald’s knows that they are successful, so they do not need some cheap gimmick to sell their food, all they have to do is be there, and the people will flock.

    The Fear technique, where they inform the consumer that not purchasing a certain product will be disastrous on your own self. This technique targets the most primitive emotion; fear. Mostly used on people that are uncomfortable with their self, insecure and believe that they need some personal improving. The most known method would be the BEFORE/AFTER scene, where there is a comparison between an obviously terrible picture and a beautified picture.

    As Nicholas Johnson indicated, “TV sells the great religion known as materialism” (p.157). In the media, product acquisition and consumption equate to good health, success, exultation, enchantment, moral righteousness, ethical certainty, trust, faith, superiority, coolness, freedom, liberty, self-esteem, confidence, democracy, etc; quite simply, the most any human could ever hope to attain and more. And ownership is only part of the equation—consumption of the product counts more; and, the acquisition of the product counts even more manifestly. In fact, to attain an even greater sense of good health, success, high standards, moral righteousness, ethical certainty, coolness, self-esteem, confidence, fulfillment, meaning, and absolute purposefulness in life. A person needs only to borrow the money or charge the purchase…

    The subliminal advertising effect is probably the most difficult aspect of any study of advertising. The extent of this influence probably cannot be measured. Many components can be analyzed to discover possible effects on human attitudes and behavior, but none can be for certain.

    We need to divide the concept advertising into small parts or components in order to analyze that effect. Possible narrow components include: non-verbal communication by models in television commercials, speech tones and its effect in radio commercials, or subliminal words and/or symbols in magazine advertisements

    Our way of life involves a lot more than anyone wants to believe. The need for developing individual awareness of the power of advertising is increasing, but it seems that what we consciously perceive of our world is constantly decreasing. The brain has to sort through the overwhelming amount of sensory input data and consciously acknowledge only what it deems important or necessary for our immediate survival. Oftentimes our defense mechanisms even keep us from consciously acknowledging data that is necessary for our survival such as piercing through to the message conveyed in subliminal advertising. Even as we are aware of the nature of perceiving, subliminal symbols and/or words in magazine advertisements are difficult to recognize when first attempted. Wilson Key has written, “As a culture, North America might well be described as one enormous, complex, magnificent, self-service, subliminal massage parlor.”

    In short, the effect that advertising (whatever this concept might include) has on human buying attitudes and behavior is of almost incomprehensible complexity.

    Subliminal Advertising: Definition and Description. (2018, Jun 17). Retrieved from

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