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  Issue Date: 9 / 2017  

The Effects of Subliminal Communication in Advertising Messages

Rekha Ambardar
       Marketers are getting more and more expert at drawing consumers and viewers of advertising messages into conversations such as blogs, social media, direct marketing – which are really a conduit to advertising about their brands.
       Simultaneously, though, consumers are savvier than ever about the thousands of ad messages they receive over TV, radio, print copy, and the ever-present text messages. For one thing, they can now control the number of ad messages they want to receive. So if you want to receive messages from your favorite boutique, you can do so by texting them your request. Can using subliminal communication in advertising skirt around the issues and regulations of false advertising and misleadingclaims?
       While marketers hope to reach and impact the consumer with their messages, what marketing experts and psychologists are trying to determine is how consumers perceive these messages, and what their response to them is. Are they receptive or non- receptive to messages coming at them by the minute, depending, of course, on the brand, the message channel, their time constraints, and the relevance of the brand in their life experience? Or are some message summarily dismissed away in one fell swoop while others are filed away and garner top-of-mind awareness? The function of advertising is to inform, persuade, and remind. As such, do they succeed in mesmerizing, entrancing, stupefying, magnetizing, and otherwise spellbinding the consumer so that they offer on their part, a “willing suspension of disbelief” when these astounding messages come at them at the alarming rate that they do by the minute?
       How Advertising Works
       Advertising and marketing communications are, first of all, a form of communication. When done correctly, it is a message to a consumer about a brand. It therefore gets attention for the brand, provides information about the brand, and sometimes, adds a little bit of entertainment in its message. Most advertising relies on mass communication that is direct and complex.1
       Going Back to Basics
       Basic communication is a process that begins with a source, a sender, who encodes a message and puts it in words and picture. The message is presented through a channel of communication, such as a newspaper, radio, or TV. The message is then decoded or interpreted by the receiver who is the reader, viewer, or listener. Feedback is obtained by monitoring the response of the receiver to the message.2
       The entire process is complicated by what we refer to as noise, things that interrupt the sending as well as the receiving of the message.In advertising, as in communication in general, noise hinders the consumer’s reception of the message. External noise in advertising includes socio-economic trends that also affect the reception of the message. These together with the problems with the brand’s marketing mix can also have an impact on the consumer. External noise can also be related to the advertising media. It can be as simple as a bad radio or TV reception. More likely, the cause is clutter from a multitude of messages all competing to get attention.3
       Internal noise are personal factors that affect the reception of a message – the receiver’s needs, personal history, information gathering abilities, and distraction from competing brands. Feedback is obtained through customer/audience reaction to the message and this is obtained through research or customer contact with the company/marketer.
       Advertising’s Role in Society
       Does advertising cause demand creation? Critics say it does, but most of the time, it is used for neutral or good purposes. Another question that critics pose is the “shape-versus-mirror “ aspect of advertising. Does it mirror society’s values or shape them? Further, at what point does advertising cross the line between social values to creating them? Critics maintain that advertising has repeatedly crossed this line by influencing vulnerable groups – tweens and teens.
       As educators, we are often confronted with the “shape versus mirror” debate. Does advertising shape or mirror the values of a given societal setup? Both, according to marketing experts. At what point does advertising cross the line between reflecting social values to creating them? Critics argue that advertising has repeatedly crossed this line, influencing vulnerable groups such as children and teenagers, too strongly.4
       Misleading Advertising
       Advertising today faces an inordinate number of regulations against false and misleading advertising. Misleading claims generate the heaviest criticism, such as in weight loss advertisements, self improvement ads found on the last page of health and fitness magazines. Misleading claims are not just a problem in the U.S. 5
       Puffery in Advertising
       Another criticism leveled at brands is puffery, which comprises ads that praise its products using subjective opinions, superlatives, exaggerations, vague, non-specific “facts.” Still, even though the ad is exaggerated, it is not misleading since exaggerated claims are legal, the quest of puffery then is an ethical one. 6
       Comparative Advertising
       1. Comparative advertisingis permitted in the U.S. but the ads must compare similar products. Companies can’t claim that their prices are lower than the competition unless they can prove that the same products are sold at other palaces at higher prices under the Lanham Act. Companies and plaintiffs are required to prove five elements to win a false advertising law suit about an ad containing a comparative claim. They must prove that:
       (a) False statements have been made about either product.
       (b) The ads actually deceived or had a tendency to deceive a substantial segment of the audience.
       (c) The deception was “material” or meaningful.
       (d)Falsely advertised goods are sold in interstate commerce.
       (e) The suing company has been or likely will be injured as a result of the false statements, either by loss of sales or loss of goodwill.7
       Critics believe that advertising can create social trends and has the power to dictate how people think and act. On the other hand, advertising professionals tend to believe that the best they can do is spot trends and develop advertising messages that connect with them. Advertisers believe advertising mirrors values rather than sets them.The answer to this debate may simply be that advertising both mirrors and shapes values.8
       Mass communication is generally a one-way process moving from source to receiver. How can marketers make this process interactive? Interactive communication is a two-way street. It is a dialogue between the sender and the receiver, and marketing communication is moving in that direction. Two-way communication is a means for the source to engage the receiver in a conversation. The source and receiver change positions as the message bounces back and forth between them.9
       To translate the communication model to advertising parlance, the source is the advertiser (that is, the marketer or the ad agency). Together they determine objectives for the message – the advertisement – in terms of the effects they want the message to have on the consumer audience (receiver)
       The message is the advertisement or other marcom tool – press release, store signage, brochure, or Web page. In advertising, the visual elements also carry meaning. 10.
       The Effects of Advertising on Consumers
       Advertising affects peoples’ daily lives, informing them about products and services and influencing their attitudes, beliefs, and ultimately, their purchases. Advertising affects the television programs people watch, the content of the newspapers they read, the politicians they elect, the medicines they take, and the toys their children play with.
       Consequently, the influence of advertising on the U.S. socioeconomic system has been the subject to extensive debate in all strata of society. But despite a proliferation of new technology options, consumers still spend a lot of time consuming traditional media (where much of advertising exists) The average person spends more than 250 minutes a day watching television and 329 minutes using digital media devices like desktops, laptops, and tablets.
       Americans report an average of 5.3 leisure hours a day, and most of it is spent watching TV. Though advertising cannot affect consumers’ deeply-rooted values and attitudes, advertising may succeed in transforming a person’s negative attitude toward a product into a positive one. For example, serious or dramatic ads are more effective at changing consumers’ negative attitudes. Humorous ads on the other hand, have been shown to be more effective at shaping attitudes when consumers already have a positive image of an advertised brand.11
       Associative Link Between Brand and Celebrity
       Repeated pairings of a brand and celebritystrengthen the associative link that consumers establish between brand and celebrity. Conversely, negative information about celebrity endorsers can put a firm’s products and image at risk. Trustworthiness is an important predictor of celebrity endorsement effectiveness as negative revelation about a brand can dilute brand equity.
       Advertising also reinforces positive attitudes toward brands. A brand with a distinct personality is more likely to have a larger base of loyal customers and market share. The more consistent a brand’s personality, the more likel a customer will build a relationship with that brand. Consider Apple. Sixty percent of iPhone users report they would switch to Apple’s latest iPhone without considering any other options, admitting to “blind loyalty.”This is why marketers spend billions of dollars annually to reinforce and remind their loyal customers about the benefits of their products.12
       Absurdity in Ads
       Arias-Bolzmann et al. (and everyone else) has developed the theory that absurdity in ads influences consumers. They believe that there are at least two reasons why absurd ads are likely to be processed more extensively than non-absurd ads: (a) they are more likely to be noticed and (b) they are processed more extensively than non-absurd ads. Moreover, absurd ads are ambiguous and open to more idiosyncratic interpretations than non-absurd ads.13
       Advertising can also affect the way consumers rank a brand’s attributes. In past years, car ads emphasized such brand attributes as roominess, speed, and low maintenance. Today, however, car marketers have added technology, safety, versatility, customization to the list of offers.
       Advertising is a popular form of promotion, especially for consumer packaged goods and services. Increasingly, as more and more marketers consolidate their operations, advertising is seen as an international endeavor. Promotion makes up a large part of most brand budgets. 14
       Measured and Unmeasured Media Spending
       Typically, promotional spending is divided into measured and unmeasured media. Measured media ad spending includes network andcable TV, newspapers, magazines, radio, outdoor, and Internet (though paid search and social media are not included).
       Unmeasured media spending includes direct marketing, promotions, co-op, coupons, catalogs, product placement, and event marketing. Every year, total media spending increases approximately 4 percent in the United States and 4.6 percent worldwide. The U.S. is by far the largest spender ($178 billion). China, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Brazil round out the top five countries in terms of ad spending.15
       The top advertising spenders in the U.S. included measured and unmeasured: Proctor and Gamble ($4.6 billion), At&T ($3.3 billion), General Motors ($3.1 billion), Comcast ($3 billion), Verizon ($2.5 billion),Ford Motor ($2.5 billion) American Express ($2.5 billion), Fiat Chrysler ($2.3 billion), L’Oreal ($2.1 billion), Walt Disney ($2.1 billion) (“25 Largest US Advertisers,”Advertising Age2016 Edition Marketing Fact Pack, 8)
       Here are links to the 10 top commercials and the 10 best commercials of all time:
       Top 10 commercials of 2016 ads,1 ,# 8 Coca Cola ditto
       10 Best Commercials of all time
       A Brief History of Subliminal Communication
       To critics the popular history of subliminal communication implies a kind of subliminal manipulation. Vance Packard, an American journalist and social critic, produced his article, “Hidden Persuaders,” which appeared in 1957, and quoted from The Sunday Times an account of a New Jersey theater in which images of ice cream were flashed onto the screen during a movie. That resulted in an otherwise unaccountable increase in ice cream sales.The Sunday Times referred to this technology as “sub-threshold effects.” Packard’s work warned of psychologists-turned-merchandisers and of the resulting pseudo-seduction of the American consumer. 17
        Further, a study from the University of South Carolina conducted three studies to examine whether subliminal priming brand names remains successful under marketplace conditions. The first study pitted an underdog brand against a market share leader and demonstrated that subliminal priming significantly influenced purchase intentions when consumers were in an active thirst state. Study 2 examined the hypothesis in a simulated store environment and also obtained significant priming effect when consumers were in an active thirst state. However, this effect was nullified in Study 3 which added a 15-minute time delay between the prime and the choice task. The research concluded that “the resultant null effect questions the ability of subliminal priming to persuade consumers under realistic market conditions.18
       Can a Series of “Nothings” Become Something?
       Subliminal perception begs the question, “Can a series of unrelated images amount to something of value in the mind of the observer?” 19
       Timothy Moore says “Yes”. While there is some controversy, there is also respectable scientific evidence that observer’s responses can be shown to be affected by stimuli they claim not to have seen. To a cognitive psychologist, Moore says, this is not earth-shattering news, but to the media and the public this is ground-breaking territory. 20 Moore further asks the question: Should we be worried or even maybe excited about covert manipulation of thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors? Moore was professor of psychology at Glendale College, York University, Toronto.

       Subliminal Perception
       Subliminal perception, then, occurs when a stimulus is too weak to be perceived , yet a person is influenced by it. Can stimulus be created? The word “limen” was used in the 19th century to refer to the absolute threshold, defined as the point at which a stimulus could be detected at 50% of the time. By that definition, a stimulus detected at 49% of the time would be subliminal. But when referring to subliminal effects on human beings, experts are referring to stimulus too weak or distorted to be detected though conscious effort.These types of stimulus can be created by flashing a visual image, then quickly masking it with another stimulus, or by transforming a stimulus until it cannot be recognized. 21
       The Use of Neuromarketing
       Neuromarketing is a technology-based, emerging field in marketing research aimed at observing consumer reaction to stimuli. Measuring consumers’ reaction to stimuli is common practice according to experts. These include: behavioral measures, verbal measures, and psychological measures. However, neuromarketing differs from the afore-mentioned techniques since it requires neuro-scientific methods for analyzing behavior in relation to market and market exchanges. Neuroscience allows market researchers to observe uncontrollable brain function responses that result in specific psychological responses when individuals are exposed to specific stimuli. There are also significant ethical concerns related to neuromarketing as it allows unprecedented levels of manipulation by companies through their marketing activities. Consequently, consumers may be unjustly influenced by the use of specific stimuli that lead to physiological responses.
        Author’s Notes
       1. Moriarty, Mitchell and Wells, Ch.3
       2. Moriarty, Mitchell, and Wells, Ch.3
       3. Moriarty, Mitchell, and Wells, Ch.4
       4. Moriarty, Mitchell, and Wells, Ch.4
       5. Moriarty, Mitchell, and Wells, Ch.3
       6. Moriarty, Mitchell, and Wells, Ch.3
       7. Moriarty, Mitchell, and Wells, Ch.3
       8. Lamb Advertising Ch.16
       9. Lamb 11e Ch.16
       10. Lamb 11eCh.16
       11. Lamb 11e Ch.16
       12. Lamb 11e
       13. ”The Phenomenon of Image Manipulation in Advertising by Sofia Bratu, Economics, Management, and Financial Markets 5.2. (June 2010) p. 333, From Business Collection
       14. MKTG Lamb 11e
       15. MKTG Lamb 11e
       16. Retrieved June 19, 2017
       17. “The History of Subliminal Communication,” from Progressive Awareness Research Inc. Research/Desk Reference
       18. “Drink Coca-Cola, eat Popcorn, and Choose Powerade: Testing the Limits of Subliminal Persuasion.” Marketing Letters, 2015:26(4)715-726
       19. retrieved 9/14/2016.
       20. Moore-“Subliminal Perception” Facts and Fallacy,” by Timothy Moore, Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 163, Spring 1992.
       21. Chapter 04: Senses, from Psychology, An Introduction.

Rekha Ambardar has published over 100 genre and mainstream stories and articles in print and electronic magazines. She is also the author of two novels published by Whiskey Creek Press and Echelon Press. Ambardar is an associate professor at Finlandia University, and teaches courses in marketing and global economy.
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