Ever since the term 'subliminal advertising' was coined in the 1950s, the idea of advertisements with hidden messages that can influence us without our conscious understanding has captivated the popular imagination. If adverts can steer us toward a particular product through surreptitiously placed words or images designed to be absorbed at a subconscious level, how else can marketing and government agencies coerce us into decisions that are not our own? The specter of brainwashing looms large.
The effectiveness of subliminal messages is actually disputed – if the results of controlled tests are anything to go by. What is evident, however, is that ads containing stimuli that are difficult to discern exist, and that they can, however subtly, alter human behavior and emotions. Subliminal advertising is a reality. Here are ten devious examples that didn't quite slip through the regulatory net.
10. Democrat BureaucRats
During the 2000 US presidential race, a TV commercial created by George Bush's campaign team used subliminal messaging over pictures deriding presidential candidate Al Gore's proposals on prescription drugs. A series of words flitted across the screen throughout, yet something smelled funny. When the phrase 'BUREAUCRATS DECIDE' appeared just after Gore's name was mentioned, the final fragment of the second word – 'RATS' – flashed up for a fraction of a second – one-thirtieth to be precise. At such a speed, the bold lettering was scarcely perceptible except to the subconscious mind, but the implication was obvious. Gore and his party were associated with vermin. The matter was investigated by the FCC, but while the ad was taken off air, no penalties were imposed and Bush denied allegations of subliminal skullduggery.
9. Laid By The Best
This ad appeared in Britain's Yellow Pages but was pulled because of the suggestive content it contains. Looks innocuous? Well flip the image upside down and crop the lady's head and daintily held champagne glass, and it suddenly doesn't look like her neck she's touching but a more sensitive, exposed part of her anatomy. What's being offered here? On the face of it, flooring – though the headline, 'Laid By The Best,' is revealed as a somewhat unsubtle sexual innuendo. Apparently less insidious marketing strategy than a lascivious joke, the ad did nevertheless run before the fuss it provoked, and its illustration has also been found on other materials such as matchbooks and cocktail napkins. Mischievous maybe, but still concealed imagery subliminally playing on the fact that sex sells.
8. McDonald's: I'm Lovin' It
On January 27 2007, viewers watching the Food Network's Iron Chef America may have noticed a brief flash of red that appeared for a split second towards the end of a show when the challengers' entries were being assessed and two men raised their glasses. What had audiences seen but barely been aware of – all but invisible to the naked eye? A McDonald's logo that popped up for a single frame together with the hamburger giant's slogan, 'I'm lovin' it.' Following the revelation, accusations of subliminal advertising were met with claims that it was a “technical error” by the television network, but skeptics unsurprisingly weren't convinced. How could such a thing occur accidentally? A McDonald's spokesman said: "We don't do subliminal advertising." Sure, just an accidental glitch – a supersized one.
7. Konami Slot Machine Jackpot
In February 2007, a gambling operator in Canada pulled the plug on 87 Konami slot machines and removed them from the floor of Ontario's casinos after an investigation uncovered subliminal trickery taking place before bleary-eyed players. The games displayed a 5-of-a-kind jackpot symbol combination on screen for a fifth of a second as the reels started to spin on every go. The concerns were clear – even if the imagery was not: picked up subliminally, such signals could encourage people to keep throwing their money away for longer, spurred on by the subconscious feeling of winning. Watched in slow motion, the flashing images became apparent, though Konami declared they were due to a technical bug. Perhaps their spokespeople had been taking lessons from the McDonalds's team.
6. Husker Du: Get It
In a classic case of subliminal advertising from 1973, a TV commercial for the children's memory game Husker Du, shown in the US and Canada, featured sub-visual cuts, with the phrase 'Get it' flashed no less than four times, for a frame each time, during its one-minute run time. Some sharp-sighted parents noticed something suspicious and filed complaints with the FCC. The games manufacturer claimed to be shocked at the revelation, with a misguided employee carrying the can, and the commercial was removed from airplay. Did the message persuade people to follow its command, thus driving up sales? It's hard to say. Nevertheless a warning was issued against similar practices, since, “Whether effective or not, such broadcasts clearly are intended to be deceptive.” Now – who's playing?
5. Daffy Duck: Buy Bonds
Subliminal adverts were banned in Canada after the outrage sparked by the Husker Du commercial, having already been outlawed in the UK and Australia, but despite regulations against them, are not strictly illegal in the US. An earlier example of a message that fell below the threshold of normal perception used in the mass media is to be found in the Warner Brothers' 1943 animated film, Wise Quacking Duck, in which the famous cartoon character Daffy Duck spins a statue. In literally the blink of an eye, the words "BUY BONDS" are visible emblazoned on a shield held by the statue. It only lasted a frame or two – but at such subliminal speed, the message may have held the power to induce a wartime viewing public into boosting the country's coffers without their conscious awareness.
4. Ferrari's Marlboro Barcode
If this next entry counts as subliminal marketing, then it's the psychological technique in one of its subtlest – if not sneakiest – of guises. A controversial barcode design sported by Ferrari's Formula One cars had watchdogs seeing red with claims that it smelled of an attempt to subconsciously evoke the Marlboro brand, sponsors of the world famous motor racing team. Tobacco advertising has been banned from F1 for some years, but Philip Morris, the cigarette maker, continued to pump millions into preserving their tie with Ferrari – and the seemingly anonymous red, white and black striped symbol did bear an uncanny resemblance to the bottom half of a packet of Marlboros. The companies denied the claims, but in 2010 the vehicle's livery was dropped in response. And where there's smoke...
3. Coca Cola: Feel the Curves
This ad definitely hides a subliminal image, but can you see what it is? Look closely inside one of the ice cubes the Coke bottle is nestled on and you'll see an image of a woman apparently performing oral sex. Released in South Australia in the mid-1980s, the offending artwork went unnoticed until it was spotted on the back of a Coke truck. At this point the tagline, 'Feel the Curves,' intended to promote the reintroduced bottle shape, suddenly sounded ruder than it should. Upon its discovery, Coca-Cola recalled and dumped the thousands of the posters distributed, and the graphic artist who designed the picture lost his job – the punchline of what was intended as a joke. For once, a consumer goods company was the apparent victim of semi-subliminal phallic imagery embedded into its ads.
2. KFC's Lettuce Dollar Bill
In 2009, KFC took the innovative step of running a commercial containing a hidden image and actually inviting audiences to try to find it, with the prize of a free sandwich given to the first 1,000 people who could report what they saw. Viewers were compelled to seek out and replay the ad in slo-mo in a kind of treasure hunt to detect the secret message. What was it? A tiny image of a dollar bill mixed in with the lettuce in a bun. Appetizing, at least. The ad was rejected by ABC because of the network’s policy against subliminal advertising, despite the chicken chain's objections that there were no subconscious tricks but instead an intent to publicize something. They kind of have a point – but even so the concept of subliminal advertising taken to its logical conclusion seems scarcely less devious.
1. Australia's ARIA Awards
An alleged attempt at commercial mind control occurred in 2007 during Australia's ARIA music awards. In front of more than a million viewers, logos of this major event's sponsors – including Chupa Chups, Olay, Telstra, KFC and Toyota – were surreptitiously inserted throughout the broadcast in bursts of as little as one twenty fifth of a second.
The rapid cuts, ranging from one to four frames per seconds, were too short to be consciously processed by the average viewer, yet some keen-eyed audience members sensed all was not as it seemed. Despite the ban on subliminal advertising down under, it seemed to be a deliberate attempt to imprint the brand names in people's minds – and create a preference for their products – beneath surface attention. The broadcaster, Network Ten, called it a “different creative treatment.” We call that spin.