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Many of us find the idea of subliminal messages altering our thought processes to be horrifying today. Often seen as akin to brainwashing, the notion that advertisers rely on subliminal messages to prey on children’s minds, demanding their attachment to some new cereal, toy, or game, is equally if not more disturbing to many people. Yet despite the protests of those against advertising to children, the effects of normal commercials are hardly subliminal, and hardly cause uncontrollable or irreversible change in disposition or desire. Additionally, though the effects of product placement in movies and television may more compellingly be seen as subliminal, and likely impact children more than adults, the effects of such advertising are not necessary severe, irreversible, or long-term for children.
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In this essay, I review research findings related to subliminal advertising’s effects on children. I argue that while product placement in movies and television does technically qualify as subliminal advertising that can be seen to significantly effect children (unlike traditional commercial advertising, which does not technically produce subliminal effects), neither product placement nor commercial advertising has been proven to have irreparable unconscious or subconscious effects that vary according to age. While children are more vulnerable to product placement advertising as subliminal messaging than are adults, children should nonetheless not be seen as victims of brainwashing, but merely as less-informed or autonomous actors in a world where we can avoid advertising’s effects by critically receiving messages and providing an alternative voice or message to those less informed around us.
Subliminal Advertising Versus Commercial Advertising
As Rogers points out in his historical examination of the idea of subliminal market advertising, the idea of the subliminal advertisement came about in the late 1950s, when it was suggested that data projected briefly on television would reach the consuming public subconsciously, rather than consciously, providing a qualitatively stronger effect that could be advantageous to marketers. Despite a lack of scientific validation for this claim, which one early critic likened to the idea that “a whiff of a martini is worse than a swallow” (qtd. in Rogers 13), the idea caught hold in the popular imagination that subliminal advertising strongly effected people without their knowing it, in favor of advertiser’s interests.
In one movie theater where messages to eat popcorn and drink Coke were projected quickly (and therefore subliminally) on the screen, it was claimed that sales skyrocketed (Rogers 13). Yet this early experiment was not confirmed by third parties or conducted with an eye to potential limitations, and other variables were not carefully considered. Additionally, organizations concerned with protecting ordinary citizens from subliminal messages, such as the Federal Communications Commission, did not find in their experiments that such messages had strong or even noticeable effects (Rogers 15). Later research adhering more closely to scientific standards confirmed on the contrary that “a strong stimulus produces a strong response, and a weak stimulus produces a weak response,” implying that “zero perception equals zero response, and so ‘subliminal’ means in practical terms ‘no effect'” (Rogers 15).
It has been argued nonetheless that for young children who may not recognize the difference between television programming and advertisements, commercials serve as subliminal advertising, effecting their beliefs and behaviors without their control. As Goldstein notes, “the argument repeated in nearly every document on advertising to children assumes…that commercials create wants because young viewers do not understand advertising and are therefore particularly influenced by it” (“Children and Advertising” 5). However, Goldstein’s review of empirical research highlights evidence suggesting that advertising to children does not strongly effect their behavior or attitudes, in comparison with other sources of influence and socialization (Policy Implications). Parents and peers play a role in shaping children, which is arguably stronger than that of any commercial or corporation. As Goldstein writes, “children learn to be consumers in the same way they are socialized into politics or acquire their attitudes about the sexes-from a variety of sources, including family, friends, teachers, and the mass media” (Policy Implications 9).
Additionally, no research indicates that not comprehending an advertisement as such gives it a stronger impact. As with the claim regarding subliminal messaging more generally, if you cannot comprehend something, then there is no reason why it would more strongly influence you than would something you can comprehend. As Goldstein argues, “if children cannot extract the commercial message, they are not in a position to act on it” (Policy Implications 5). Studies in different countries and contexts additionally confirm that commercials have little impact on young children, despite intuitive but anecdotal evidence of children identifying goods and toys on commercials as things they would like to possess (Goldstein, “Children and Advertising” 6).. Thus, while the research remains open to interpretation in this complex area of study, claims that commercials extraordinarily impact the youngest should not be taken as the ultimate truth.
In summary, the idea of subliminal advertising having a strong effect on children or people in general due to its incomprehensibility is not strongly backed up by research, despite its initial appeal. Neither adults nor children are necessarily effected strongly by advertising messages they do not consciously recognize as advertising, while it seems likely on the contrary that subliminal advertisements not consciously received have little to no impact. Product placement within television programming or movies better fits the description of subliminal messaging, however, as it does have an impact, albeit a manageable one, on people (such as children) who fail to notice it.
Product Placement: Subliminal Advertising that We Can Manage
While images flashing across the screen effect adults little more than commercials that children do not recognize impact children, subliminal messaging is likely more effective in advertising through product placement, where characters in a movie or television series smoke a particular brand of cigarettes or drink a particular kind of soda, whose brand is one very minor message that easily goes unnoticed in the context of a plot line or other character or story development. Research shows there are effects to product placement that go beyond those associated with traditional forms of subliminal messaging. However, the effects of product placement on children are not necessarily severe or irreversible, leading most to conclude that this form of advertising is not much more of a serious problem for children than are regular commercial advertisements.
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Though product placement can be understood as non-subliminal as “products usually have exposure time measured in seconds rather than milliseconds,” making the message easy to see, if one is looking for it, “product placement may be considered subliminal” nonetheless, as its effects can be “taken to be tacit or implicit because recollection of the brands may be unreliable or unavailable” (Auty and Lewis, “Delicious Paradox” 118). Studies have found that children do respond to this sort of subliminal messaging. In one study, half of the children were shown a clip from the movie Home Alone where Pepsi Cola is spilled during a meal, while the other half were shown a similar clip without the branded soda. The majority of the children who saw the Pepsi Cola chose Pepsi over Coke in a later research session, while the majority of those who did not see the Pepsi label in the clip chose Coke. These findings lead Auty and Lewis to conclude that “given the tendency of young children to watch videos of their favorite films over and over again, the findings have ethical implications for the use of product placement in films targeted at young children who have not yet acquired strategic processing skills…they have been affected by the exposure in some preconscious way” (“Children’s Choice” 713).
Another hypothesis of this study was that younger children would be more vulnerable to product placement than older children. This was not found to be the case, suggesting that age is not a major factor impacting a child’s vulnerability to product placement messaging. However, whether one has advertising literacy, which can only be developed at adolescence, does impact the effects of product placement on an individual. As Auty and Lewis write, “it appears as if a sophisticated understanding of advertising will actually militate against effective commercial communications because it will stimulate a counterargument” (“Delicious Paradox” 127). When one recognizes an advertisement as a form of attempted manipulation, this critical orientation can disincline one toward the message to buy or desire a particular good or service. Because one requires a certain level of cognitive maturity to understand product placement and other forms of advertising in a critical manner, age therefore becomes crucial to understanding how it is that adults but not children can become immune to such messaging.
Auty and Lewis regard this as a “delicious paradox” of product placement as subliminal advertising: adults can “guard against preconscious perceptions simply by noting the appearance of a produce as a placement with a commercial origin” while “children 8-12 years of age need cues to produce counterarguments,” thus failing to understand the product placement as a commercial message (“Delicious Paradox” 128). It seems, therefore, that product placement in film does effect children more so than adults as a form of subliminal messaging. Thus, while it remains the case that unnoticed messages often have little to not effect on people whatever age they are, adults can develop a form of immunity to product placement as subliminal messaging, whereas children are vulnerable to this form of messaging, though it’s impact remains variable and difficult to understand in a conclusive manner.
Such findings have led to much scrutiny particularly of product placement of alcohol or tobacco products in films or television shows accessible by children. In the 1980s many felt certain that such subliminal advertising was inappropriately impacting young people, encouraging them to make unhealthy decisions in the interests of businesses. Yet there remains hope that, as with other forms of subliminal advertising, the effects of product placement on young people can be managed by parental influence and other shapers of young people’s behaviors and attitudes. As Goldstein argues, “the best predictors of smoking are whether one’s parents and friends smoke” (Policy Implications 9). Advertisers have no monopoly in their influence, and on the other hand one can identify countries where smoking is prevalent while people have little exposure to cigarette advertisements (Goldstein, Policy Implications 10), suggesting that the relationship between advertisements and behavior is hardly inevitable. Thus, one can teach their children to critically view media messages and otherwise help shape choice so that the media does not do this for them.
In conclusion, there is little reason to be afraid of subliminal advertising’s effects on children. Research suggests that at all ages that which one does not comprehend will have a small to nonexistent impact on his or her behavior, attitudes, and desires, which implies that children who watch advertisements that they do not understand are unlikely to be brainwashed or effected in a strong way by the messages. Neither children nor adults are significantly impacted by subliminal messages or other commercials that go unrecognized as such, and thus we have little to worry about when it comes to the effects of subliminal advertising on children.
On the other hand, product placement today comes closer to fitting the definition of effective subliminal messaging, as information can be delivered without audience recognition to create an effect on uncritical minds. Clearly children are disadvantaged with regard to product placement as they are not able to recognize product placement as a means of behavior manipulation, and thus this remains a cause of concern for those who fear that children are at risk of taking up bad habits due to product placement of alcohol or cigarettes, for example. Nonetheless, as with other forms of subliminal advertising we cannot recognize or comprehend, we should not be too fearful of the effects of product placement on children as a form of subliminal advertising, as the media is only one of many factors influencing children, including parents, friends, and educators. Subliminal advertising, while it may exist, thus has only a minor impact on children, overall, against other factors vying for children’s minds.
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