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“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” has been typical response to bullying among children as far as history can recall (Spears 2005). To them, the idiom means that name-calling will not cause them any physical pain. However, adults fear that subliminal words or images can influence and control their behavior. Subliminal messages are hidden below conscious awareness, so the images or words cannot be seen. Supraliminal messages are not hidden and the images, words, and sounds may influence either consciously or unconsciously. Some say that subliminal messages can get into the unconscious mind and control human behavior. Others say that supraliminal pictures, sounds, and words are more effective in controlling human behavior. In either case, while manipulating behavior against human will with subliminal and supraliminal messaging is legal in the U.S., it may not be morally ethical.
Subliminal and Supraliminal Messaging
To understand how human behavior can be manipulated, subliminal and supraliminal messaging must be defined. Subliminal literally means to “lie below the threshold of conscious awareness (Webster, 1963).” The secret messages are embedded in pictures, sounds, and words. The person targeted is not aware that they are being influenced.
A subliminal message can be visual words or images flashed so quickly that the human eye cannot see them. The term “subliminal advertising” began in 1957 when Frances Thayer published a claim by James Vicary that popcorn and Coca-Cola sales increased in the movie Picnic starring William Holden and Kim Novak in the Lee Theatre, because they hid the words “Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” in the film (O’Barr 2013). The subliminal words cannot be seen with the naked eye in a YouTube clip from the movie posted by Stan Gunn, yet a still frame reveals the words, “Hungry? Eat Popcorn.” Vicary claimed that popcorn sales increased by 58% and Coca-Cola sales by 18% because of the subliminal ads. Of course, the entire research was debunked, because Vicary and his accomplice had provided false data (Zimmerman 2014). Nevertheless, because of the popcorn and Coca-Cola hoax, people began to wonder if they could be swayed to buy certain products or act a certain way against their will.
Subliminal messaging can also be a sound rolled into a louder sound that people cannot hear with the human ear. Alternatively, it can be an audio message that is recorded backward. When played forwards, the recording has a different subliminal message. The people who see or hear subliminal messages never know that the music or words are influencing their behavior. The fact is that people do not usually listen to recordings backward, so most recorded messaging is included in lyrics.
In addition to subliminal messages, people can also be influenced subconsciously without a hidden stimulus. If it can be seen or heard even if it is not consciously noticed, it is supraliminal. Supraliminal messaging is influencing consumer behavior unconsciously in a real situation. To provide a feeling of the comfort of home and harvest, store managers place porch rockers, pumpkins, and colorful fall flowers at the entrance of a supermarket to influence customers before they ever enter the store. Then inside the door, the customer hears music and is offered samples of coffee further elevating the senses. The customer immediately embraces the fall season and wants to buy decorations and a bag of coffee perhaps with a twist of cinnamon. The customer sees a counter of polished apples and selects a dozen to take home. No further than a few steps inside the door, and the customer’s brain has already been influenced to buy things not on the shopping list.
In addition to in-store influences, logos can contain supraliminal messaging. The messages are visible but are not comprehended in the mind’s eye. Upon close examination, the FedEx logo contains a hidden arrow embedded between the “E” and the “x” symbolizing speedy delivery. Also, the Amazon logo has a hidden smile pointing from A to Z creating a secret message that the company sells many products with a smile. Baskin Robbins has the number thirty-one embedded in the logo noting that there are thirty-one flavors of ice cream (Schweigert 2018). The images are hidden in plain sight. Unless these hidden messages are pointed out to customers, they probably are never aware of them. However, once noticed, they will probably never forget them.
Another example of supraliminal messaging is in-store music. A 1999 study in the Journal of Applied Psychology revealed how music influences supermarket buying. For two weeks, French and German music was alternately played over the speakers in a supermarket. The test was designed to show if shoppers would prefer French or German wines linked to the music of the day. The result was that French music led to French wines outselling German wines, and German music led shoppers to buy more German wines. The results of a questionnaire showed that shoppers were not aware that the music affected their buying (North, Adrian C., et al.1999). Even though they heard the music, they did not realize that subconsciously they were being influenced to buy a particular wine. So, the shopper was primed to buy a certain way because of supraliminal music.
In addition to appealing to the senses with words, sounds, and images, supraliminal messages also include emojis or memes used in online conversations on Facebook, Messenger, and other social media. The images are meant to convey a supraliminal message to the receiver. Google collects data from searches and sells that data to advertisers. The advertisers then place their ads within the context of news media articles, browsing searches, or wherever the viewer searches frequently. The viewer may see the ad but pays little attention to it. However, if they see the ad enough times, they may be influenced to purchase that product or service. Good or bad, subliminal and supraliminal messaging has become a part of everyday life.
Whether or not they are hidden or forthright, subliminal and supraliminal messages can influence people without their knowledge. In The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard was convinced that advertisers use what he called “subthreshold effects” to force people to buy certain products or force the electorate to vote a certain way. Ian Zimmerman’s article in Psychology Today said, “People feared skepticism and suspicion would be useless against this form of influence because after all, we can’t be suspicious of something we’re not even aware we’ve seen (Zimmerman 2014).” This begs the question: Is subliminal and supraliminal messaging legal and, more importantly, is it ethical?
Legal or Illegal
Subliminal messaging is illegal in many countries around the world. However, there is no specific state or federal law in the United States pertaining to subliminal advertising. Instead, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), America’s “advertising and broadcasting regulatory agencies, deal with the topic and its impact on the public. In contrast, other countries do have specific laws in place concerning subliminal marketing. Britain and Australia, for example, ban subliminal advertising for any reason (Tandon 2018).”
Recipients of subliminal or supraliminal messaging are not aware that they are being influenced, so according to U.S. law, it does not represent an invasion of privacy and is not protected under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution (Thompson 2017). No one has proven beyond reason that subliminal or supraliminal messages could make someone do something against his or her will.
While there are no laws restricting subliminal messaging in advertising, the government says that the practice is unfair. However, there is no significant evidence that subliminal ads are effective, and most advertisers are afraid that using subliminal messages could create a public relations nightmare. Individuals can sue if they think they have been the subject of a subliminal message, but proving that they were affected by it is difficult if not impossible, and the messages are virtually unnoticeable, so it would be difficult to prove in a court of law. Also, the government does not consider print and video ads like the FedEx and Amazon logos which contain hidden images as subliminal because they are clearly visible. With that in mind, subliminal is deemed by the government as an “unfair” advertising practice, and supraliminal is not.
Ethics of Subliminal Messaging
Although subliminal messaging is legal in the U.S., it is questionable ethically. In his book Vance Packard quoted W. Howard Chase, President, Public Relations Society of America, 1956, saying, “The very presumptuousness of molding or affecting the human mind through the techniques we use has created a deep sense of uneasiness in our minds (Packard 231).” Packard questioned the morality of “persuading consumers to be nonrational and impulsive in buying the family food,” “playing upon anxieties,” “manipulating small children even before they reach the age where they are legally responsible for their actions,” “treating voters like customers seeking father images,” exploiting our deepest sexual sensitivities and yearnings for commercial purposes,” “developing…an attitude of wastefulness toward national resources,” and “subordinating truth to cheerfulness in keeping the citizen posted on the state of his nation (Packard 233).” While Packard was writing about influencing the public during the 1950s, his premise still holds true. Using subliminal techniques to manipulate people without their knowledge or against their will is unethical.
For instance, a YouTube video reveals that George Bush’s 2000 campaign crew included a subliminal message over images of his opponent, Al Gore. A series of words flashed across the screen. The last set of words just after Gore’s name was mentioned was the phrase, “Bureaucrats Decide.” For a split second the word “Rats” flashed over the screen implicating that Gore and his party were vermin. Bush denied the allegations and removed the ad from the airways. The FCC investigated but did not fine the campaign (Bush 2006). The question is, did the ad intend to manipulate voters without their knowledge?
One of the shrewdest subliminal ads was the Ferrari Marlboro ad. In 1970, Congress banned cigarette ads from airing on television and radio. In 1984 Philip Morris created a barcode design that when seen in motion appeared like the Marlboro brand (Grant-Braham, Bruce, and John Britton 2011). If subliminal advertising works, the barcode logo may have subconsciously manipulated behavior and encouraged people to smoke. If so, why did it take nearly thirty years for the logo to disappear?
The fact is that when choice is removed, the consumer is unable to critically evaluate a product or service or the motivation behind it. Children may be inappropriately targeted with smoking, sexual, or other harmful messages. Adults and children alike do not realize that they are being manipulated into behavior they may not normally accept. For instance, the band Judas Priest inserted subliminal messages into their music that encouraged two fans to attempt suicide. Nevertheless, subliminal advertising attempts to control consumer behavior and is perceived by most as unethical (Thompson 2017). Since it has not been proved or disproved that subliminal messaging is effective, it stands to reason that consumers should be skeptical until it can be proven. However, the effects of subliminal messaging may never be proven one way of the other. In the meantime, it is buyer beware.
In conclusion, no one has proven if subliminal messaging is more influential than supraliminal messaging, but when delivered under the radar of awareness, either one can be considered a form of mind control. Hiding words or images below conscious awareness that a brain cannot reject can be described as brainwashing. Anything that can control people intellectually or emotionally to say or do things that they would normally not do is unethical. If it goes beyond persuasion and controls critical thinking, it is immoral.
Man’s law in the United States says that influencing a person without their knowledge does not constitute a person’s right to privacy. However, God’s law says, “Do not take advantage of each other…,” so taking advantage of someone by a conscious or subconscious means is Biblically wrong (New American Standard Bible, Lev. 25.17). Any manipulation of human behavior against one’s will, in my opinion, it is morally unethical and should be banned. Mind control is not a game. It is serious business. In that context, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but subliminal words can hurt me.”
- “Bush Campaign ‘Rats’ Subliminal Message.” YouTube, 21 Jun. 2006, youtu.be/2NPKxhfFQMs. Accessed 21 Oct. 2018.
Grant-Braham, Bruce, and John Britton. “Motor Racing, Tobacco Company Sponsorship, Barcodes and Alibi Marketing.” Tobacco Control, BMJ Publishing Group Ltd, 1 Jan. 2011, tobaccocontrol.bmj.com/content/early/2011/08/04/tc.2011.043448.citation-tools.
- New American Standard Bible. T Nelson, 1979. Accessed 24 Oct. 2018.
- North, Adrian C., et al. “The Influence of In-Store Music on Wine Selections.” Journal of Applied Psychology, vol. 84, no. 2, 1999, pp. 271–276.
- O’Barr, William M. “‘Subliminal’Advertising.” Advertising & Society Review, vol. 13 no. 4, 2013. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/497057. Accessed 21 Oct. 2018.
- Packard, Vance. The Hidden Persuaders. Pocket Books Inc., 1957.
- Spears, Richard A. McGraw-Hill’s Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs. McGraw-Hill Professional, 2005. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=cookie,ip,url,uid,athens&db=nlebk&AN=138318&site=ehost-live. Accessed 30 Oct. 2018.
- Schweigert, Aly. “9 Ads With Subliminal Messages You’ve Probably Missed.” Our Story, HubSpot – Internet Marketing Company, 14 Oct. 2018, https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/ads-with-subliminal-messages. Accessed 30 Oct. 2018.
Tandon, Gaurav H. “Subliminal Persuasion in Print Media, Movies, Music and Cults.” Law, 3 Aug. 2018. https://www.slideshare.net/gauravhtandon1/subliminal-persuasion-in-print-media-movies-music-and-cults. Accessed 20 Oct. 2018.
- Thompson, Van. “Is Subliminal Advertising Ethical or Not?” Small Business – Chron.com, Chron.com, 21 Nov. 2017, smallbusiness.chron.com/subliminal-advertising-ethical-not-60413.html. Accessed 21 Oct. 2018.
- Webster, Noah. “Subliminal.” New Collegiate Dictionary. A Merriam-Webster, G. & C. Merriam Co., 1963.
- Zimmerman, Ian. “Subliminal Ads, Unconscious Influence, and Consumption.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 9 June 2014. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sold/201406/subliminal-ads-unconscious-influence-and-consumption. Accessed 21 Oct. 2018.
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