Subliminal Advertising

by Nic Olson

(This is my attempt at academia: Writing on a topic I know nothing about, solely in the hopes of winning money.)

There is a magician that waits backstage with his old saws sharpened and his loose gloves pulled tight on his wrinkled hands, waiting for his time-slot to convince the audience that his illusions can become realities. The Subliminal Magician hasn’t had a magic show in several decades but is hoping for the opportunity to prove that his ideas, which have been significant in the past, can come up with the power to be a significant part of the reality of the magic of advertising. Subliminal messages and advertising have been mentioned together since the beginning of large scale, international advertising, but together have not proven to be formidable enough a pair to have significantly affected the industry today. At the brink of the digital advertising revolution, the possibilities for subliminal advertising are being revisited, but it is impossible to know if it will have the impact that it is suggested it could have; if the tantalizing idea could become a relevant reality, and if the magician’s hands can bring the audience to its feet without them even knowing it.

The spectrum of today’s media outlets is broader than the minds of the creators and changing faster than the time it takes one idea to come to life. Artists, marketers and creators are then required to hastily produce original works for several platforms in a world where everything has already been done and recycled twice over. “The irony is that while there have never been more ways to reach consumers, it’s never been harder to connect with [them].”1 Advertising has walked every possible trail between the years of the two advertising revolutions, which are characterized by the television and the internet, including the rocky path of psychological and subliminal advertisements. There is still not a single fail-proof formula to sell a product, whether it be due to the consumer’s want for new and fresh ideas, or due to an imperfect model of subliminal advertising. Celebrity spots and product placement, both ideas in the forefront of Michael Jordan’s new ‘Flight #23’ Hanes commercial in which he does nothing more than grunt on two separate million dollar occasions2, are two effective forms that could fall under the broad scape of subliminal advertising, blatantly pushing products with that hint of camouflage behind names and faces. The placement of advertisements is planned so that the public either believe in the inevitability of advertisements in all the things they do, or so that in the moments when they think they are enjoying themselves commercial free, they are swimming neck deep in pitches and products. Advertisements are posed to the consumer unconsciously, without them even noticing. There are more ways to advertise to the subconscious than just flashing frames in a movie or erotic photos in cubes of ice. The job of an advertiser is to be subliminal without even knowing it, under the conviction that all ads can be created with a subliminal air.

If a portion of advertisements appeal to the subconscious, and the new age of digital advertising provides a heightened platform to do so, then the future has the potential to have its sleeves full and its rabbits waiting in black stove pipe hats. Advertising history was touched subtly by the tainted Subliminal Magician’s hands in the past, and the physical layout of the future presents the theoretical opportunity to reinvent the sleight of hand tricks that remain dusty in the vaults. Technology could allow a more effective version of subliminal advertising if it was indeed proven to be effective and relevant enough for further study, as in a recent BMW special video advertisement which used a large flash and hollowed out BMW logo behind a movie screen to imprint the BMW logo on the inside of the eyelids of the audience when they closed their eyes.3 Advertising, when the audience does not recognize it as advertising, occurs below the threshold of human consciousness, therefore it is just a piece of the magician’s kit. An example: park benches embossed with advertisements in hopes that barelegged park-goers ‘inadvertently’ become walking billboards, possibly without even knowing this has happened.4 The question becomes this; if the viewer does not know he or she is being advertised to, does that make it subliminal or just scheming? If you close your eyes and dream, you see BMW. If you want the advertisement to have the legs to sprint the race of relevance, the canvas is the legs of the consumer. Printing on the body, the eyelids, the legs will eventually permanently print the product in the minds of the walking canvasses that are aware that they are being advertised on.

If, however, real, image based subliminal advertising had proved in the past to be as effective as it was theorized it could have been, this practice would still be in the conversations of creators and mentioned as an everyday ‘threat’ by consumers. The digital age would usher in a new era of subliminal opportunities and this mode of advertising would undoubtedly be the most widely used and relevant form of advertising. But this has not happened, and although the future is open to the fact, there are no signs that subliminal advertising will explode in the digital age anytime soon. Instead, advertisers have opted for blatant, yet creative ways to push product to the masses. This could be seen as a shift from the subliminal hinting of advertising in the past days to the acceptance of advertising as a major part of our society, one based entirely on global capitalism. After being the recipients of major forms of advertising for over sixty years, the public is familiar with the advertising industry and understands its necessity in a capitalist society to pay for their beloved entertainment and everyday comforts. Perhaps in an effort to stop patronizing the public and be straight with them, advertisers have found a way to make entertainment and advertising indistinguishable. Mediums such as and campaigns such as the Old Spice ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’, are samples of successful ideas that are both contrary to subliminal and a hybrid of entertainment and advertising. Advertisers have chosen a psychology opposite of that of subliminal advertising, standing tall and bright on a stage for everyone to see, instead of lurking in the shadows with mind control techniques. Now, instead of worrying about sneaking ideas and images into the heads of consumers, advertisers can focus on creativity and originality by catering to the wants of the people that make their business possible; subliminal messages completely out of the question.

Although we are daily exposed to certain types of advertisements that border on the line of subliminal and indirectly convince our subconscious through purposefully placed products and distracting celebrity cameos, subliminal advertising does not exist as a real vehicle in the industry. In theory, covertly convincing the human psyche into product loyalty should be the most effective means of selling anything, but we have not yet reached this point on the map; it is not even a visible object on the horizon. The future of advertising, digital or otherwise, gives a favorable climate for subliminal possibilities but nothing exceeding that. Either this form of advertising has not reached its potential, or young consumers are too savvy to fall for the same tricks that were played on their grandparents. We have moved from suggested subliminal advertising, to parodies of subliminal advertising, to today’s form; the complete opposite of subliminal advertising by openly and shamelessly pushing products as a part of our publicized culture. “Whatever one thinks about the relatively small amount of evidence suggesting that subliminal communications play any real role in most advertising messages, there is no denying that the idea is perhaps more significant than the reality. It seems to be an idea that many members of the public want to believe in.”5 All significant discoveries start as ideas. With the right care, these ideas can evolve into reality. All illusions are ideas that do not have the substance to become realities, and therefore rest as ideas. Subliminal advertising is an idea dancing on the line of discovery and illusion, only having an impact on the industry as an idea and not as a reality. In understanding the direction that advertising is currently taking, one would believe that the idea of subliminal advertising is likely going to stay just that, an idea that outweighs its potential as a reality, waiting for the wave of the Subliminal Magician’s wand to make it appear as relevant and real.


By Nicholas Olson and Eric Goud