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FYI, here is the section of _Virus of the Mind_ in which I briefly discuss
Scares have abounded in recent years about so-called “subliminal”
advertising. The idea is that unscrupulous marketeers have put hidden
images, voices, or symbols into their ads for the purpose of manipulating
people into buying products that they otherwise wouldn’t buy. The story goes
that one liquor company had an artist airbrush the word “sex” into the
random arrangement of ice cubes in a glass, or that a cigarette manufacturer
hid the word “death” in a waterfall, or that a seemingly innocent
arrangement of random objects secretly formed a likeness of a naked and
This all raises a lot of questions, whether you see these images when you
peer intently at the suspect ads or not.* But supposing subliminal images do
exist: how did they get there? Are there really evil geniuses intentionally
cackling over their airbrushes, manipulating and enslaving our minds? Or is
the presence of these images nothing more interesting than Charlie Brown’s
looking up at the clouds and seeing a duckie and a horsie?
Of course, I don’t know. But if we get stuck on that question, we’re falling
into the biggest trap of all in understanding cultural evolution. It’s the
trap that conspiracy theorists fall into, and the same trap that people who
pooh-pooh conspiracy theories fall into. It’s the mistaken belief that
anything complicated must arise out of conscious intention.
Complicated things arise naturally out of the forces of evolution. No
conscious intention is necessary.
[There's a cartoon here in the book making fun of subliminals-RB]
Does subliminal advertising work? Sure! Ads can have parts that you don’t
become consciously aware of, but that draw your attention unconsciously. If
the ad pushes more of your buttons as a result of the subliminal content,
you will pay more attention to it. Paying more attention is the first step
toward paying more money. It can work in reverse, too: some fast-food
restaurants paint their walls orange because they believe it creates
subliminal discomfort. You’ll want to spend less time lingering there, and
your leaving opens up tables for new customers.
But don’t think subliminal ads are the only problem: as should be obvious to
everyone who has watched the evolution of television programming for more
than a few years, efforts to attract your attention are not limited to the
The television is screaming at us day and night with all the greatest
button-pushing memes there are: Danger! Food! Sex! Authority! We don’t even
have to believe it’s real for it to attract our attention. Remember “I’m not
a doctor, but I play one on TV”?
Not only commercials but also programs are evolving to command a greater
share of your mind, and to say they were doing it subliminally would be an
almost humorous understatement. As I write this, the first naked female
breasts on American broadcast television have appeared on the program NYPD
Blue. Baywatch, a show with little plot but lots of bare skin, has become
the most watched television show in the history of the world. Female
breasts, naked or otherwise, tend to command men’s attention and hence in
the very efficient evolutionary medium of television they tend to
proliferate. A casual observer will notice that the inclusion of breasts,
not to mention the rest of the female anatomy, in much male-oriented
advertising is far from subliminal.
Advertisers have learned to push your buttons. They also have learned a good
deal about programming you with all kinds of memes. It’s not the subliminal
that we need to be concerned with—it’s that they now have the knowledge to
unleash full-blown designer mind-viruses through their advertisements. And
the effects of that are unpredictable and frightening.
* Personally, ever since I first read about subliminal advertising I’ve seen
the word “sex” in every glass of liquor on the rocks—now I’ve got a
distinction-meme for it!
This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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