Subliminal advertising

From: Richard Brodie (
Date: Wed Apr 17 2002 - 18:45:46 BST

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    Subject: Subliminal advertising
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    FYI, here is the section of _Virus of the Mind_ in which I briefly discuss
    "subliminal advertising":


    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
    seductive woman.

    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!

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    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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