Subliminal advertising has gotten more powerful: it’s time for the FCC to keep up

By Saybrook University

Apple_Inc._Mosaic Turns out, you are choosing things based on subliminal messages.

The way you vote, the food you buy, the brands you dig—they are all being deeply affected by subliminal advertising. It’s totally legal – and totally unethical.

In recent years, an abundance of literature has surfaced proving that subliminal messaging can indeed affect our thoughts and behaviors—even without conscious awareness. As consumers, we all have an invested interest in understanding the research – how it’s being used against us – and what we can do to uphold our rights.

Here’s a peak at the research:

In 2005, researchers Karreman, Stroebe, and Claus found subliminal messages used in advertising to “subliminally prime” and effect brand name choices and purchasing when the consumer is in need of, desiring, or already thinking about the product being publicized. Conducted and published in the Netherlands, this research equivocally demonstrated that subliminal priming of the “Lipton Ice” drink via advertisements positively affected consumer’s choices who were already thirsty or desiring a beverage.

In 2008, researchers Joel Weinberger and Drew Westen found that subliminal priming; particularly in political advertisements in the form of television commercials affected the consumer’s implicit and unconscious decision making processes. The experiment tested two groups of television watchers—and found that words quickly flashed across television screens while outside conscious awareness effected the voting choices and preferences of the consumer.

Also in 2008, research out of Duke University and the University of Waterloo looked at subliminal messaging with logos. The logos of computer companies – Apple and IBM – were used in the research to determine their effect on consumer’s behavior, brand association, and purchasing decision making. The research concluded, “This is the first clear evidence that subliminal brand exposures can cause people to act in very specific ways” and “These experiments demonstrate that most any brand that has strong associations with particular traits could have the capacity to influence how we act,” In the end, consumers viewed IBM computers as “traditional” and Apple as “creative and innovative” – as a result of subliminal logo advertising – which trickled down to purchasing decision making.

Add to this noxious cocktail companies such as Nestle, Dodge Trucks, KFC, Microsoft, Coca-Cola—all using subliminal messages to get you to buy their food or product. The list of companies that employ these unethical tricks inherent in subliminal advertising is enormous. The latest trend:  using sexually explicit subliminal images to get you to buy their product.

The Federal Trade Commission commented on the issue in the 70’s and its legality reached the Supreme Court in the 90’s. The problem? It is really hard to prove on a case by case basis. In recent years subliminal advertising has been gaining scary ground in how it affects consumer purchases, all under the radar of the conscious mind.

 It’s about time that the media and corporate America be held accountable for their gravely unethical conduct. The Federal Trade Commission needs to step in – and step on corporate America. Until then, when pesky commercials come on, use your conscious mind and the mute button.   

— Liz Schreiber