The secret truth of subliminal advertising revealed!

January 19th, 2018

It was all the rage years ago – and every college student seems to start off believing it’s true. Subliminal advertising: hidden messages or images in ads designed to affect your subconscious mind, overwhelm you with a longing and desire for, well, you’re not quite sure. Because you never really saw it.

“The Hidden Persuaders” by Vance Packard was published in 1957 and has spawned a cottage industry of imitators. Dozens of books have been written on the topic, some with copyrights in the past few years. This is one myth that just doesn’t seem to die. The reality is, if you look hard enough, you can find anything you’re looking for. A profile of Kevin Bacon in the marbleized fat of your maple-cured bacon?  It’s in there if you want to see it.

I don’t know of a single professional in this industry that believes in subliminal advertising. If any of these conspiracy theorists had a clue how hard it is just to get a simple, decent ad created – much less anything where we’ve inserted a hidden word or buxom curve – they’d give up that story, and get back to their mission of uncovering of Bigfoot-piloted UFOs.

So the argument about subliminal advertising is BS. Done. End of story. Or is it?

Looked at in another context, subliminal advertising is real and extremely powerful – just not the way Packard and his fellow alarmists envisioned. As detailed in Malcom Gladwell’s “Blink”, the human mind reacts to subtle, below-the-consciousness clues. It’s proven in study after study that we can be “nudged” one way or the other in our thoughts by something as simple as word choice – hearing a series of positive words make assign more positive attributes to whatever follows; negative words give us a more negative attitude. If someone smiles at you, you are more likely to smile in return.

So what does this mean to marketing?  Everything. Because every detail matters.

This is why the art director wants to spend a little more time kerning the text or spend a little more money on a better photographer. It matters.

It’s why the copywriter cringes when a single word is changed, not because you’re messing with their art, but because the words and how they flow from one to the other were chosen with care and purpose. It matters.

It’s why a TV commercial averages more than $350,000 to produce. Could you shoot it with your iPhone? Yes, you can. But the subtle quality cues that are communicated in the nuances of lighting, pacing, casting, are all subliminal advertising. The details matter, even the ones you can’t readily see.

It’s why your ad agency resists changes, even ones that may seem inconsequential to you – everything is connected to everything else. It’s why it’s so dangerous when your sales staff creates their own PowerPoint presentation (any company where this doesn’t happen?) Every touchpoint of communication is a piece of your brand, and every little thing adds up. Why invest hundreds of thousands, or millions of dollars to burnish your brand image and then let the details slide. How many times do we hear “it’s just this one little thing”? One of my favorite quotes in business sums this up:

“If people see coffee stains on our tray tables, what will they think about the way we maintain our engines?” – Donald Burr, CEO, People Express Airlines

So what are the subliminal coffee stains on your brand?