Subliminal Rats or Purely Coincidence

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One of the most controversial topics in all of advertising is subliminal advertising. Rooted in psychoanalytic theory, subliminal advertising supposedly influences consumer behaviors by subconsciously altering perceptions or attitudes toward products without the knowledge—or consent—of the consumer. Marketers have promoted subliminal self-help audiotapes, weight-loss videos, and golf game improvement tapes. Studies have shown that the majority of American consumers believe that advertisers sometimes use subliminal advertising and that it works.

The controversy hit national proportions in the last presidential election. In the Bush-Gore campaign, Democratic officials and some advertising experts accused the Republican National Committee of running a subliminal advertisement on television by having the phrase "bureaucrats decide" flashing around the screen and then, in larger print, flashing the word "rats" for a fraction of a second while an announcer criticized candidate Gore's Medicare plan. Republicans argued that the word appeared for one-thirtieth of a second on only one frame out of 900 and was purely an accident. Advertising analysts, including two experts on political advertising, disagreed, contending that there is no way such a thing could happen by accident. At least one noted that the word was "carefully superimposed." A Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigation concluded that no further action would be taken.

The concept of subliminal advertising was introduced in 1957 when James Vicary, a motivational researcher, reported that he increased the sales of popcorn and Coke by subliminally flashing "Eat popcorn" and "Drink Coca-Cola" across the screen during a movie in New Jersey. Since then, numerous books and research studies have been published regarding the effectiveness of this advertising form. Some of these have reported on the use of this technique by advertisers to manipulate consumers.

Numerous articles have reviewed the research in this area. Timothy Moore, after reviewing the literature three times (1982,1988,1992), has concluded that there is no evidence to support the fact that subliminal messages can affect consumers' motivations, perceptions, or attitudes. Joel Saegart and Jack Haberstroh have supported Moore's conclusions in their studies. On the other hand, in 1994 Kathryn Theus concluded after an extensive review of the literature that "certain themes might be effectively applied by advertising or marketing specialists."

In more recent writings, opposite positions are again taken. In a study conducted in Australia by an ad

Rats Political Advertisement

agency and Mindtec (a consulting firm), 12 groups of television viewers were hypnotized and asked questions about specific commercials and programs. According to the study, 75 percent of the hypnotized subjects stated that sexy images were the main attraction for viewing, as opposed to only 22 percent of the nonhypnotized subjects. The researchers were surprised by the subliminal details that hypnotized participants were able to recall. In the ads, names and slogans that were visible only when the commercial was paused had high levels of recall, even when the brands recalled were not those being advertised. On the other hand, in his book, Ice Cube Sex: The Truth about Subliminal Advertising, Haberstroh reviews research and discussions with practitioners and concludes that subliminal advertising does not influence consumer behaviors, advertising recall, attitudes, or any other marketplace behavior.

When Haberstroh asked ad agency executives if they had ever deliberately used subliminal advertising, 96 percent said no, 94 percent said they had never supervised the use of implants,and 91 percent denied knowing anyone who had ever used this technique. A study by Rogers and Seiler supported these results, with over 90 percent denying any use of subliminal implants.

Going even further, Haberstroh contends that subliminal advertising does not even exist except for a few pranksters playing around with artwork for fun. But not so fast! Fashion retailer French Connection is not only employing subliminal advertising but incorporating it into a tagline. Using print and posters, the tagline "subliminal advertising experiment" is arranged in such a way as to spell out the word sex if one reads vertically. Likewise, Master Lock has become the first company to run a one-second national print commercial. The goal of the ad is to reinforce the brand name. And, in upstate New York, a personal-injury lawyer paid $35 each for one-second spots in an attempt to gain new clients. At this time, no one knows if any of these efforts have been successful.

Thus, while most consumers believe subliminal techniques are used and effective, researchers are divided as to their effects. It seems few people in the advertising world think subliminal advertising works and even fewer claim to use it, but there are still those who feel they are wrong. Will there ever be an end to this controversy?

Sources: "Hypnosis Reveals Ad Effects," Adweek Asia, Jan. 29,1999, p. 4; "Breaking French Connection," Ad Age, Mar. 22,1999,p.52; "Blink of an Ad," Time, Aug. 3,1998, p. 51; Jack Haberstroh, Ice Cube Sex: The Truth about Subliminal Advertising, New York Times Pub lishing, 1996; Kathryn Theus, "Subliminal Advertising and the Psychology of Processing Unconscious Stimuli: A Review of Research," Psychology & Marketing 11, no. 3,1994, pp. 271-90; Timothy Moore, "Subliminal Advertising: What You See Is What You Get," Journal of Marketing 46, no. 2 (Spring 1982), pp. 38-47; Timothy Moore,"The Case against Subliminal Manipulation," Psychology and Marketing 5, no. 4 (Winter 1988), pp. 297-316; Kalpana Srinivasan,"FCC Ends Probe on Republican Ad,", Mar. 12,2001, pp. 1-2; George E. Condon Jr. and Toby Eckert, "Flap over 'RATS' Latest to Plague Bush's Drive," San Diego Tribune, Sept. 13,2000, p. Al; Bob Garfield,"Subliminable Seduction and Other Urban Myths," Advertising Age, Sept. 18, 2000, p. 4.

Exhibit 4-10 Spokane wants to be in the evoked set of business locations

Exhibit 4-10 Spokane wants to be in the evoked set of business locations

services he or she has identified as being capable of solving the consumption problem and satisfying the needs or motives that initiated the decision process. The various brands identified as purchase options to be considered during the alternative evaluation process are referred to as the consumer's evoked set.

The Evoked Set The evoked set is generally only a subset of all the brands of which the consumer is aware. The consumer reduces the number of brands to be reviewed during the alternative evaluation stage to a manageable level. The exact size of the evoked set varies from one consumer to another and depends on such factors as the importance of the purchase and the amount of time and energy the consumer wants to spend comparing alternatives.

The goal of most advertising and promotional strategies is to increase the likelihood that a brand will be included in the consumer's evoked set and considered during alternative evaluation. Marketers use advertising to create top-of-mind awareness among consumers so that their brands are part of the evoked set of their target audiences. Popular brands with large advertising budgets use reminder advertising to maintain high awareness levels and increase the likelihood they will be considered by consumers in the market for the product. Marketers of new brands or those with a low market share need to gain awareness among consumers and break into their evoked sets. The ad promoting Spokane as a better place to live and do business (Exhibit 4-10) shows this strategy being used in a different context from products and brands. The ad presents the many benefits of Spokane and encourages prospective businesses to consider it in their evoked set of places to locate or relocate.

Advertising is a valuable promotional tool for creating and maintaining brand awareness and making sure a brand is included in the evoked set. However, marketers also work to promote their brands in the actual environment where purchase decisions are made. Point-of-purchase materials and promotional techniques such as in-store sampling, end-aisle displays, or shelf tags touting special prices encourage consumers to consider brands that may not have initially been in their evoked set.

Evaluative Criteria and Consequences Once consumers have identified an evoked set and have a list of alternatives, they must evaluate the various brands. This involves comparing the choice alternatives on specific criteria important to the consumer. Evaluative criteria are the dimensions or attributes of a product or service that are used to compare different alternatives. Evaluative criteria can be objective or subjective. For example, in buying an automobile, consumers use objective attributes such as price, warranty, and fuel economy as well as subjective factors such as image, styling, and performance.

Evaluative criteria are usually viewed as product or service attributes. Many marketers view their products or services as bundles of attributes, but consumers tend to think about products or services in terms of their consequences instead. J. Paul Peter and Jerry Olson define consequences as specific events or outcomes that consumers experience when they purchase and/or consume a product or service.13 They distinguish between two broad types of consequences. Functional consequences are concrete outcomes of product or service usage that are tangible and directly experienced by consumers. The taste of a soft drink or a potato chip, the acceleration of a car, and the clarity of a fax transmission are examples of functional consequences. Psychosocial consequences are abstract outcomes that are more intangible, subjective, and personal, such as how a product makes you feel or how you think others will view you for purchasing or using it.

Marketers should distinguish between product/service attributes and consequences, because the importance and meaning consumers assign to an attribute are usually determined by its consequences for them. Moreover, advertisers must be sure consumers understand the link between a particular attribute and a consequence. For example, the Callaway golf ad in Exhibit 4-11 focuses on the consequences of using the new Hawkeye VFT Clubs, such as getting the ball airborne with less effort. Notice how the detail drawings reinforce that the clubs can help golfers enjoy the game more.

Product/service attributes and the consequences or outcomes consumers think they will experience from a particular brand are very important, for they are often the basis on which consumers form attitudes and purchase intentions and decide among various choice alternatives. Two subprocesses are very important during the alternative evaluation stage: (1) the process by which consumer attitudes are created, reinforced, and changed and (2) the decision rules or integration strategies consumers use to compare brands and make purchase decisions. We will examine each of these processes in more detail.

Exhibit 4-11 This ad emphasizes the positive consequences of using Callaway golf clubs

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