Subliminal Marketing – A Ploy for a Deeper Pull

Posted in Marketing & Strategy Articles, Total Reads: 2682 , Published on 11 January 2013

Why this approach?

In an era where information overload is cresting to newer levels, an attempt to reach-out, get noticed and gain loyalty amongst consumers becomes an increasingly difficult task. It can be seen that the hitherto advertising techniques as the obvious push marketing worked at the supraliminal layer. As the clutter rises, the next layer of human cognition which had been an unexplored area becomes the target ground for companies. To gain market share is to gain the mind share has become the new mantra. Statistics and psychology has been lending the next level of solutions for companies to arm their marketing wing and influence consumer decisions at deeper levels. One such approach is ‘Subliminal Marketing’.


How do they do it?

There are majorly two prominent ways to engage subliminal stimulation that translates to the desired behavioural outcome. The first involves broadcasting visuals that need to be sowed in the minds of the viewer. The exposure is carefully controlled by a device called the Tachistoscope which psychologists have been using for experiments. These devices change the duration of video display and helps understand that perfect exposure level at which the intent does not become conspicuous. This is measured by the brain’s ability to recognize something as deliberate or pass it as accidental and send it to the sub-conscious. The second tested method is through the use of accelerated speech in low volume auditory messages. This is at an audio level when the brain becomes more receptive to the message being delivered. A common example to quote, in a non-marketing context, is the rapid paced read-out of the Red-Herring prospectus that appears at the end of Mutual Fund advertisements. It serves as an effective caution tool where the voice goes in relatively lower volumes and an accelerated pace.

Is it effective?

Way back in 1957, James Vicary carried out an experiment where he injected a message ‘Drink Coca Cola’ for duration of 1/3000 of a second, every 5 seconds, in a movie called ‘Picnic’, at a local theatre. After the period of this experiment, he noticed that the local sales of Coke had grown by 58%.

A separate study by Kunst-Willson and Zajonc, independent research, proved that 60% of a control group had different stimuli of the same video pre and post subliminal interjection. This had a statistical reliability of p < 0.01 (two tailed test).

A 2009 study completed by the University College of London found that subliminal messages are most effective when displayed for 33 milliseconds and that negative messages are more useful (77 % effective) than positive messages (59 % effective). This means that an advertisement that says, "Kill the use of fur." would likely be more powerful than one saying "Don't wear fur." This finding can be applied easily to most marketing campaigns.

A recent instance to note can be the positioning of the ‘Nikon’ camera, used by reporters, in the movie ‘The Dark Knight rises’, just as Bruce Wayne steps into the charity ball. The visual would have been visible for probably a second or two. The fact that Bruce Wayne comes back to society after a hiatus and that keen eyes are waiting, increases the viewer’s curiosity making it a phase where attention to detail becomes very high. By smartly positioning the product for a brief period, at a subtle level, the brand is associated with ‘capturing moments of importance’.

Is it right?

Subliminal marketing attempts to influence consumer perception where their mental guards are relatively weak. When presented with various stimuli, an individual sees what his mental makeup decides is relevant for the person. When sending across sublet messages where are consciously oblivious to the viewer, the perceptual changes that happen can influence behaviour tremendously. This again dictates the person’s course of action and is thus an indirect form of mind control.

This and neural marketing are two topics in marketing which are subject to scrutiny and controversy. It should also be noted that regulations at this level becomes quite difficult and messages such as sex, alcohol etc. are sometimes disseminated to the wrong target audience. Also, the fact that the decision point rests more with the companies as opposed to the individual makes it more doubtful.

The Captain Morgan Rum print ad of 1990 which was originally intended to do an ATL push of their product connotes a subtly different message embedded. The captain (red hat) with a sinister smile is offering rum and creating a mood to stronger form of temptation where a man and woman are beginning to create an inappropriate environment. It also reads that the ‘Captain was here’ linking the product and its brand to a more promiscuous and inviting feel to it.

What should one be aware of?

Marketing rules the consumer decision, no doubt. As companies become more scientific and competent in pushing their products, we, as consumers first need to be aware. Why do we sometime feel a compulsive need to get something? Is it something we really need or are we being the puppets companies want? The next time a visual promo is being witnessed, it is a good opportunity to see how your mind makes up the available information and tries drawing some sense from it. The ad is probably designed to invoke that exact sentiment from you. This way, the next time you think about choosing a particular product with this particular attribute in mind, it’s clear what brand you’d be recalling.

This article has been authored by Keshav Sridhar from IIM Shillong.


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