British Survivor Scandal: Do Subliminal Ads Work?by David Bloomberg -- 07/10/2002
There has recently been an outcry in Great Britain over Survivor ads that allegedly use subliminal messages to get their point across. In particular, an “Associated Newspapers” article says ITV has been “showing one-second shots of the show logo at the start of commercial breaks.” Since this began, viewers have apparently complained to TV watchdogs that this “burns [the image] into the subconscious.” ITV responded that they are “just sparking the interest of viewers.”
There are two issues here: First, was it meant to be a subliminal ad; second, do subliminal ads work?
The topic of subliminal advertising seems to come up every year or two. For example, during the U.S. presidential election, there was a minor uproar about an alleged subliminal message in a Republican anti-Gore TV commercial, which flashed the word “RATS” quickly while discussing some of his policies. While this would have been the perfect time for the media to fully discuss the issue of subliminal advertising, it didn’t happen in most cases. At the time, most people focused on the first issue – whether the Republican ad was intended to be subliminal, not whether such ads actually work.
In the Survivor ad, it seems fairly obvious from the description that this was not intended to be some sort of subliminal message. The whole point of a subliminal ad is that you can’t see it. Subliminal means, according to Webster’s New World Dictionary, “below the threshold of consciousness or apprehension.” So the very fact that people could see the ad means it wasn’t subliminal!
Okay, so could it be that maybe the people putting the ad together just weren’t very good? I suppose there’s no way to definitively rule that out, but that brings us to the second issue – does it even work?
The answer, quite simply, is no. This is something that was lost in the brouhaha of the presidential election when the Republican ad aired. Al Gore’s campaign sure seemed upset. The Bush campaign also seemed concerned as they defended against the accusation. A couple of senators even asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to investigate. Unfortunately, neither campaign had anybody speak out about the fact that subliminal advertising doesn’t work.
Oh, sure, there were a couple of short articles in the general media about this after the main hullabaloo died down, but the first few articles didn’t do much to mention it. So far, I have not seen any articles discussing it in context of the Survivor ad (of course, I don’t live in England, so if there are any British readers who have seen such articles, please let me know).
But whenever subliminal ads are mentioned, you can count on the media bringing up the infamous 1957 “Eat Popcorn, Drink Coca-Cola” subliminal movie ad that supposedly showed how well such ads work – which was indeed mentioned during the presidential ad ruckus. You can also generally count on the same writers neglecting to mention the 1962 Advertising Age interview with James Vicary, the advertising expert who made the original claim about increasing sales through those subliminal ads during movies. Vicary admitted that the original “study” was a fabrication (see also Skeptical Inquirer, Spring 1992), intended only to increase customers for his marketing business.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on the media alone, though. After all, the FCC banned subliminal ads in 1974, even though there is no evidence that they do anything. Better to give in to public misunderstanding than to try to correct the situation, I guess.
Thankfully, during the presidential campaign, at least a few media outlets reported the important part of this brouhaha – the lack of evidence for the effectiveness of subliminal ads. These bear repeating now that the Survivor ad has been similarly attacked.
An article from the Associated Press, written by Dave Carpenter, mentioned the “Eat Popcorn, Drink Coca-Cola” legend and explained that it was untrue. Carpenter talked to people in the advertising industry, whose main reaction was “Oh man, not again – will this charade never die?”
Carpenter also interviewed to Bob Garfield, who works for Advertising Age magazine as an industry critic. The article noted: “Garfield says the myth of subliminal ads endures despite decades’ worth of non-evidence because people enjoy it and want it to be true. ‘They like to believe there’s a Sasquatch and a Loch Ness Monster and aliens in an Air Force hangar in Roswell, New Mexico,’ he said. ‘But there aren’t.’”
The Skeptic’s Dictionary website notes, “The fact that there is almost no empirical support for the usefulness of subliminal messaging has not prevented numerous industries from producing and marketing tapes which allegedly communicate directly with the unconscious mind, encouraging the ‘listener’ not to steal, or coaching the ‘listener’ to have courage or believe in his or her power to accomplish great things.”
The fact of the matter is that there is no scientific evidence that subliminal advertisements work. I would just like to see those TV watchdogs in Britain do something that neither the Bush nor Gore campaign did when this issue struck during the campaign – stand up and provide the facts. Don’t cave in to public misunderstanding and fear – explain that the reality of the situation is that even if they tried to use subliminal advertising, it’s just a waste of time. A lot of people will probably watch Survivor in Britain, but it won’t be because they were subconsciously forced to do so.
Be sure to sign up for our e-mail update so you can stay informed about new articles on the site! And take a look around the Survivor Article Page for everything from claims of a "fix" to episode summaries!
Remember to take a peek at the rest of the site. You can find our most recent articles at the Home page, take a look at our sections on Boot Camp and The Mole, and browse through our book reviews. You can even buy Survivor stuff at our Survivor Store!