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How marketers are invading the human mind


MANISH PANDEY | New Delhi, November 11, 2013 14:25
Tags : Bangkok | market researcher | BUREAUCRATS |

On one of those mirthful nights of his summer holidays, Sajan Raj Kurup, Founder & Creative Chairman of Creativeland Asia was grooving to the beats of feet-tapping music in a bar in Bangkok. Everything was festal till he started getting flashes of a particular brand of alcohol looking at the crystal ball at the disco while shaking his head to the beat. One flash, and as he paused, the flash was gone. The dancing continued and so did flashes of the alcohol at regular intervals. Tired, Kurup approached the bar and did the most obvious – he ordered ‘Absolut’!

It’s quite similar to the plot of Christopher Nolan’s Inception, if you’re one of those given to salacious thoughts – planting an idea in the mind of the consumer and letting it grow to the point of purchase. Subliminal advertising is what we call it. To implant an idea in someone’s mind without letting him know about it is – and to enforce an actionable impulse based on that idea, calls for utopian marketing finesse. That folks, is the essence of subliminal advertising.

When perfumeries started giving print ads with small tablets attached to the magazine, which gave off particular fragrances, that quite didn’t qualify as subliminal as the consumer knew the idea was being planted, and was not forced to take action. Compare this with what follows – you’re driving on Highway 150 in Mooresville, US, and suddenly, the inescapably addictive smell of steak wafts in from the windows, and you start feeling hungry. Voila, a moment later, you see the huge billboard of Bloom grocery chain inviting you to immediately take the next exit to their highway restaurant to enjoy the most delicious steak this side of the Atlantic! That, by all standards, is subliminal advertising. Bloom achieved this advertising benchmark a few years ago by a most innovative tactic – a billboard that spawned the steak scent onto the highway using a high-powered fan fitted inside billboard.

US based market researcher James Vicary was the first to conceptualise the existence of such a form of advertising in the 1950s. He observed that quickly flashing messages in a particular form on a movie screen were influencing consumers to increase their sales of food and drinks. He termed the phenomenon subliminal advertising. Over the years that followed, the term has not only broadened its ambit, but a lot of other facets have also been included in this jargon.

But then, why would a marketer advertise subliminally for his product? How would an indirect communication help improve the sales? As per Rahul Mathew, Former ECD, McCann Erickson, “There is a lot of layering in ad space, and as you go on watching a subliminal message, it starts building on you. Music, for instance, has got a subliminal affect on us. Likewise, our conscious self may not be watching an ad for its music but we tend to go with it subconsciously.” And that’s the reason why marketers have been using the technique for long now.

In fact, the first formal form of subliminal advertising was observed in 1973 in a TV commercial of a Danish game Husker Du (that’s Danish for “Do you remember?”). The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) objected to the telecast of the ad because it intermittently flashed the message, ‘Get It’. FCC alleged the ad to be subliminal in nature and went on to frame a policy that subliminal advertising is contrary to the public interest and intends to be deceptive. Canada followed suit, and before one could know what happened, the ad was banned.

Years later, another instance of subliminal advertising created news. During the US Presidential election of year 2000, in the campaigning pandemonium, a TV advert from the George Bush camp kept flashing ‘BUREAUCRATS’ every now and then. And then, during the flashes, you could swear you noticed frames that carried just the word ‘RATS’. Did it imply that Democrats were (ahem!) ‘RATS’? It created a one of a kind uproar. It was touted as malicious subliminal advertising done to demean the other candidate vying for the top post.

In that sense, one major facet of subliminal advertising is that it can pose a lethal threat to the image of a competitor’s brand. To this, Kurup says, “Subliminal advertising is prone to being misused. If you are cleverly adopting this subliminal art to sell products to children, it is highly unacceptable, because their minds are impressionable.” So, however interesting it might be as a concept, it has certain dark shades to its usage as well. But does that make it infamous in the ad world? “It’s possible for admen to use subliminal advertising in a positive light. But if it goes against any tenet of the Code, it should not be allowed,” says Alan Collaco, Secretary General, ASCI.

Further, it would be safe to say that subliminal advertising has had a radiant international history. But how prevalent is the concept and its application when it comes to our ‘Bharat Mahan’? Sridhar Ramanujam, CEO, Brand-Comm, feels that while it is nice to talk or read about subliminal advertising in the context of text books and research, in the Indian context, the jargon my not have much relevance. The reason for this is that in the West there is a fair amount of cynicism towards advertising. People do not trust or believe advertising. However, India is placed at a slightly different level. “India is not a country for subtlety. People like messages that appeal to them, that they can understand and appreciate,” he says.

Although there haven’t been any incidences of messages flashing in between a commercial that have been reported about, but the ad caliphs do talk about using subliminal space at length in our commercials. In fact, subliminal advertising has a pervasive nature, that is, you can observe its presence in almost every aspect of standard advertisements, be it the visual sequence, the way the message is projected or the tagline, for that matter. One subliminal story in the Indian ad space goes like this – take cigarette brand Gold Flake’s tagline ‘Honey Dew’ and keep repeating the tagline a few times; the term ‘I need you’ would get superimposed on the term ‘Honey Dew’ in your subconscious. That’s called subliminally conditioning your mind to create its need in your head (without letting you know that you have just been sold the product!).

Clever technique, but does all the hard work bring in the ‘moolah’ as well? Does it have the potential to become a niche in itself that goes onto moving the needle by a few percentages? Even if the answer is in positive, a large section of the ad fraternity believes that it won’t be feasible to invest money in something as abstract as subliminal advertising. Not in India, at least. People in the alternate media and in the business of surrogate advertising may resort to subliminal advertising, because they work on urges. So the next time you think of selling coconut oil through subliminal advertising the Bloom way on the Indian highway, allow us to sweetly recommend – just “don’t” do it!

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017