1950s >> 1958 >> no-651-november-1958

Advertising by Stealth

The Slight Subliminal
There is proverbially no sentiment in business, and obviously no conscience in advertising. There is, however, a curious ethic of “fair play” which picks on one way of victimizing people among a thousand and demands that it be stopped. Thus at the present time “subliminal” advertising seems likely to be banned as too mean a method of what in any case is achieved in plenty of other ways.

The “subliminal” technique is a visual one, devised for the cinema and TV. In Chamber’s Dictionary it means “beneath the threshold of consciousness”; it consists of flashing a word or a symbol so swiftly that the brain registers without awareness that the eye has seen. Its first test in a cinema in America involved the words “ice cream,” and according to the Sunday Pictorial, which sounded a furious alarm (“Home Office Must Act”) on its front page on October 5th: “Ice cream sales in the interval took a tremendous upward leap, and the customers did not know why.”

It was announced in the House of Commons earlier this year that advertisers are forbidden to use subliminal suggestion on television in this country. There is, however, the promise of an American horror film in which nasty symbols and words like “blood” and “death” are flashed. Calling this “rape of the mind,” the Pictorial reported that “screams of horror are almost doubled when the symbols are used” because “without realizing it, the sub-conscious mind of the audience is flooded with thoughts of death.”

That this is low and objectionable could not be contested: what, one wonders, will future social historians make of the twentieth century? The suggestions made about it, however, extend far beyond those simple considerations. Through the subliminal technique, it is said, ideas and fears may be planted in the mind by stealth—it means, in fact, the beginning of thought-control. “Advisers to the Pictorial” made the demand for a ban indisputable by saying: “This is the sort of terror that George Orwell visualized in his book ‘1984.’ This is Big Brother’.”

Orwell’s earnest, mistaken book: what a lot it has to answer for! And, curiously enough, it never succeeded in showing any such terror. For all Orwell’s efforts, its horror lies chiefly in physical brutality; its Thought Police are simply plug-uglies, its hero hectored into seeing two and two as five ultimately not by suggestion but in fact by pain, privation and fear. One wonders, again, what the future could show the past in obtaining conformity, acquiescence, and self-deception. The Roman Catholic Church held millions in subjection for centuries without a single subliminal symbol; the Kaiser’s picture in the papers roused fury equal to anything in Orwell’s “hate week.”

Subliminal suggestion is undesirable, but there is no evidence to date—discounting the somewhat naive “tests” described in the Pictorial—that it is anything more than a new way of advertising. True, it carries the stigma of unfairness, of invading the person’s mind while his back, so to speak, is turned. Is that any more unfair or any more undesirable, however, than browbeating him into submission, which is what much modern advertising does? It is hard to see the difference between slipping a name into the subconscious and imprinting it by nagging repetition: few of us today will not carry the news of the New Blue Whitener to our graves.

Advertising has for many years employed techniques of suggestion; if the subliminal is rape of the mind, then these may be said to have tried taking liberties with it. The implications, for example, of all the symbols of masculinity and female desirability: Twice the Man on Whatsaname. What Makes a Woman Magnetic, Handsome Men are Slightly Sunbronzed. Where all suggestion techniques founder is on their own basis of competition. Presumably it is not difficult to rouse anyone’s wishes for strength, security, health or charm: what no advertiser has discovered, however, is how to make conflicting and contradictory claims effective on the subconscious.

It is all very well to find that more people bought ice cream after a subliminal flash, but the same effect could have been produced by any of half a dozen others means (overheating the cinema, for example). The real test is not whether they can be persuaded to buy more ice cream, but whether it will mean anything at all when they are told to buy four brands simultaneously, each one in preference to the others.

Every person in our society must always be on his guard against attempts to regulate his thoughts: government. press, church, school and advertisement are at it all the time. The facile common picture—Orwell’s one—of twentieth-century man as having less and less autonomy of thought is, however, completely untrue. It is the opposite which is true. For all the black patches, all the prejudice and cruelty and acceptance of things which ought not to be, man today is far more knowledgeable than ever before. That is not man in the abstract, typified by a few; it means man everywhere, walking the streets and going to work and reading the paper and watching the television. Knowing more, he is more critical and altogether more sensible than he has ever been.

The only really effective means of subjecting people’s minds is ignorance. The Catholic Church has already been mentioned; there are innumerable other examples— kingship, war propaganda, every persecution in history, including that of the Jews. While on the one hand new techniques of mass communication are developed and put into the hands of the few against the many, every day man grows in knowledge and so in ability to think for himself. It is worth reverting to advertising for a moment to point out that after forty years of mass commercial advertising a great many people remain more or less immune to it, and the growth of ventures for “consumer research” suggests that knowledge is far more effective than symbols.

1984” has not come yet; nor will it This is not the trouble with the modem world. Much of its technical development points the way to the kind of world that could be; as things are, it is the organization of society now and nothing else which stands in the way of man’s full development. For that only a little more knowledge is needed. The enemy is ignorance.

Robert Barltrop