- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it.

Two enormous sumo wrestlers run through a forest, colliding with an awkward prom date. Two nurses defibrillate a woman’s tongue with a lemon and lime. A man sprays liquid at some potted plants sporting unsettling smiles and vicious fangs. A garden gnome and a samurai appear briefly, then disappear without a trace.

No, these are not the delusions of a deranged journalist. In fact, they are the new face of Sprite — cut, spliced and put together in the company’s bizarre “Sublymonal” campaign, a media blitzkrieg that includes billboards, commercials, magnets and even Sprite-scented shampoo inserts. Perhaps more important, the campaign is resurrecting the question of subliminal messaging as a science: Is it possible for consumers to be influenced by carefully timed images, words or ideas?

The debate behind subliminal messaging has raged since 1917, when Howard Chandler Christy’s World War I Navy recruitment poster, “Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man,” was thought to contain subliminal messages — in this case, the model’s clenched fists and nearly exposed cleavage — to appeal to men’s masculinity and sexuality.

In 1957, however, the phenomenon truly took root when market researcher James Vicary claimed that after he flashed messages such as “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Hungry? Eat Popcorn” during a movie in Fort Lee, N.J., Coca-Cola sales rose 18.1 percent and popcorn sales went up by 57.8 percent.

Despite Mr. Vicary’s 1962 admission that his claims had been falsified, the 1973 release of Wilson Bryan Key’s book “Subliminal Seduction” — which claimed subliminal advertising was rampant — caused the Federal Communications Commission in 1974 to ban subliminal messaging from the airwaves “regardless of whether it is effective [because] the use of subliminal perception is inconsistent with a station’s obligation to serve the public interest because the broadcast is intended to be deceptive.”

The public’s distaste for even potential subliminal messaging resurfaced as recently as the 2000 presidential election. A commercial from George W. Bush’s camp flashed the word “rats” before the intended text — “bureaucrats decide” — appeared on-screen, sparking debate over whether it was an innocent mistake or an underhanded scheme.

Local advertisers have been skeptical of subliminal messaging as a phenomenon. Ody Leonard, associate creative director of the Bomstein Agency in the District, says, “I think there is some truth to the idea that subliminal messages could affect you, but I don’t think that it is something that is so effective that it could happen without you consciously knowing about it.

“If it really worked, you’d see it much more prevalently,” he says, adding that with digital video recorder technology, “there’s no hiding that now. … You could pause, reverse, stop anything on your television.”

Kipp Cheng, director of public affairs at the American Association of Advertising Agencies in New York, was a bit more blunt: “We don’t believe that it exists, and that’s pretty much it.”

Greg Kihlstrom, who works for the Carousel30 advertising agency in Chevy Chase, says subliminal messaging would fail because “people need to be spoon-fed things a little more. … Politically, I think lately, people are a lot more afraid of being suggestive of things.”

Though he says people can respond to symbols on a level that they don’t always understand consciously, he does not believe subliminal advertising works, and he adds that pressure for neutrality prevents many advertisers even from attempting it.

Timothy Moore, a member of the psychology department of York University in Ontario and a leading authority on subliminal messaging, says, “If by subliminal messaging you mean instructions or directives that would theoretically induce or compel somebody to buy something or consume something or want something, the evidence is thin, to say the least.”

He says subliminal messaging “is probably not a good idea, [as] people will get mad and think [advertisers are] trying to surreptitiously influence them. … advertisers get enough bad press as it is — the last thing they want is to get accused of blatantly unethical behavior.”

Still, Mr. Moore says subliminal messaging can be used in controlled environments — not to guide consumers toward particular products, but to help “prime” viewers toward certain behaviors, such as helping identify under what semantic category a word falls.

“It refers to the extent with which we can be affected by stimuli that don’t reach a level of subjective awareness; in other words, we’re influenced by something, but we don’t know what,” he says.

Eliot Smith, a psychology professor at Indiana University, says, “People’s reactions can be influenced by things that they swear up and down that they did not see; the question that remains is, can that effect be used to buy products without [our] even being aware?”

Mr. Smith speaks of a 2002 experiment in which subjects, after seeing words relating to thirst flash across a computer screen, chose between “the best thirst-quenching drink ever” and “the best electrolyte-replenishing drink ever.” If candidates were thirsty before entering the experiment, Mr. Smith says, they preferred the thirst-quenching drink far more than the electrolyte-replenishing drink.

In short, Mr. Smith says, subliminal messaging “can make people more responsive to the internal state — like thirst — that they were already in.”

“In these studies, all the conditions have to be very carefully controlled. … It’s easy to do in a lab, but it’s pretty difficult to do in real life.”

So what about the commercials in question? Don King, group director for Sprite, says the teen-targeted campaign is “exactly the opposite” of subliminal messaging — “it is taking the notion of the urban legend and turning it on its head. Subliminal messaging is a tongue-in-cheek science … [and] we invite them to play along with us.”

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