Historically, there’s been a lot of hysteria around the phrase “subliminal messaging.” People have claimed filmmakers were subliminally driving viewers to concession stands for more popcorn, Coke and other snacks, while countless rock bands have been accused of subliminal lyrics that push listeners to do drugs and commit crimes.
Though all of these high-profile cases were either proven false or thrown out in court, subliminal messaging is a little scary to think about.
- Could our minds really be manipulated without our knowledge or consent?
- Would companies really use subliminal advertising in paid ads or media to persuade us?
- If so, how can we keep from falling victim?
To be clear, many countries have outright banned the use of subliminal messaging. Though the U.S. isn’t one of those, the FCC has deemed it “contrary to the public interest,” so it’s not something we need to likely worry about in our day to day lives.
Examples of Subliminal Advertising in Paid Ads:
But if you’re still feeling a little spooked, let’s look at some real-life examples of subliminal advertising in paid ads. They’re actually more obvious than you might think.
This old George W. Bush campaign ad was said to have subliminal messaging, with the words “rats” lingering atop opponent Al Gore’s picture before turning into “bureaucrats” instead.
Whether it was intentional or not is debatable, but the evidence is pretty easy to spot — even on first glance. The ad was investigated by the FCC and eventually taken off the air.
The Not-so-secret McDonald’s Plug
In 2007, The Food Network got in trouble when one eagle-eyed viewer noticed something peculiar: a bright red screen flashing for a fraction of a second during Iron Chef.
The viewer was able to rewind and view the screen up close, finding not just a weird technical error or glitch, but a full-blown “I’m loving’ it” McDonald’s ad. See it for yourself here.
The Shady Marlboro Race Cars
This one’s a little bit harder to spot, but courts found it egregious enough to ban throughout Europe, so there’s definitely some crafty marketing at work. Back in the early 2000s, cigarette ads were restricted from advertising on Formula 1 race cars.
In response, Marlboro replaced its logos on the cars with a red, barcode-like design. Though at first glance it looks harmless enough, once the cars got up to full speed, it actually looked quite similar to the traditional Marlboro logo.
Husker Du’s Early Attempts
Husker Du was one of the first companies to attempt subliminal messaging in TV commercials. In 1973, the board game company released an ad featuring a young, wholesome family at play. But in between cuts of the family — four times, mind you — were the words “Get it.”
There aren’t any stats to tell us if these ads worked to drive up sales, but plenty of viewers complained to the FCC about it. Husker Du claimed innocence but pulled the ad from the air anyway.
KFC Goes Green
This one’s actually pretty funny. When Kentucky Fried Chicken announced its new “Dollar Snacker” product back in 2008, the company released a TV ad to up its visibility. The commercial featured a close up of the juicy chicken sandwich that, when paused or looked at up close, seemed to have dollar bills nestled among the green lettuce.
Whether it was an employee’s attempt at humor or a subliminal way of telling customers to spend those dollars is up for debate. Either way, KFC got some serious flack for the ad.
Daffy Duck Gets In On the Game
In the 1940s, crafty advertisers even found ways to work subliminal messaging into cartoons. In the animated movie “Wise Quacking Duck,” which featured WB character Daffy Duck, the words “BUY BONDS” flash across a statue for a few frames while the main character goes about his antics. There’s no telling if this attempt had viewers buying more bonds, but given the stress many people were feeling during wartime, it’s not hard to imagine the impact.
The Moral of the Story:
For all the fear the subliminal messaging drums up, it actually tends to be more obvious than you’d think. In most of these cases, quick-eyed viewers caught the attempts and reported them to the FCC or appropriate authorities.
And while we might not have specific laws against the strategy, with DVRs and the ease at which we can pause, rewind and re-see media, it makes spotting these unsavory attempts simpler than ever.