Think You're Immune To Advertising? Think Again

    Jan 1, 1970 12:00 AM 2 min read

    For example, market researcher James Vicary’s 1957 experiment with subliminal messages—in which he claimed to have sent cinema snack-bar sales soaring after flashing plugs for popcorn and soda at unsuspecting patrons for one three-thousandth of a second—prompted a panic that swiftly reached Capitol Hill. Vicary was ordered to repeat his experiment before an audience of lawmakers. Subliminal advertising bans were summarily introduced in several U.S. states, with one congressman calling the technique “made to order for the establishment and maintenance of a totalitarian government”.


    So can advertising, in fact, “teach” us things without the assent of our conscious mind? Perhaps the answer is hiding in plain sight, rather than in the subliminal under-layers of consciousness. In a 2012 paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, a research team led by Mandy Hütter (of Eberhard Karls University Tübingen) and Steven Sweldens (of RSM, Erasmus University and INSEAD) recounts experiments where visual stimuli presented in full view appeared to precipitate unconscious learning.


    Sweldens speculates that abstract marketing messages such as logos are better at bypassing our rational defences because we come to them with less real-world baggage. Their neutrality is a kind of blank canvas that can more easily be filled with associations and connotations via EC and other techniques. Once applied, the “paint” dries quickly and forms a complete picture in our minds. At least sometimes, this picture will likely help determine our impression of the brand in question.


    As Sweldens says, “If you see 20 commercials, and are trying not to be influenced, for four or five of them, you are going to fail and your attitudes are going to be changed despite your best efforts.”


    Beyond the marketing sphere, the findings provide supporting evidence for the two-track learning process detailed in psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow. Our cognitive faculties, Kahneman wrote, are split into an instantaneous and intuitive “System 1” and a reflective and deliberate “System 2”. Hütter and Sweldens’ experiment combining EC with number memorisation demonstrated that while “System 2” has its hands full, “System 1” is as receptive as ever to outside impressions. Advertisers, then, seemingly have nothing to fear from our world of ever-increasing distraction.