When considering creative concepts for Chivas Regal's ad on the back cover of Sports Illustrated's 2003 swimsuit issue, Brand Architecture International played with one of the greatest urban legends in advertising: subliminal messaging. In a magazine full of beautiful women in barely there bikinis, what better way to entice the male target than to invite readers to find a naked woman in a glass of scotch?
"We wanted to do something cool and unique, and we didn't want it to get in the way of the product," says James Gallo, business director of the Americas for Brand Architecture International in New York, a subsidiary of TBWA Worldwide. "We were just hoping people would pay attention. The last thing you want to do is create wallpaper for the Super Bowl of print ads."
Below the headline—"Some see a naked woman in the ice cubes. Others simply see the need for more Chivas"—three ice cubes sit in the remains of a scotch on the rocks. Once you find the naked woman (at the top of the lower right cube), she can't be missed, says Zach Watkins, associate creative director at Brand Architecture.
To add another layer of consumer participation, the ad was linked to an online game that offered a chance to find more hidden objects in the image. In the 10 days after the issue appeared on newsstands, the Web site received 26,000 hits, says Gallo.
Chivas isn't the first advertiser to have fun with the concept of embedded images, and probably won't be the last. If you've ever wondered whether agency production departments use the long-rumored practice of subliminal techniques, they do—as fodder for creative content. While creatives scoff at the idea of sneakily manipulating the consumer subconscious, it's one that many advertisers have parlayed into campaign themes, particularly liquor companies, which have most come under attack as purveyors of this practice.
Seagram's Gin based an entire campaign by Ogilvy & Mather in New York around finding hidden objects in the ice cubes in the early '90s. Absolut vodka ran an ad called "Absolut Subliminal" in 1994, with a shot of a glass of vodka on ice inside the brand's trademark halo spotlight. Inside the ice cubes were faint images of the words Absolut Vodka. Cutty Sark, Miller Lite, Toyota and Del Monte also have used the idea of hidden messages in their advertising.
"True or not, it's part of the folklore for consumer capitalism," says Stuart Ewen, professor and chair of the Department of Film and Media Studies at Hunter College in New York. Consumers believe it explains why they buy things, he says: "What's fascinating about subliminal advertising's persistence in the imagination of Americans is that it is a popular way of expressing and understanding the kind of world they live in."
Advertisers who take a tongue-in-cheek approach to the notion avoid negative connotations and engage consumers in a dialogue. "It creates a commonality of interest between the advertiser and the consumer," says Ewen, author of Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of Consumer Culture. "If the traditional subliminal advertising criticism was one that these evil people are situating these images in your advertising and plucking your libidos without your knowledge, then this is one image saying to the consumer, 'You know these stories. Let's turn it into a game.' The advertising and the client are on the same side, and they are participating in each other's folklore."
The idea of hidden or secret messages— most often of a sexual nature—embedded in advertising as a way to control consumer decisions dates back to the 1950s, when American culture was preoccupied by conspiracy theories and Cold War fears. In 1957, advertising consultant James Vicary made public his findings about a new selling method called subliminal advertising, which he said he'd uncovered with a Tachistoscope, a strobe-light instrument developed by Eastman Kodak that allows images to be displayed for fractions of a second. He claimed to have subjected moviegoers in a New Jersey theater to split-second messages urging them to "Drink Coke" and "Eat popcorn," and boasted of a 57 percent jump in popcorn sales and an 18 percent increase in Coca-Cola sales. The findings were later debunked when Vicary was challenged to repeat the experiment and failed to achieve the same results.
The same year, sociologist Vance Packard came out with a seminal tome about the subject, The Hidden Persuaders, analyzing how ad agencies propagate fantasy and claiming that ads flood the unconscious consumer mind with manipulative imagery. The idea was propelled further into the annals of popular culture when Wilson Bryan Key began publishing volume after volume on the subject, beginning with 1974's Subliminal Seduction on up to 1993's Subliminal Ad-Ventures in Erotic Art. Among his most famous claims was that Nabisco had arranged the holes in its Ritz crackers to spell the word sex.
The idea that subliminal messages are a common advertising practice is readily dismissed by agencies. The American Association of Advertising Agencies ran an ad to help dispel the ideas perpetuated by Key's theories in the mid-'80s, a print execution with the headline, "People have been trying to find the breasts in these ice cubes since 1957" above a cocktail. A rep for the 4A's says the organization's long-standing emphatic position on the subject is, "It does not exist, it's not real, and agencies don't do it."
When asked about what appears to be an outline of a shapely dress in a splash of grapefruit juice in a Florida Department of Citrus print ad, creative group head Mike Malone of The Richards Group in Dallas laughs. "It's fine if they see a slinky dress," he says. "It was clearly not intended." Malone explains that any shapes that seem to materialize from the image of splashing juice, created with a high-speed camera, are a product of the imagination. "It's kind of like the old game when you are sitting with your wife and looking at clouds and you ask each other, 'Don't you see it?' " he says.
Jeff Goodby, co-creative director of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, adds, "In my twentysomething years of doing this, I have never been asked to airbrush a single breast into an ad."
Brand Architecture's Watkins also dismisses the fabled practice. "Advertising doesn't have to resort to subliminal messaging to hit at things that'll touch people," he says. "I've been doing this for 12 years—this is the first time I've made a conscious effort to put something that's not supposed to be in the ad in the ad. No one that I've ever known has."
Yet during the 2000 presidential election, the Republican National Committee came under fire for allegedly using subliminal messaging in a commercial attacking Al Gore's healthcare plan. In the ad, the word rats flashed onscreen for a split second. In an interview published in Advertising & Society Review, Key described the Republican attempt as "amateur stuff." "You get caught doing this sort of thing now," he said. A rep for the RNC explained the intention was to make the ad "more compelling" by having "a light flash in the middle of the screen."
In the mid-'70s, the Federal Communications Commission took the position that broadcasts using subliminal messages are contrary to the public interest and the obligations of television. The commission launched an investigation into the RNC matter, questioning broadcast stations and concluding it would take no further action. According to an FCC statement, of the 179 stations that aired the spot, 162 indicated they were not aware that it contained the word rats.
James Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida and author of Adcult USA and, most recently, Living It Up, calls subliminal messaging "utter nonsense." The perpetuation of the subliminal myth is more convenient rationalization for overconsumption than anything else, he says. "It's one of our most popular interpretations of advertising: 'They are injecting us with an unnatural desire,' " he says. "It [says], 'I'm so weak that someone with a strong message can make me do something that I wouldn't normally do. For those who believe in it, it's a gift from heaven. It explains everything. It's poppycock."
Human desire is much more complicated than that, say media experts like Twitchell. "The heart of advertising isn't selling generalized consumption, it's selling you a specific brand," he says. "We aren't after products, we're after the meanings attached to products. The truth of the matter is that we're doing it to ourselves. We enjoy the type of excitement from making certain kinds of choices and affiliations, even if it seems incredibly irrational."
Whether fact or fiction, the specter of subliminal messages is fixed in the public conscious. "But limiting the definition to finding a smoking penis or a smoking nude body or whatever on the surface of the Ritz cracker in certain ways ignores the fact that all advertising is subliminal," says Ewen. "Advertising itself is about creating associations between a product and a realm of desire. The standard definition of subliminal advertising limits it to conspiratorial visions of images secretly being embedded in advertising images and ignores the fact that advertising by definition, since the 1920s, moved away from talking about products themselves to the power of suggestion. In that sense, subliminal advertising is everywhere."