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Subliminal advertising and free speech

May 17, 2013 0 Comments

Television-AdvertisingProfessor Marc Blitz has posted a lengthy but very thought-provoking article over at Neuroethics & Law Blog about whether the First Amendment should protect “subliminal messaging”.  He does not come to any hard and fast conclusions, but in good lawyerly fashion examines various arguments for and against the influence of deliberate and inadvertent subliminal stimuli, whether they result in actual harm, etc.  Several legal cases he discusses are quite fascinating.

I added a couple of comments to the post and there was a good exchange of ideas, including additional comments by Blitz and a post by Peter Reinert, co-author of an important article published last year:

Murphy, E., Illes, J., & Reiner, P. (2008). Neuroethics of neuromarketing Journal of Consumer Behaviour, 7 (4-5), 293-302 DOI: 10.1002/cb.252

I made the point that the reality of nonconscious influences on conscious attitudes, evaluations, decisions and actions is indisputable.  Hundreds of studies show in excruciating detail how easy it is to influence us in ways we are not aware of.

But I do not see this as something we all need to be protected against.  We can no more be protected against absorbing stimuli outside our conscious awareness than we can be protected against breathing.  It’s what we do, it’s an adaptive mechanism – indeed, an amazing capability – that does sometimes lead us to standing in the kitchen with a spoon in the ice cream (how did I get here?), but also warns us of dangers we can’t quite articulate, and performs other semi-miraculous feats of cognition, as documented memorably by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink.

So I tend to take a more laissez-faire attitude toward the subliminal – let the marketplace of subliminal stimuli bloom!   And let the most engaging and personally relevant rise to the exalted status of conscious thought!  Indeed, it is the very multiplicity of incidental stimuli that protects us.  From one of my comments:

I believe subliminal advertising is a threat only under one condition — monopoly control of information flow. As long as we have access to a free market of ideas, including ideas about what to buy and consume, our brains will continue to do what they do best: selecting, rating, evaluating, remembering and, literally “changing our minds” based on ongoing experience. It is not a coincidence that “brain washing” occurs only if we are subjected to one unrelenting, isolated idea delivered over and over again.

In contrast, the protectionist view is worried that  “neuromarketing” as an evil plot to “implant ideas” that can make people do things they wouldn’t otherwise do.  As I have argued elsewhere, I think this is a caricature of both intent and capability that (ironically) has been encouraged by some neuromarketing vendors as well as propagated by journalists who extrapolate a little too readily from the lab to the world:

Well-designed academic experiments, in which stimuli are carefully controlled, show that humans can be easily and predictably influenced by stimuli outside our awareness. This is an indisputable fact. But there is a big difference between being exposed to one carefully administered subliminal prime in an experiment, and the real world in which we are bombarded with thousands of stimuli clamoring for our attention every day. Both for those who welcome the robot effect (naive marketers and their neuromarketing enablers) or those who fear it (the consumer protection warriors), the hoped for/feared effect is just not there.

Finally, I included one other observation from direct personal experience that I wanted to share with my readers here:

Just as an anecdotal note, I want to mention that in three years in business, no Lucid client has ever come to us with a request to create or test a subliminal marketing solution. Rather than rubbing their hands in glee at the opportunities to subvert the autonomy of their consumers, they seem to be mostly confused and humbled by their inability to figure out what their consumers really want, and whether their products will be abandoned for some other shiny object that they did not anticipate. Our experience is that the consumer remains very much in charge in the American marketplace.

So there it is.  If anybody had wanted to do subliminal advertising, they should have come to us.  But no one has yet.  Or maybe they have, and this is all just part of the conspiracy.

This is a slightly modified re-post of an article originally posted in my long-defunct previous blog on April 23, 2009.

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About the Author:

Steve is a writer, speaker, researcher, and marketing consultant. He is author of Intuitive Marketing (2019), a study of persuasion and influence in marketing theory and practice, and co-author of Neuromarketing for Dummies (2013), a comprehensive overview of neuromarketing science, applications, methodologies, and ethics. He is Managing Partner at Intuitive Consumer Insights, where he focuses on marketing education and consulting.

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