In his book-length cultural history of subliminal perception and persuasion, Charles Acland suggests that there is some similarity between subliminal advertising and UFOs: People are endlessly fascinated by both one and the other, even though there is scant evidence for the existence of either. What accounts for subliminal advertising’s enduring appeal? William O’Barr’s highly informative overview of the topic points out that the idea of “subliminal seduction offers a means to displace personal responsibility.” A consumer who regrets having bought something can pin the blame on invisible corporate manipulators. Along somewhat similar lines, Acland argues that the public sees subliminal advertising as a symbol for the mysterious manipulative powers that the mass media as a whole are thought to possess.
These concerns and worries are based on the assumption that advertisers have something to gain by hiding or disguising their persuasive appeals. Otherwise, why bother with all the rigmarole that is required to make a message subliminal instead of obvious? And yet there doesn’t seem to be any good evidence in favor of that assumption. To test the assumption, we would need to compare the effectiveness of two ads featuring the same message. One ad would hide the message by presenting it very briefly or camouflaging it. The other ad would eschew any subliminal techniques. In order to be able to claim that subliminal advertising has any special powers that advertisers might covet and consumers might fear, the experiment would have to find that the former type of ad is consistently more effective than the latter. But such evidence does not exist. In fact, research on subliminal effects has typically been based on comparisons between subliminal messages and no messages, rather than subliminal and non-subliminal versions of the same message. Moreover, research on non-subliminal advertising suggests that, if anything, prominent messages have a more enduring impact on viewers than less obvious ones.
It should come as no surprise, then, that advertisements containing easy-to-miss images or words often make a point of drawing viewers’ attention to those contents. Such ads openly proclaim their elusiveness, instead of seeking to conceal it. In their form and function, they are anti-subliminal. An excellent recent example of anti-subliminal advertising is the series of still-image ads produced by advertising agency Team Detroit for the 2013 Ford Fusion. The head of the car’s exterior design team has said that “We put a lot of emphasis, to create something that we think will be different in the marketplace. We’ll have a sophisticated feel. We’ll be elegant. We’ll be somewhat unexpected in North America, from Ford, and we’ll set ourselves apart from Camry and Accord. We wanted to create a beautiful-looking car. That’s always been our number-one objective” (Chris Hamilton, quoted by Todd Lassa). Team Detroit’s ads are direct expressions of the objectives contained in that statement. The ads emphasize the car’s beauty, its sophistication, and, above all, its distinctiveness.
How does one make the point that a car stands out from its competition? In Team Detroit’s ads, we see street scenes featuring the Ford Fusion in the foreground and comparable cars by other manufacturers in the background. The Ford Fusion’s design features are traced precisely in the gleaming contours and occasional discreet highlights of automotive photographer Jeff Ludes’s pictures. But all the other cars have been camouflaged so as to blend in with the buildings and other objects behind them. Instead of clear images, we see semi-transparent shapes. In other words, these ads are completely straightforward visualizations of the idea that the Ford Fusion’s superior qualities make other cars fade into the background by comparison. In some of the ads, this message is also spelled out verbally in the captions. For example: “Feels like the only car on the road. Even when it’s not.” However, all the ads in the series, regardless of their primary captions and other text, contain the following statement, highlighted in yellow: “See how we camouflaged the cars in this ad. Visit social.ford.com/hidden.”
A viewer who follows this invitation will find a completely explicit verbal description of the ads’ rationale, but he/she will also discover something else that will most likely come as a surprise (as it did to me): The semi-invisibility of the background cars was not achieved by digital photo-manipulation. Instead, the illusion was created by a painstaking process of actually painting the surfaces of real cars to make them blend into the background. The process was designed and supervised by Chinese artist Liu Bolin, best known for “Hide in the City,” a series of photographs of himself covered with paint in such a way as to appear to merge with the scenes behind him. Ford’s website contains a time-lapse video of Liu’s team as they prepare the cars for Jeff Ludes’s camera, and more video about the production of the Ford Fusion ads is available on YouTube.
Why go to all the trouble of hand-painting the semi-invisible cars and laboriously matching the paint to every detail of their surroundings? Todd Ruthven, Creative Director on the project, has said flat-out that “This would certainly be a lot easier doing this on a computer.” But having an artist do it by hand accomplished at least two different things for Ford: First, because of Liu Bolin’s considerable reputation as an artist, his participation in the project was a way of emphasizing Ford’s aspiration to create a beautiful and sophisticated design. Second, it gave viewers something unusual and noteworthy to spend time on if they did indeed follow the ads’ invitation to look up the online explanation of how the cars were camouflaged. The second point brings us back to subliminal advertising. Some of the background cars in Ford’s ads are so well-hidden that it’s easy to overlook them, and the ads’ captions might not have provided a clear enough hint about their presence. The invitation to go online for further information is the only part of the ads’ texts that refers explicitly to camouflage, and therefore increases the likelihood that the ads’ central message will not be lost on the viewer. In other words, the ads go out of their way to prevent their images from being subliminal. When advertisers put money and time into an ad, the illusory promise of subliminal effects is unlikely to outweigh the simple need to make sure the viewer gets the basic point.
Messaris, Paul. (2013). How to Money Money from Subliminal Advertising and Motivation Research. International Journal of Communication, Volume 7.
O’Barr, William M. (2013). “Subliminal” Advertising. Advertising & Society Review, Volume 13, Issue 4.