Lots of people think subliminal advertising means that advertisers get us to buy their products by secretly inserting in their TV ads the words “sex” or “buy this” – words that fly by so fast that viewers aren’t even aware they’ve seen them. It works because, as we all know, if you see the words “buy this” flash by so fast that you don’t even know you’ve seen them, there’s absolutely nothing you can do to prevent yourself from hopping in the car and purchasing that product, even if you don’t want it or need it.
If subliminal advertising really worked that way, we’d all be saying things like, “Gee, honey, why did you buy a 50-pound sack of dog food when we have a cat?” or, “Why did I just buy a riding mower when we live in a high-rise?”
That doesn’t mean there isn’t subliminal advertising. It just means it doesn’t work the way most people think it does, like some kind of evil hypnotism.
Here’s how it really works. You see an ad for a company that delivers pizza. The ad talks about how good the pizza tastes, how inexpensive it is, how happy you and your family will be that you didn’t have to cook dinner – time you can now spend watching more TV and even more pizza commercials.
The subliminal part is that no one in the commercial who is eating fattening, cheesy pizza with garlic-butter bread chasers and a “free” bottle of sugary soda is an ounce overweight. It’s a miracle! The subliminal message is that you can eat this high-calorie food all day long and look like the models and actors in the ad. If you asked the models if they ever eat pizza, they would probably all say “never” or “once a year” or “I run a marathon once a week.” After all, unlike you and me, they have to stay thin and good-looking to be in commercials.
Beer commercials always show young, attractive, sober people having fun and hooking up. No one in a beer commercial burps or has a beer belly, glazed eyes or missing teeth. The ads never show some puffy-faced sad sack throwing up in the men’s room or going home alone, drunk and less happy than he was before he downed his first six-pack of the day.
The subliminal message in these commercials is that if you drink beer, you’ll have fun and be good-looking and score with all the babes. Advertisers hardly need to flash the word “sex” in the middle of the commercial, when that’s what the whole commercial is about to begin with. There’s more sexual innuendo in the average beer commercial than there is in an ad for Viagra.
Some say people drink to forget. If so, it’s to forget how much they’ve already had to drink today. Ask any bartender how many of his customers drink because they are so gosh darn happy and well-adjusted.
Look at the people in the commercials for fast-food restaurants on TV. Again, they are all model-thin and have the healthy glow you get from eating a lot of green vegetables, fruits and salads and from exercising regularly. Then look around the real fast-food restaurant the next time you visit one. Notice anything different? Where are all the healthy-looking people? Who are you going to believe? Your own eyes or the TV commercial?
There’s nothing wrong or immoral or secret about what the advertisers are doing. It’s perfectly acceptable to show your product in the best possible light, to emphasize its good points. That’s advertising’s job. But we should be smart enough to know there’s a hook in the middle of every lure.
Jim Mullen’s new book, “Now in Paperback,” is now in paperback. You can reach him at jimmullenbooks.com.