Who’s Afraid of Subliminal Advertising?

“Behavior placement” in television programming is neither new nor alarming.

The concept of subliminal advertising has long terrified America. When the 1950s adman James Vicary claimed to have boosted concession sales at a New Jersey theater by briefly flashing phrases like “drink Coca-Cola” on the screen as the main feature played, pundits and politicians worried that we were now just one double feature away from turning into brainwashed, popcorn-gobbling Stalinists. In the 1970s, the Canadian academic Wilson Bryan Key convinced millions that magazine ads for booze, cigarettes, and even Ritz Crackers featured more sexual debauchery than a busy night at Plato’s Retreat, inducing feelings of panic and shame in those who viewed them.

Today, even the trashiest Ritz Cracker can’t compete with the explicit sexual imagery that pervades pop culture, so we channel our angst about advertising into new realms. Does that mommyblogger truly believe that the ivory-whitening power in some tainted Chinese toothpaste outweighs its toxicity, or is she being paid to endorse it? Did the Ford Transit Connect that Ashton Kutcher drives in Valentine’s Day get cast because it was the best compact minivan for the job, with enhanced cargo space that just lights up the screen, or because Ford struck a deal with the movie’s producers? And can watching too much NBC subtly pressure me into kicking my bottled water habit once and for all?

In April The Wall Street Journal reported that the Peacock Network’s obviously coordinated, emphatically branded efforts to inject environmental elements and themes in its shows twice a year are in fact coordinated, emphatically branded efforts. This wasn’t exactly news. NBC introduced its first Green Week campaign in 2007 and has been publicizing it to anyone who will listen ever since. After three years of Green Week interviews, the initiative’s mastermind, NBC executive Lauren Zalaznick, had pretty well spelled out its goals: position NBC as the green network, create a more fecund advertising environment for green products and services, and encourage upscale viewers to consume in the name of Mother Earth. Or as Zalaznick put it to corporate environmental consultant Joel Makower in 2007, “We’d like to hear back that we’ve had an actual impact—that we caused viewers to buy a hybrid, to not buy plastic water bottles, to turn off their power strip instead of the on-off-standby switch.”

The Journal, however, presented Green Week as if it were an under-the-radar bit of corporate bamboozling. Zalaznick and her NBC colleagues inadvertently aided this characterization by emphasizing the subtlety of their efforts. “People don’t want to be hit over the head with” environmental messages, explained NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker. Said Zalaznick, “Subtle messaging woven into shows mainstreams it, and mainstreaming is an effective way to get a message across.” Then there was the unfortunately Orwellian term NBC uses to refer to such messaging: behavior placement.

Granted, Al Gore lecturing 30 Rock viewers on the virtues of fluorescent light bulbs is not quite as fiendishly subliminal as an orgy hidden in an ice cube, but you work with what you’ve got. “NBC wants to trick you into recycling (and buying stuff),” the media news site Mediaite declared. Movieline described NBC’s efforts as “contrived,” “patently stupid,” and “icky and gross.” The Atlantic Wire called behavior placement “the next sketchy media practice you didn’t know you had to worry about.”

Such responses were prompted partly by the fact that behavior placement is, theoretically at least, even less detectable than product placement. If Batman suddenly decides to trade in the Batmobile for a Cadillac Escalade, the Escalade itself provides a 5,715-pound visual cue that some deal went down between Warner Brothers and General Motors. If the caped crusader starts bringing an unbranded cotton bag with him when he goes to the grocery store, the explanation for this development is harder to pinpoint. 

Hollywood’s ability to influence behavior when it isn’t explicitly trying to do so is one of its most powerful attributes. One oft-cited example of this phenomenon is the dramatic drop in undershirt sales that occurred after Clark Gable took off his shirt to reveal his bare chest in It Happened One Night. According to a New York Times article published in 1938, Gable’s fashion preferences represented only part of the movie’s unanticipated influence: Its romantic depiction of bus travel allegedly boosted that form of transportation by 42 percent in the years following its release.

Naturally, entities of all kinds aspire to tap such powers of persuasion. In 1983 Hamish Maxwell, president of Philip Morris International, drafted a speech to his marketers that stressed the importance of “exploit[ing] new opportunities to get cigarettes on screen and into the hands of smokers.” In the late 1990s, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) made about $25 million worth of deals with Hollywood studios and production companies to craft story lines with strong anti-drug messages on programs such as Beverly Hills 90210, ER, and The Drew Carey Show. The initiative, which was so hush-hush that most of the talent producing the shows weren’t aware of the government’s involvement, came to an end after Salon published a series of exposés about it.

NBC wasn’t the first organization to use the phrase behavior placement. In 2003 the Environmental Protection Agency awarded a $30,000 grant to the Environmental Finance Center, a nonprofit, university-based organization that wanted to incorporate green messages into TV shows. “Possible examples include having actors bring cloth bags to the grocery store, recycle soda cans, use worm bins, and consider how to properly dispose of a computer monitor and other electronic waste accumulating in their closets,” an EPA bulletin explained.

The outreach campaign underwritten by this grant offered no financial incentives to the production companies it approached. “The EPA never has that kind of budget,” says EPA project officer Zac Appleton. According to Sarah Diefendorf, director of the Environmental Finance Center, Hollywood basically gave her organization the cold shoulder: The group had some success convincing set directors to use environmentally themed posters as background props, but it made virtually no headway with writers, directors, producers, or network executives.

When federal agencies like the ONDCP secretly outsource their propaganda efforts and social engineering programs to Hollywood sitcoms and dramedies, it’s an obvious blow to governmental transparency, accountability, and the primacy of the public sector as a force for good. But when it’s just megacorporations cultivating new brand personas or trying to sell us something, is behavior placement really so bad? While even those who evangelize the technique tend to characterize it as a subtle, almost subliminal phenomenon that can influence consumers during unguarded moments, in fact the exact opposite is true. Millions of women didn’t adopt Rachel Green’s hairstyle because they barely noticed it. The power of product and behavior placement lies in reaching people when they’re most conscious and most discerning, because they’re paying close attention to the programs they love. Show them something they like in these moments, and they’re far more likely to absorb it than at times where they’re less engaged.

But if whatever you’re pitching fails to resonate with viewers, the soft-sell nature of behavior placement simply means it’s even less effective than more explicit forms of unwanted advertising. It’s hard to imagine that Al Gore’s light-bulb jokes on 30 Rock persuaded any climate change skeptics to reverse their beliefs. As practiced by NBC, behavior placement seems less about changing viewer habits than flattering those viewers who already engage in the preferred behavior. “This is a network that gets it,” such viewers might say as they watch the tubby proles on Biggest Loser learn about the environmental and health benefits of organic vegetables. “This is a network that reflects my upscale, demographically desirable values and knows how to attract the exact kinds of advertisers I find most relevant and compelling!” Far from deceptive or manipulative, behavior placement is a sign that today’s consumers are more empowered than ever. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @gregbeato.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Rob Halford||

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  • ||

    Ah, Wilson Bryan Key. I read one of his books and the most memorable item was his analysis of a Playboy centerfold. He claimed that when you held it in front of a light, you could see, in the lower right corner, that the folds of the bed sheets kinda-sorta spelled out S-E-X. That's why the centerfold was sexy, you see: it wasn't the beautiful naked blonde stretched across three pages, it was three letters in the corner you could only see in odd circumstances. One assumes foreign-language editions had to rearrange the bed sheets or the centerfold would lose all sexiness.

  • Cyto||

    I was about 13 at the time. Once you start looking for these patterns it is amazing how easy they are to see, even when they are not there. My friends and I cast a skeptical eye and pubescent mind on magazine advertisements and were able to spot something in almost every ad.

    You can also hear Judas Priest saying "do it" if you listen to it backwards very closely too. And the teletubby doll says "big cock"... Pattern recognition algorithms in the brain and the power of suggestion work together really well....

  • BakedPenguin||

    Halford had a good line about the trial. He said something to the effect that it would be rather counterproductive to tell fans to kill themselves, and if they were going to put actual hidden messages in their records, "buy more of our albums" would be a far better one to add.

    I also find it odd that the teens chose "Better By You..." as a song to kill yourself to. You'd think "Suicide Solution", "Fade to Black", "Don't Fear the Reaper", or a host of other depressing songs that actually deal with death and/or suicide would be better music to end your life to than a cover of a Spooky Tooth song that (at least as far as I can see) has no references to morbidity anywhere in the lyrics.

  • ||

    I like "Spring Suicide" by the Crystal Set (a side project of The Church), but it's rather obscure.

  • Brian Sorgatz||

    ...it wasn't the beautiful naked blonde stretched across three pages, it was three letters in the corner you could only see in odd circumstances.

    Marijuana wouldn't be popular at all if not for the reversed subliminal message in Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust."

  • BakedPenguin||

    ...the folds of the bed sheets kinda-sorta spelled out S-E-X. That's why the centerfold was sexy, you see: it wasn't the beautiful naked blonde stretched across three pages, it was three letters in the corner you could only see in odd circumstances...

    Talk about missing the forest for the bush...

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  • T||

    “This is a network that reflects my upscale, demographically desirable values and knows how to attract the exact kinds of advertisers I find most relevant and compelling!”

    Ding! People like entertainment that reinforces their values and beliefs!

    Having said that, behavior placement doesn't resonate if you're not already interested.

  • Cyto||

    The 1970's and early 80's was full of this crap. It wasn't very well done back then either. Sitcoms would have episodes centering on some social issue of the day with a full stop about 2/3 the way in for some character to give us exposition taken straight from some brochure on the topic.

    Tuti: "Did you know that 15% of high school students have unprotected sex!? Using a condom reduces your chance of getting a disease .... "

    It was boring, stilted and ineffective. And we liked it! Until the big 3 networks were forced to compete with cable, that is.

  • ||

    I personally did everything Tootie, Blair, and Natalie said. Not Jo, though. She was too manly.

  • ||

    "Don't be Mike Brady. Mike Brady's not sexy. You should be like Jo from Facts of Life."

  • ||

    You're in love with Abed, aren't you.

  • ||

    "So you're familiar with two sins... how about a third?"

  • mr simple||

    It must be rough being an idiot and going through life worried you're going to buy something you don't want just because it was in your favorite tv show.

  • Van||

    Propaganda is nothing to worry about because it is ineffective?

    What values would these NBC watchers have if they had to think about and develop their values on their own without TV, the University system, and public schools?

    What if a TV network changed its propaganda from Liberal to Conservative? Would the viewing public change their minds?

  • Cyto||

    What if a TV network changed its propaganda from Liberal to Conservative? Would the viewing public change their minds?

    Some would. Others would change the channel, if possible. (See Fox News for supporting evidence of this) People like to be surrounded by those that are of a like mind. They will either bend to the will of those around them or find another group to hang out in.

  • Van||

    We don't really know though, since no one to my knowledge has tried this experiment.

    Forcing people with electric shock therapy and LSD doesn't seem to work, coercion just teaches people the right answers, doesn't change their fundamental beliefs.

    Maybe a nationwide campaign, funded by a coalition of government agencies and corporations to alter the propaganda in the public schools and TV in a coordinated way could radically alter people's beliefs.

    It would probably take a generation to implement though.

    I can still remember what was taught on TV and in the public schools in the sixties.

    Still, I wonder what would happen if all the TV networks changed the correct answer to something overnight, then polled in focus groups to see how well it had been accepted, then changed the answer back to what it had been before?

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Did you forget something? You're always supposed to laugh menacingly after anouncing your evil plans.

  • Van||

    How does someone laugh on a blog?

    Oh, I have no plans, nor am I in a position to experiment on the public. All I can do is regard them with dry scientific interest.

    Since I live in a Southern state I often meet people socially who are members of the Christian right, or who regularly watch TV and believe what's on it. I try to remain tactful and compassionate in my conversations, but I often have to shine them on a bit.

    Their reactions are interesting.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    MUAHAHAHAH! That's how

    It's all about youth indoctrination. I was one. Not southern, but same principles. It was my own curiosity about proving my faith to myself by reading Dawkins and others that actually started the long, painful process of undoing the twenty-two years of nonsense that had been reinforced into my brain. Please believe me, if you get em while their young, the mainstream media is no match. I wish they were.

  • ||

    I am a christian rightist. I sure don't believe what TV says, because I can see it is all coming from a liberal viewpoint.

    I don't believe that the people you meet believe what is on TV. What we believe is that TV is controlled by liberals who push their agenda.

  • Van||

    Liberals believe that TV is controlled by conservatives who push their agenda.

    Who's got the correct view of reality?

    A even more important question to ask yourself is, who was Edward Bernays?

  • T||

    I can still remember what was taught on TV and in the public schools in the sixties.

    Just because you remember a slogan doesn't mean it's effective at changing your behavior. I can remember "Just say No" and subsequent experience leads me to believe that didn't work worth a damn.

  • Van||

    What I was taught then was Conservative and Patriotic. What I am taught now is Liberal and globalist.

    The propaganda has changed but you have to be old enough to remember the difference.

    What was propaganda like during the Wilson administration? Most of those consumers are dead now.

  • Michael Cloud quote||

    Patriotism means loving your country, not your government.

  • fnord||


  • Van||

    I can see you clearly.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    Subliminal advertising is the very best kind. I'll take that any day over your typical in-your-face ad or blatant product placement.

  • ||

    I expect to learn soon that the National Geographic show Locked Up Abroad gets money from the ONDCP.

  • ||

    "In the late 1990s, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) made about $25 million worth of deals with Hollywood studios and production companies to craft story lines with strong anti-drug messages on programs such as Beverly Hills 90210, ER, and The Drew Carey Show."

    How could you Drew?

  • The Libertarian Guy||

    I don't think Drew had a say-so in that matter.

  • ||

    "..and encourage upscale viewers to consume in the name of Mother Earth"

    Theres your problem - CONSERVATION (you know, using LESS) advocated by a business that ...uh, advocates buying more.

    I was reading about a guy you won a conservation award for building a house that cost 6 million, that will have a garage to hold 6 electric cars...

  • ||

    "Conservation. You keep using that word, but it does not mean what you think it means, i think."

  • Fiscal Meth||


  • Michael||

    I confidently stand by my assertion that advertising in general is largely ineffective and that the people most susceptible to being swayed by clever marketing gimmicks are those who actually work in marketing.

  • Van||

    What about Psychopaths? Studies have shown that Psychopaths are remarkably consistent in their behavior.

  • Amakudari||

    I'm absolutely convinced that there's a reasonably large subset of the population that responds extraordinarily well to advertising.

    Frankly, I don't see how Google makes a dime off of people like me through ads. I use their services and never click their ads, aside from click-throughs to news sites... where I again never click the ads. I'm sure they get paid for ad views, but again, it's all wasted on me.

    But there is someone out there who clicks on these links for online universities, internet forex brokers, brainwave entrainment and cruises with Reason staffers, and turns into a sale. I imagine it's the same kind of person who pays for porn and get confused on how to log in to Facebook:


  • Amakudari||

    I'm referring specifically to the comment section on that (glorious) link.

  • ||

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  • 2050 Man||

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  • Rudan||

    Reminds me of this C&H strip:

  • Barack Obama||

    Worked for me, Michael! I'm ruler of all y'all, thanks to advertising!

  • Rudan||

    There's definitely no such thing as subliminal "persuasion" although people can perceive things subliminally.

  • ||

    I'd say subliminal messages exist, and that we've been swimming in them for generations. They aren't words flashed on the screen or hidden in pictures, which always seemed implausible to me because reading is a high cognitive function. On the other hand, the design of everything from cars to product packaging to company logos is carefully designed with shapes and colors (and often indirect or suggestive words) to send messages like "dependable" or "cutting edge" or "fun" or "masculine" or "feminine."

  • 1980 Chevy Citation||

    Yeah! I'm ALL kinds of sexy!

  • Sharkweel||

    You mean to tell me that all those hilarious sit-com subplots about properly disposing of computer monitors were all hidden messages to make me save the planet? I feel betrayed; I'd better find some baby seals that I can take out my anger on.

  • Frank Zappa||

    Right about that time, people
    A fur trapper, who was strictly from commercial
    (Strictly commercial)
    Had the unmitigated audacity to jump
    up from behind my ig-a-loo
    (Peek-a-boo -ooh -ooh oooh)
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  • ||

    I was afraid of subliminal advertising, but not anymore . . .dunno why . . .the Psi Corps is my friend . . .I trust the Corps . . .Mike Jittlov can do everything . . .hope . . .change . . .

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    I saw a subliminal advertising executive - just for a second

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