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 ( writes from San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @gregbeato.