Is Subliminal Advertising Ethical or Not?
The idea of subliminal advertising might hold a certain appeal to some businesses. Overcoming consumer resistance stands as one of the principal challenges to many sales efforts. Subliminal advertising, in theory, bypasses the conscious mind and conscious resistance of consumers through the use of hidden or disguised messages. The theory is that consumers will prove more amenable to buying a product due to unconscious or subconscious associations formed by the subliminal ads. If subliminal advertising does work, it raises serious ethical concerns.
Doubts about the feasibility of subliminal advertising proved an ongoing sticking point for questions about the ethics of the practice. Chris Moore, a former creative director at advertising firm Ogilvy & Mather, dismisses subliminal advertising as an “urban legend.” If subliminal advertising has no basis in reality, any ethical question becomes something philosophers call a “thought experiment,” an exercise in mental what-if scenarios. A 2011 study appearing in "The Journal of Consumer Psychology," though, claims that subliminal advertising does work, at least under certain conditions. This study, if it stands, transforms the thought experiment into a serious ethical question for advertisers.
Subliminal advertising employs a number of techniques. Backward messaging entails creating audio content that says one thing when played forward, typically innocuous, but relays a different message when played backward. A different approach calls for splicing in a product name or call to action, such as “Buy cola,” that appears for a fraction of a second in visual content. Other techniques include implanting provocative imagery or terms within otherwise straightforward images. The extent to which advertisers actually use subliminal advertising, if at all, remains an open question, but evidence provides little support for any widespread use.
On television and radio, the Federal Communication Commission singles out subliminal programming of all kinds, including advertising, as deceptive and not in the public interest, making it essentially illegal. Demonstrating subliminal techniques in advertising, however, poses serious challenges. As the ads work below the threshold of conscious thought, consumers remain unlikely to recognize the presence of subliminal messages and, as such, unlikely to file complaints with the FCC. This makes subliminal programming little more than a technical illegality, as advertisers run a comparatively low risk of punishment.
One goal of advertising is to encourage people to select one product, service or brand over an alternative. Choice, though, calls for free will and some level of conscious decision making. Subliminal advertising seeks to avoid both free will and conscious decision making in favor of manipulating the unconscious to select the advertiser’s product or service. Even if subliminal advertisements work only under specific circumstances or exert limited influence, the attempt to subvert free will and unconsciously direct decisions in the name of increased sales places the technique squarely into the realm of the unethical.