Subliminal messages in advertising (or marketing) copy pertains to any communication that is not obvious (or apparent) to the viewer. Simply put, it is a way to convey hidden messages with them aim of getting in the audiences’ subconscious mind.
While this might seem amazing, conceptually, it is scary. It could do wonders to change an audiences’ perception about a brand or a product. It is also the basis of spreading propaganda. But is subliminal messages in advertising ethical?
Considering it’s about making people do things through their subconscious mind? Nudging them to take an action that you want them to take? An action they might not have taken if given a conscious choice?
Seems pretty damn unethical to us!
Relevant Media Placements vs Subliminal Advertising
The main problem with subliminal messages in advertising is that it remains debateable. The audience is not able to tell whether they’ve been conditioned. If the customers themselves are not aware that there is a secret message in what they are exposed to. And they’re being conditioned to behave or act a certain way?
Does it seem right.
For example, most subliminal advertisements work by inserting something like a cartoon frame containing health references. It makes people think of health benefits whenever they see it. There is no direct reference to health benefits, and it cannot be directly pointed out if there are any subliminal messages in advertising being used.
This sort of subliminal advertising can also be called relevant placement from a media perspective.
Subliminal Messages in Advertising Are A Violation of Free Will
Most professionals believe that subliminal is unethical because it takes away free will and and discredits the power of choice that the customer has. For instance, when you watch TV commercial or a product instore, as a shopper you have the choice to evaluate and compare several alternatives without any bias.
You gauge the benefits of each (brand saliency play a very important part here) and arrive at decision to buy the product or not.
But subliminal messages try to influence that decision making through gaining an unfair advantage. Since the message is not in your face and obvious, customers are unconsciously drawn towards making a choice they are not even aware of.
Subliminal Advertising Grants Advertisers An Unfair Advantage
As has been pointed out repeatedly, subliminal messages are not entirely legal. This is because most subliminal messages in advertising are compared to deception, and thus, are recognized as not being in public interests.
They can not only undermine a consumer’s ethical values, they may promote unethical behaviour in the consumer to engage in illegal and unethical activities.
For example, a marketer may insert a simple message in an advertisement that indirectly promotes smoking in underage children. However, the main problem with subliminal messages in advertising is identifying them.
While they can be fined if their content is questionable, since most of them are little more than technically illegal, the advertisers are often at no threat of any punishment.
Verdict: Are Any Sort of Subliminal Messages in Advertising Ethical?
This brings us back to our core question. Are subliminal messages in advertising ethical?
Again, the whole idea of advertising is to make people lean in towards a particular product. But not through unfair means. The main problem with subliminal advertising is that it takes away free will of the customer.
How? By restricting them, and their decision. It’s actually down right manipulation. Even if subliminal advertising is implemented under regulations and within guidelines. It will still remain unethical in our opinion.
Thus, no matter how you look at it, subliminal advertising is unethical and is frowned up by the vast majority.