A Matter of Time: Subliminal Ads and Immersive VR
by Jason MacNaughton
Is subliminal messaging in ads real? You bet.
And unless we start talking about it now, subliminal ads will become a reality in virtual reality, too.
Subliminal messaging is any messaging that exists at or below the threshold of consciousness, according to Merriam-Webster.
And there is, say researchers, virtually no doubt it works.
“Over the years there have been literally hundreds of studies (that) show that considerable information capable of informing decisions and guiding actions (can be) perceived, even when observers do not experience any awareness of perceiving, ” says University of Waterloo psychologist Philip Merikle.
So how long before subliminal ads become a thing in VR?
I took a closer look.
It bears pointing out that subliminal advertising is not illegal in the US or Canada, though the FCC and other regulatory bodies have long taken pains to stop it — when they can figure out that it’s going on, that is.
Also, assuming you can even find a subliminal ad in the first place, anyone who’s blamed for creating one can easily just ridicule the finding as silly, far-fetched or just an accident.
That’s what happened after Pres. George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign aired what many called a subliminal ad on national TV. The Bush camp, for its part, called the messaging “accidental.”
As you can see from the TV ad, watchable in full below the fold, the word BUREAUCRATS flashes onscreen, but one frame (plainly visible) pops up for just 1/34 of a second — showing only the last four characters of the word, RATS.
Alarmed, Democrats asked the FCC to look into the matter. But they were roundly ridiculed for finding malicious intent in something that the Republicans just called a “technical error.” Famously, Bush responded, but mispronounced subliminal as “subliminable” in his comment. The FCC ended up not ruling on the matter.
Subliminal? Or just a glitch?
Then there was the time a viewer found a one-frame McDonalds ad in an Iron Chef broadcast. That, too, was a mistake, a “technical glitch,” Food Network reps said.
So was it?
The difficulty in spotting subliminal ads and getting anyone to fess up to creating them are two reasons why they are likely headed to VR.
But there’s another reason subliminal ads hitting the VR-osphere is so inevitable.
Sensory hijacking is the very core of virtual reality immersion. It’s what VR does and how it does it.
This is a good thing, of course, if the VR tricking your subconscious mind is doing so for educational, empathic, therapeutic or even entertainment purposes. as long as the relationship is mutually beneficial and has both people’s best interests at heart.
Without any unknown exploitation, this is consensual manipulation.
But if it’s used to manipulate you into believing something or buying something, it’s dangerous. It’s parasitism.
And, as Mericle pointed out, some researchers believe that subliminal messages “might gain their potential influence (and) power from the fact that they may be able to circumvent the critical functions of the conscious mind.” That makes subliminal ads and suggestions potentially even more powerful than conscious suggestions and hypnotics ones, he adds.
What to do?
Well, we need to look at VR through the lens of awareness and consent.
The need for consent needs to addressed in VR, AR and other emerging technologies that conceivably can utilize powerful subliminal ads.
That’s especially true if the goal is to develop a mutually beneficial dynamic between a content’s creator and its viewer in VR.
And it is definitely in the interest of advertisers to do this.
When the creator begins to coerce the viewer subliminally, he destroys that contract with the viewer.
Awareness, on the other hand, maintains the dynamic. And it empowers both creators and viewers.
Subliminal messaging, that sidestepping of the conscious filter, is inherently non-consensual.
That’s why the UK and Australia ban it. In the U.S, the FCC has said it may amount to “false advertising” and reserves the right to revoke ads that meet that criteria from the airwaves and the Internet).
But there’s another reason for companies weighing whether to slip subliminal ads into their messaging not to do it. And that issue is reputation.
Though experts once questioned the efficacy of subliminal messaging — the 1957 “buy more popcorn” study that put it on the map turned out to be a hoax — there’s obviously no question about its effect on the reputation of the company who is caught trying to use it.
It would be a public relations nightmare.
But detecting the presence of subliminal ads and messaging is inherently difficult. It’s costly and technically difficult. Just finding the offensive content is tricky, too. We are talking about something that was intentionally designed to be processed on a level below your awareness.
This is why we need more research in the way in which we process information and, for that matter, all of the many source and factors that contribute to our decisions. It’s the only way we can understand how subliminal influences are more subversive than we are treating them and should increase regulation accordingly.
This regulation should be directly applied to virtual environments, before further mass market adoption of the technology.
The ability to augment reality, and create virtual worlds (even copying/capturing “the real one” with 360 cameras) will offer tools and much insight into the workings of subliminal messages, especially via gaze tracking algorithms that track where you look
This much is certain: As we continue to learn more about the inner works and scope of human consciousness, an array of VR research will coalesce soon that will force us to revisit this phenomena with a fresh lens.
Header image credit: The Coca-Cola Company