Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Unethical Truth: Subliminal Advertising

Subliminal advertising is everywhere…or is it?  The fact that some would try to appeal to my subconscious mind with hidden sounds or images is intriguing but ethically sound, I think not.  The practice itself is science which is neither good or bad however the scientist or the user of such techniques, in this case subliminal advertising, can be designated as good or bad.  Let’s ask ourselves a question.  Why would someone want to advertise subliminally?  Is this something they cannot openly advertise?  Are they hiding something deeper?  The list goes on and the questions only lead to more sinister suspicions.  For most of us, what’s ethical can be summed up by anything we can do – without shame – in front of our rose-planting, church-going, sweet-faced grandmother; if we have to disguise or encode messages then it is assuredly unethical at least in motive.  

In her article about subliminal advertising and ethics NV says that there are psychologists who would like to see subliminal messaging converted into useable tools for marketing purposes (NV, 2007).  There is no denying that this could be a lucrative partnership however NV brings up a good point stating that this could be used “to alter behavior against consumers’ conscious wishes” (2007).  That would certainly be unethical in both motive and function as it negates our freedom of choice.

“Who’s Minding the Mind”, an article from the New York Times in 2007, talks extensively about what role the subconscious mind has in our decision making and how simple it may be to manipulate.  For better or worse, this part of our brain “is far more active, purposeful and independent than previously known” (Carey, 2007).  Psychology professors at Yale state that “we have these unconscious behavioral guidance systems that are continually furnishing suggestions through the day about what to do next, and the brain is considering and often acting on those, all before conscious awareness” (Carey, 2007).   In light of the influence our subconscious mind has on our thoughts and, to a certain degree, actions, subliminal advertising appears to be akin to subliminal control.  This is a highly unethical practice because on some level the respondents are not even aware of the message to which they are responding.  Not only is it unethical, it just doesn't make sense.


Carey, B. (2007, July 31). Who's Minding the Mind? Retrieved September 20, 2012, from New York Times: Mental Health & Behavior:

NV. (2007, March 4). Subliminal Advertising: Psychology and Ethics. Retrieved September 19, 2012, from Psychology and Business:


  1. Okay, first I am laughing out loud at your reference to ethical being what we would do in front of our "rose-planting, church-going, sweet-faced grandmother".

    Unethical subconscious advertising yes, I am sure there is such a thing, but I just cannot wrap my mind around it. Is it because I just do not care, or I am too busy? The latter is the response. If I wasn't working 60+ hours a week and taking these classes then I might find it attractive to bide my time dissecting subliminal messages and meanings in advertising.

    If you want it, you buy it, right? Why must we reason what made us do it?

    I mean the FTC does cannot even find the time to clearly define and/or monitor this type of advertising. And truly, when it becomes a news story from some enraged person with a microphone (aka media) then it really only becomes a great marketing tool for the company and fodder for the masses.

    Thanks for a great post:)

  2. Hi Thanks for you insight. Subliminal messaging has gotten a lot of attention recently: the word sex showing up in Disney films, the starbucks mermaid lady-thing. However; I think where people, critics, and the media don't consider is that there is a difference between subliminal 'messages' and subliminal 'advertising'. I don't understand the point of subliminal messaging, what does scribbling porn in PG films do for anyone? Subliminal advertising, on the other hand, has a purpose. It is meant to evoke action. It is an attempt to appeal to you on a level so deep that it feels like you didn't think of it at all. In my opinion, all advertising attempts to do this. It's not very tactful to come out and say "hey you stink, buy THIS deodorant". Instead, advertisers will show a handsome man doing some strenuous activity, barely breaking a sweat with gorgeous models sniffing his pits. Is that unethical? I don't think so.

    I think the problem is mainly in what society adopts as being the ideal. If fair skin, long hair, and stick-thin is seen in society as beautiful, and an advertiser uses a model fitting this description to subliminally tell you that you need whatever she's selling to attain this level of beauty, there's nothing wrong with that. The problem is what society deems as beautiful, and what you as the consumer interpret from the message. Who dictates what's beautiful is another topic, but in all I think subliminal advertising is mainly ineffective, emotional advertising works. That same model wouldn't be as effective to a culturally different target, so is it then subliminal? To execute a campaign or commercial that resonates so deeply with a consumer they feel some emotion, without realizing it, are the signs of someone good at their job.

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