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Do You Know When You Are Being Sold To?

Britney Spears has recently caused controversy with suggestions that the ad campaign for her new fragrance range uses subliminal or hidden messages in its efforts to convince potential buyers. Advertisers have long been aware of the power of appealing to our subsoncious minds, so what methods exactly do they employ, and how widespread is the practise?

Broadly speaking, there are three methods in common use - Product Endorsement, Product Placement, and Hidden (Subliminal) Imagery.

Why do advertisers use these methods?

As consumers, we tend to make buying decisions based on emotion rather than logic. When see a product, we make up our minds very quickly about whether we want it or not, based purely on the way the product is presented to us. Any accompanying sales pitch is merely there to help us justify the purchase to our more logical selves. Advertisers know this of course, so they spend huge amounts of time and money marketing their products in ways that appeal to our emotions and subconscious mind.

So how do the three methods work?

Taking each in turn:

Product Endorsement

This is possibly the most up-front and honest method. Quite simply, a product is endorsed by a well known figure ? a celebrity or sports person perhaps - or a singer! Nike are big users of this technique, with major sporting stars regularly featuring in their commercials. Whilst they might not spell it out, the message is always the same ? "If our product is good enough for Mr x, then it's certainly good enough for you".

Product Placement

This is the slightly sneakier derivative of product endorsement, and involves well known figures (often fictional) endorsing products or services outside of a clearly labelled commercial environment. The technique is frequently used in sitcoms and soap operas. For example, you settle down to watch an episode of Fraser, your all time hero, and happen to notice that he drinks a certain brand of coffee ("brand X"). You may not consciously notice this, but your subconscious mind is taking in every detail. Because you have such respect for the famous Dr Craine, you naturally trust his judgement when it comes to coffee. Hence the next time you are in the supermarket and you spot "brand X" on the shelf, you are much more likely to choose it over the rest of the selection on offer.

Product placement is a particularly potent form of subliminal advertising because it catches us off guard. When we see a commercial break on the television, we know we are being sold to and so have our defences up ? we take what we are told with the due level of cynicism. But when the ads are over and we return to the TV show, we mentally relax that guard, and become much more open to suggestion. It's not just consumer goods that are marketed this way; awareness groups and even political campaigners use the same subliminal techniques to subtly get their message across.

Hidden (Subliminal) Imagery

This is perhaps, the most devious technique in the advertisers armoury. It involves embedding images or words into a standard advertisement. One of the most effective uses of hidden messages in mainstream advertising is the "sexual connection". Sex conjures up strong emotions of power, pleasure, and well-being, and so if a advertiser can tap into those at will he has a powerful tool indeed - no pun intended! Examples of subliminal messages of a sexual nature being used in advertising are numerous; Ritz crackers have the word "sex" spelled out on them in the tiny dots; many drinks ads manipulate the ice cubes in their photos by embedding images or words on them. Next time you see a print ad ? study it carefully for hidden images or words, you may be surprised!

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