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10 Disturbing Trends in Subliminal Advertising

Subliminal advertising has gone mainstream - fake news, mind control scripts, propaganda and stealth voicemail are in wide use by corporations, government bodies and industry groups.

By Martin Howard
Author of
We Know What You Want: How They Change Your Mind

Some of the biggest advertisers are taking their advertising away from full page ads and television spots and spending up on hidden persuasion. You won't find these secret messages in ice-cubes or flickering film footage like they were in the sixties. Subliminal advertising has gone mainstream - fake news, mind control scripts, propaganda and stealth voicemail are in wide use by corporations, government bodies, and industry groups. Have you spotted any of these?

1. Point of Sale Mind Control Scripts

Clothing store staff and car salesmen use them to close the deal - carefully planned questions and subverbal cues to get you to sign. If you’ve ever walked out of a store, after spending twice as much as you wanted to, chances are you’ve fallen victim to one of these scripts. The GAPACT is used by Gap staff to upsell you. Other salesmen use word techniques to make you buy, even when you don’t have the money - because they make more by selling you 'easy' finance. When a car salesmen takes you on a test drive and asks you “Is this the type of vehicle you would like to own?”, he is using a subtle mental framing trick - it can create an embarrassing distraction while you drive. The technique is called disassociation - which is the ideal state for mental manipulation.

2. Doctor-Patient Drug Kick-backs

When a doctor recommends a certain heart medication or an antidepressant, chances are he has been paid a cash bonuses and perks by the manufacturer, making it difficult to give objective advice. Some pharmaceutical firms have gone so far as to invent and promote a new syndrome in order to create a market for a new drug! Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) was devised in 1998 and publicised by planting fifty press stories and quizzes such as: “Do you have social anxiety disorder?”. Soon after, Smithkline Beecham released Paxil - the 'cure' for SAD.

3. In-Store Sensory Manipulation

Scientifically tested visual displays, Muzak tapes, and even mind altering scents combine to maximize impulse spending. Specially designed music loops can keep shoppers in the supermarket for 18% longer. One study into use of airborne aromas, pumped into a Canadian mall, resulted in an increase of over $50 per customer that week. In supermarkets, scientifically generated Planograms create the ideal shelf arrangement for certain products, skewing the shopper's eyes towards high value items. Companies pay slotting allowances for favoured placement. Aisle layout are change regularly - which prevents systematic shopping - forcing extra trips past the impulse item displays.

4. Private Conversation Rental

Positive buzz can be triggered artificially for a price. Marketers now recruit secret 'buzz agents' to promote to their friends and family. One buzz agency claims to have an army of agents in every major US city. Their job is to mention or display certain products as they go about their day, using their relationships as marketing channels. Music labels, book sellers, entertainment venues, and fashion outlets are using this method to establish new brands. Today’s billion dollar 12-16 year olds are so immune to traditional advertising, mass media is no longer a reliable persuasive device - so the alternative is a 'synthetic grapevine.’

5. Neuromarketing

Corporations are going to enormous lengths to probe the minds of consumers - literally tapping into their brains. The Brighthouse Institute for Thought Sciences, in Atlanta, is one lab that is scanning people's brains with MRIs, in an effort to decode and record our subconscious thoughts and devise more seductive advertising. The process is being called neuromarketing. They are hoping to determine specific biological triggers that can be used by language engineers to stimulate purchases. This is the hi-tech fulfilment of pioneer psychologists Freud and Jung who established the connection between language and behaviour.

6. Chatbots and Stealth Voicemail

Personal phone messages from businesses or political campaigners can turn up in your morning voicemail, having been delivered late the previous night. Voicemail broadcasters like DialAmerica uses massive computer installations to deliver identical copies of spoken messages to millions of householder simultaneously. On the internet, chat room 'bots' masquerading as personal real buddies are actually distributed simultaneously by powerful computers 24 hours a day. Virtual word-of-mouth communication is replacing other promotional technologies because of its speed and price.

7. Real-time Bugging of Personal Data

Your browser is probably revealing more than you might want: your location, the software and hardware you are using, details of other links you clicked on and your browsing habits. Many third party dataminers use 'cookies' to track your path across the web. Extensive realtime information is processed to target you. Larger databases harvest your personal medical and financial records to be bought and sold by interested companies and government departments. Datamining is a fuzzy science that filters you personal information for links about your personal behaviour and finances. These details are used in turn to create elaborate marketing campaigns to sell you more stuff.

8. Sidewalk Stalkers

The public space of streets, neighborhoods and communities is being mapped and targeted by viral marketers and fake grassroots organizations. In some cases the campaigns are overt but, increasingly, street 'agents' are making unannounced social approaches. Fake tourists flash around the latest camera-phone to passing crowds. 'Product seeders' circulate at sports events to find influential young players to wear their gear. Others wander the street wearing colored corporate tattoos. Personal space is the last frontier for commerce. As citizens attempt to retreat from the deluge of media advertising they can now be stalked when they step out the door.

9. Planted News Stories

Industry front groups, public relations firms and government departments are planting news stories on TV, radio, newspapers and the web. Those 'miracle drug' stories or research reports are often Video News Release (VNRs). TV newsrooms love these prepackaged news items that are distributed across the networks. It saves them time and money but it is killing community news and genuine investigative reporting. Real news items are being replaced by slick corporate promotions and political messages. According to one Nielsen Media Research Survey, about 80 percent of U.S. news directors air VNRs several times a month, and all American television newsrooms now use VNRs in their newscasts.

10. Government Propaganda

When it's time to launch a war or promote an unpopular policy, the government needs special help to sell the idea through the media. Opinion engineers are paid to "manage" public perception of inconvenient facts, and turn them around for better. Using the universal tools fear, patriotism, and phrase repetition, these high flying spin doctors can easily sway the population. The most successful public relations campaigns aim to change public perception without our awareness of the campaign. They are typically launched by governments, institutions and countries who need to change their public image, restore their reputation or manipulate public opinion. There are PR firms today who advise dictatorships, dishonest politicians and corrupt industries to cover up environmental catastrophes and human rights violations.

Martin Howard is a media researcher and author of "We Know What You Want: How They Change Your Mind".

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