Advertising practitioners have long been the target of charges of unethical conduct stemming from their supposed use of subliminal techniques, though very few studies have shown any value of subliminal embeds in an advertising setting. One way advertising professionals can contend with such charges is to understand as much as possible about subliminal persuasion, including the situations, if any, in which it occurs. Many studies of subliminal persuasion have investigated the effect of subliminal stimuli on cognitive constructs. The authors add to that work by focusing on affect, specifically three types of feelings identified as important to advertising effectiveness: warm, upbeat, and negative feelings. They found empirical support for the hypothesis that unconscious processing of subliminal embeds has significant effects on the upbeat and negative feelings that subjects report in response to ads. Those feelings in turn had a significant influence on ad and brand attitudes, which suggests that subliminal emb eds may have a small, but indirect effect on attitudes.
Since the 1957 publication of The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard, people have been captivated by the concept of subliminal advertising. Subsequent publications, particularly ones by Wilson Bryan Key (e.g., Subliminal Seduction 1973), have been very popular, despite a paucity of empirical evidence that subliminal techniques are used by the advertising industry (Rogers and Seiler 1994), effective in persuading consumers (Moore 1982, 1988; Saegert 1987), or related directly to choice (Trappey 1996). Hence, it is not surprising that advertising scholars are interested in exploring the phenomenon of subliminal persuasion, not necessarily to find ways to exploit it, but to discover its boundary conditions and, indeed, to determine if it works at all.
Moore (1982) suggests that if subliminal messages have any effect, it is likely to be in terms of affective reactions to the message. Key (1973), one of the most vocal accusers of the advertising industry, contends (without providing any methodologically sound support) that subliminal messages are received by an individual's subconscious and stimulate an emotional response. We therefore need to investigate the possible effects of subliminal embeds on feelings rather than on cognitions. Our study extends knowledge about subliminal persuasion by testing its effects on three affective constructs found by Edell and Burke (1987) to be important in the formation of attitude toward the ad ([A.sub.ad]) and attitude toward the brand ([A.sub.b]): upbeat, warm, and negative feelings.
Some evidence suggests that subliminal messages may influence affective reactions to marketing stimuli (e.g., Bagley and Dunlap 1980), psychological stimuli (Zajonc 1980), and person perceptions (Bornstein, Leone, and Galley 1987). Edwards (1990), in fact, reports that subliminal messages may influence only affective reactions, such as moods and feelings. Further, Caccavale, Wanty, and Edell (1982) postulate that an ad containing a subliminal embed might work through feelings rather than cognitions, perhaps because affect may be processed in a system entirely different from the conscious system used to process cognitive information (Zajonc 1980).
"Subliminal" is defined as the processing of stimuli presented below the threshold of conscious awareness (Pratkanis and Greenwald...