On Wednesday, the Australian Communications and Media Authority found that the Ten Network had breached the Commercial Television Code of Practice by inserting single-frame logos of sponsors of its broadcast of the 2007 ARIA Awards.

Section 1.8.4 of the Code proscribes the broadcast of any programs that “use or involve any technique which attempts to convey information to the viewer by transmitting messages below or near the threshold of normal awareness”.

The ACMA’s investigation followed a report on ABC TV’s Media Watch, which labelled Ten’s use of “flash cut” logos as “subliminal or near-subliminal advertising” and called it a “beneath-the-surface assault on the senses” of viewers.

Media Watch said “the jury is out on how effective (subliminal advertising) actually is in getting people to buy things.” In fact, countless scientific studies over four decades have found, again and again, that the technique has no measurable effect on consumer behaviour. But it seems hundreds of scientists don’t actually constitute a “jury” in the eyes of Media Watch or, indeed, The Age.

“The very word ‘subliminal’ carries a sinister ring,” says the opening line of today’s Age editorial. Well, so does the phrase “alien abduction”, but that doesn’t mean it exists or that it’s a threat to society.

The editorial correctly attributes the origins of the popular cultural phenomenon – what many regard as the myth – of subliminal advertising to an “experiment” in a New Jersey cinema in 1957. But while it mentions in passing that the results “were later found to be false”, it gives far greater emphasis to an unnamed and unreferenced United Nations “study” that declared the cultural implications were “a major threat to human rights throughout the world”.

In fact, the original “experiment” wasn’t just “false” – it wasn’t even an experiment. It was exposed and discredited as a hoax, concocted by a “huckster who fanned fears of ad hypnosis” to promote his own business.

Take a quick look through the published scientific literature at the views of those who have conducted and reviewed controlled studies and you find conclusions like these:

“After reviewing the literature… researchers have concluded that no empirical evidence exists to demonstrate that any subliminal advertising technique has an effect on changing attitudes or an impact on consumers’ purchasing behaviour.”

“The effect of subliminal marketing stimuli on influencing consumers’ choice behavior or selection process is negligible.”

“The literature on subliminal perception shows that the most clearly documented effects are obtained only in highly contrived and artificial situations.”

Or, as one commentator put it more colourfully, “you’re more likely to find Bigfoot than produce a working subliminal ad”.

At the time the ARIAs controversy broke late last year, not all of the media coverage played to public paranoia about the “hidden persuaders”. Fiona Connolly gave a balanced account of the myth and lack of “evidence” in the Daily Telegraph.

But that hasn’t stopped The Age thundering on today about breaches of human rights. To be fair, the editorial’s main beef is that, having been found to have breached the Code, Ten has escaped without penalty. It calls for “a review of the code and, where required, a strengthening of its content”.

I’d like to suggest a more radical and permanent solution based on the actual evidence – simply remove the relevant section from the Code and there would be no need for the ACMA to have to deal with complaints about something for which there is no evidence.

This would be entirely consistent with the Authority’s approach to the issue of advertising and childhood obesity, when it demanded “unequivocal evidence of a causal link between advertising and obesity” before taking action. So why should there be a sanction against “subliminal advertising” when all the evidence shows it either doesn’t exist or doesn’t work and isn’t a threat? Perhaps The Age should be aiming its editorial indignation at this obvious double standard.

And, by the way, if The Age is so concerned about “hidden” marketing activities and human rights, perhaps it should put its own house in order first by ceasing to place tracking cookies in my internet browser every time I visit its website.

Dr Stephen Downes lectures in the postgraduate advertising program at RMIT University and is a market researcher with QBrand Consulting.

Peter Fray

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