Even since ad man James Vicary declared he raised sales at concessions by flashing key words like “Drink Coca-Cola” during films in a New Jersey theater in 1957, consumers have been wary of “subliminal” advertising. No one, after all, wants to feel manipulated.
While Vicary turned out to be full of it—he could never replicate his data for curious observers and eventually admitted it was a hoax—both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agency have provisions warning advertisers against any psychological funny business. That hasn’t stopped art departments or ad firms from staving off boredom (or trying to stir up controversy) with covert messages that might go unnoticed at first glance. Check out some of the most infamous hidden prompts:
1. FOOD NETWORK’S FLASH OF CONTROVERSY
During a 2007 episode of Iron Chef America, the 24-hour food channel became a delicious suspect in subliminal wrongdoing. Spliced into a chef showdown segment was a logo for McDonald’s, which flashed on the screen for a brief moment. After Internet investigators accused the company of burrowing even further into our impressionable brains, McDonald’s denied the claims, telling USA Today that “we don’t do subliminal advertising.” Food Network declared the screen shot a “technical error.”
2. PALMOLIVE’S SHOWER BUDDIES
A print ad for Palmolive’s foaming shower gel might have been designed with frenetic page-flipping magazine readers in mind. If you stop and take a moment to digest the ad, you’ll notice the woman’s forearm is considerably more masculine than the rest of her.
3. KFC’S DOLLAR SNACKER
When commercial footage is slowed to a crawl, it’s easy to spot a glaring addition to an otherwise conventional fried chicken sandwich. KFC grabbed some attention in 2008 for inserting a pretty clumsy-looking dollar bill in the lettuce for its KFC Snacker menu item. The company pulled a similar stunt in 2006, when they buried a code inside of a commercial for the Buffalo Snacker that could be redeemed for free food. The goal was to get viewers to stop speeding past commercials during DVR playback.
4. THE BOARD GAME INCIDENT
Television spots for the barely-remembered memory board game Hūsker Dū that aired in 1973 inserted a series of frames that read “Get It." The game’s manufacturer, Premium Corp. of America, admitted a staff member had placed the images. The FCC fielded the incident, and subsequently condemned such tactics as being “contrary to the public interest”; it’s believed to be the first example of subliminal advertising on television. Then again, if anything had been truly subliminal prior to that, who would know?
5. AN AUSTRALIAN MUSICAL INTERLUDE
The ARIA Awards are held every year to honor Australia’s biggest achievements in the music industry. While viewers may have expected to see commercials during the broadcast on Network Ten in 2007, they might not have expected to be exposed to images “below or near the threshold of human awareness.” That’s how the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) described their choice to flash 10 images of corporate sponsors (like Toyota, above) during the ceremony. The channel got a scolding and had to promise never to do it again.
6. POLITICAL RATS
Doing the already-dodgy reputation of political advertising no favors, Presidential candidate George Bush came under fire in 2000 for a television spot criticizing opponent Al Gore that flashed the word “rats” for one-thirtieth of a second. While calling the accusation of subliminal interruption “bizarre,” the Bush campaign nonetheless had the spot pulled from the air. According to The Guardian, campaign ad producer Alex Castellanos had previously produced a spot for Senatorial candidate Jesse Helms in which a pair of hands is briefly seen crushing a picture of opponent Harvey Gant.
7. MARLBORO’S HIDDEN CODE
Cigarette company Marlboro was left kicking tires after the European Public Health Commission prohibited them from advertising on Formula 1 racing vehicles. To get around the ban, Marlboro designed a bar code for the chassis that looks vaguely like a pack of their smokes when it begins to blur while traveling at around 200 miles per hour. Declaring the strategy “subliminal,” the EPHC exerted pressure and the design was removed. Marlboro parent company Philip Morris told The Wall Street Journal in 2010 that "The barcode was never intended to be anything other than a neutral design, one that was not linked to the sale of tobacco products. It was never intended to be a reference to the Marlboro brand in any way."
BONUS: DAFFY’S WAR PROPAGANDA
This one is not an ad, but is still worth a mention. Warner Brothers’ series of Looney Tunes shorts were never short on pro-American sentiment during World War II. While many were downright hostile toward Japanese characters, others—like 1943’s Wise Quacking Duck—were a bit more subtle. The cartoon tried to deliver a message when Daffy takes a moment to spin a statue from left to right; its shield briefly reads, “Buy Bonds.” It’s obvious upon repeat viewings, but theatergoers in the 1940s didn’t have the luxury of slow-motion playback.