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Kingsman: The Secret Service & Subliminal Advertising – Could it Really Happen? [Study]

Hitting the screens this month is a new Hollywood movie about the power and influence of the smartphone today. A must-see for digital marketers.

Starring Samuel L. Jackson (and Colin Firth, Michael Kane and Taron Egerton), Kingsman: The Secret Service is a cautionary tale about how the mobile screen is becoming our window to the world.  If you control the screen you control the world – and the people in it.

The story itself is outlandish – sending a signal to smartphones causes people to spontaneously attack each other. Outlandish, yes, but the possibility of subliminal signals being sent to our mobile handsets and influencing our actions is very real.

We’re talking subliminal advertising for the mobile age here (influence below the threshold of conscious awareness). Scaremongery aside, recent research  (e.g. here, here) has shown that subliminal advertising through what is known as ‘subconscious priming’) can and does work. Flash an image or instruction on a screen too briefly to be noticed, and it can nevertheless influence us.  But only under certain circumstances.

Specifically, subliminal advertising research to date has found that we can be influenced by super-brief (too brief to be noticed) flashes of brand names or instructions (e.g. ‘Drink Coca-Cola’, ‘Eat Popcorn’) on a screen if we we’re already in a pre-existing state of need and unaware we’re being influenced (i.e. flashing ‘drink water’ on a screen, would only influence us to drink water if we’re are already thirsty and we’re unaware we’re being influenced). So relax, So Kingsman-like subliminal primes to kill are not going to be effective anytime soon (unless of course you have murderous motivations).

The problem with this past research into subliminal advertising is that has typically been conducted in the artificial conditions of the psychology lab.  It’s one thing to demonstrate that subliminal advertising could work in principle in a lab, it is another to show that it works in the real world.

Enter the public broadcaster BBC, who last week published the results of a real world test of subliminal advertising – just in time for the release of Kingsman.

The BBC subliminal ad test attempted to replicate a 2006 laboratory study by psychologists Johan Karremans, Wolfgang Stroebe and Jasper Claus who had demonstrated the effectiveness of subliminal advertising, but only in the lab.

Audience members attending the recording of a BBC Radio 4 science show were given a bag of crisps (to make them thirsty), and then split randomly into two and shown a clip of a TV drama (Spooks) on a theatre screen. Half the group (the test group) saw a doctored version of the clip that flashed the word ‘Lipton’ every 5 seconds for 10 milliseconds (too briefly to be consciously noticed). The other half – the control group saw the un-doctored clip.  All audience members were then invited to choose a drink – Lipton tea or a bottle of water. If the subliminal advertising had worked, then more people in the test group who had seen the subliminal ad would choose Liptons, compared to the control group.

So what happened? It worked – sort of. The proportion of people choosing Lipton who had seen the subliminal ad jumped by 24% (from 37% to 46% n = 98).  But when the numbers excluded those likely to those likely to have been immune to the subliminals because they had a strong pre-existing preference for or against Leptons, there was no statistically significant effect.

What does all this mean for digital marketers? In short, subliminal advertising may be more tricky to pull off than we thought, and may be more complicated than simply targeting people in a state of need. In principle, (and given an ethical-bypass) subliminally flashing the logo of a drinks sponsor in the opening animation of a mobile app for ordering refreshments at a ball game, or on a digital display at a food stand (for example), could – and should – positively influence sales – but the BBC experiment suggests that the messy multi-senory reality of real life might get in the way.

So fear-not; the mobile screen does not yet have Kingsman-style control over us, and owning the mobile screen does not mean owning the world. Yet.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.