Subliminal advertising is nothing new. It was around in the days of drive-in movies, where marketing messages like “Eat popcorn!” would be added into a single frame of the movie. It wasn’t long enough for your brain to register it, but researchers believed that it was long enough to connect with you on a subliminal level, and all of a sudden you’re hungry for some popcorn.
These types of tactics are making a comeback, in big part due to streaming, piracy, and DVR’ing your favorite shows. People are less and less likely to see commercial breaks while consuming content these days, so advertisers are putting the ads right into the TV shows, movies, and even video games.
Netflix’s hit flagship House of Cards is a good example, this show is jam-packed with product placements to help Netflix pay the $100m budget for just the first two seasons alone. There aren’t any commercial breaks, but they did manage to cram 9 Apple products into this one scene.
Subliminal advertising isn’t so subliminal anymore:
In the gaming world, we have “advergames”
These are mostly games for small children, hosted on the websites of various brands ranging from sugary cereals to fast food restaurants. These advertisements are misleading children, and the results are quite shocking. Even by Flash-based children’s game standards, they’re also usually pretty terrible.
Dutch researchers have discovered that children who play one of these web-based games packed with food advertisements are going to eat 50% more sweets than children who played a different version of the same game.
A fifth of children aged four to five are overweight or obese, and that number goes up to over a third when they reach the ages of eleven to fifteen.
It’s not up to video games to teach kids healthy eating and exercise habits, and at the end of the day it’s the parents who are buying the groceries, but it’s interesting to hear the types of messages kids are getting from these games none the less…
Why does this approach work so well on children?
While playing the game, their minds are focused on accomplishing whatever goal is in front of them. They let their guard down to things like advertising, plus children generally aren’t as media-literate yet anyways, so it’s a double-whammy for marketers.
Meanwhile, the branding slowly seeps into their brains along with the fun they’re having playing the game, and that brand is now tied to “fun” and “excitement” subconsciously.
It’s called the “mere exposure effect”, simply being exposed to a logo while doing something you enjoy is going to create goodwill for that brand in your subconscious mind.
‘Children are unaware of these messages going unprocessed into their brains because all of their cognitive resources are taken up with playing the online game…Many large companies employ neuroscientists to develop such strategies.’ says Professor Agnes Nairn, a specialist in marketing, ethics and the well-being of children from a London business school.
That’s the point of advertising, right? To get your brand on people’s minds? But things take a bit of sinister turn when you realize the actual impact. For example, children playing a different Nesquik game, which involved a cartoon bunny that would gain the strength to be able to jump higher after consuming the product, were left believing that drinking Nesquik would make them healthier, stronger, and more fit.
A study in 2014 in the International Journal of Advertising revealed that another advergame, this time featuring a junk-food cereal brand, lead kids to believe that eating this particular cereal would make them more healthy, when in fact it has the opposite impact. Children don’t necessarily understand “healthy” and how the body works, so they may be more likely to associate things like health and fitness with the happiness they get from playing the game, and these unprocessed, subconscious thoughts can stay with them long after they’ve graduated to actual games, and are old enough to buy their own groceries.
It gets a little creepy…
Now that many kids are carrying around smartphones and can download promoted apps for fast food restaurants and other companies, not only can these companies serve up advergames on a regular basis, they can track the locations of these kids and hit them with a constant barrage of marketing based on where they’re currently located. This happens to adults too, it’s not exclusive to kids, the demographic of the people playing these garbage branded games on their phones is typically younger people who don’t have the savvy or awareness to realize what’s going on.
Children see it as fun, parents see it as entertainment for their kids, but the companies producing these advertisement-games are completely aware of the real consequences, because those are the intended results when playing such games.