In the 1950s, a marketing type called James Vicary caused national hysteria when he announced he could get people to buy Coca-Cola by flashing a "Drink Coke" sign on a screen so quickly that viewers couldn't tell, implanting the urge in their subconscious.
Vicary's experiments turned out to be a sham. But the fear of corporations stealthily mucking about with Americans' brains took hold in the collective imagination.
The Federal Communications Commission issued a policy statement that "subliminal perception" techniques were "contrary to the public interest." Judas Priest was accused in court of inciting suicidal tendencies with a subliminal message in a song. In 2000, Democrats in the Senate accused a Republican National Committee ad of subliminally calling Al Gore a rat.
Now the clever men and women in the persuasion business appear to have found a more effective way to reach surreptitiously into our heads: embedding the commercials into the programming itself. If a subliminal flash of "Coke" doesn't do the trick, how about a whole episode of "The Apprentice" devoted to designing Burger King's new Western Angus Steak Burger? Or a three-month plot line in "All My Children" in which Erica Kane's cosmetics company goes to battle against Revlon?
These days if you flip on "Desperate Housewives," you might find Eva Longoria in an evening dress promoting a Buick LaCrosse. The boss in "The Office" raves about his Levi's. And Coke shows up all over "American Idol." Spending on product placement in the United States grew by a third last year. With TiVo snapping at broadcasters' heels, allowing viewers to zap traditional commercials out of their shows, product placement is shaping up to be advertisers' holy grail.
The question is, should we worry?
Regulators do. Last month, the FCC proposed rules requiring broadcasters to disclose embedded commercial arrangements in a minimum font and for a set number of seconds not just flash them across a screen at the speed of light, which is the current practice. It also opened an inquiry into whether more disclosure is even needed.
Though I have nothing against regulating an industry bent on convincing me to spend money on stuff I never knew I needed, I'm not sure I should worry much about these new, not-so-stealthy techniques. Seeing the kids on "7th Heaven" dunk Oreos in milk may be a devious way to advertise Oreos. "The Manchurian Candidate" it's not.
Many researchers are skeptical that concealed appeals are more effective at changing behavior than overt ones. Children, who are often mentioned in these sorts of debates as particularly worthy of protection, can't tell the difference between an ad and a show anyway. The world of adults is already papered over with advertising. Increasing the font in a TV disclosure comes across as quaint, but not that useful.
American Express has shown ads with Karl Malden of "The Streets of San Francisco" because it reckons he can persuade viewers that the company's traveler's checks will keep them as safe as a rugged cop. (Although the cohort that remembers the show must be shrinking fast.) Other companies have used judges, doctors and grandmothers in commercials in the hope that their respectability might rub off. Everyone knows Malden, and the grandmothers were paid for their words.
The disclosure we need most is not whether commercials are embedded in a show. We need truth: Despite the leggy women wrapped around the man with the tumbler, our whiskey will not increase your sex appeal and may, in quantity, reduce it. Truth might not make for exciting television, but it might make us better shoppers.