Soft sell

Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising, by Robert Heath, Wiley-Blackwell, RRP £19.99, 264 pages

A few years ago, when O2 transformed itself from a laggard into Britain’s largest mobile phone network, television advertisements that were funny, surprising or beautiful were not part of the strategy. Bubbles were its thing – bubbles and blue water. Rather meaningless images all told, rounded off by the vapid slogan “O2. See what you can do.” They were easy to tune out and easy to forget once you’d seen them.

The ads had none of the things that grab our attention. Yet in spite of that – and in fact, because of it, argues Robert Heath in Seducing the Subconscious – they did a lot to shape positive perceptions of the brand among unwitting consumers. How?

Because the bubbles slipped into a silent part of our mind that registers what’s going on around us even if we’re not actively paying attention. Those innocuous bubbles did not get flagged but, according to Heath, their evocation of calmness and serenity seeped into viewers’ minds and cast O2 as an antidote to the beep-beep, ring-ring, yak-yak frenzy of mobile communication.

It’s discomfiting to read of our apparent vulnerability to mind manipulation at the hands of advertising agencies – but do not confuse this with subliminal advertising. The soothing bubbles were not flashed on to the screen for an imperceptible few milliseconds in-between images, say, of harried commuters babbling on their mobiles in a crowded train station. They were in plain sight. But no one was paying much attention.

If O2 had advertised itself explicitly as “the UK’s most serene mobile network”, we would have been engaged by the ridiculousness of the claim and actively rejected it. But the non-threatening emptiness of the bubbles encouraged us to switch off and lower our guard.

Although subconscious seduction may sound like the hocus-pocus of hypnotists or conspiracy theorists, Heath’s analysis is grounded in science. In recent years many psychologists, neuroscientists and sociologists have arrived at an acceptance that conscious thinking is just a small part of who we are.

Most emotions, desires, visceral reactions and, ultimately, decisions emerge from the subconscious, which cannot be accessed by our conscious mind and is more powerful than it. The subconscious is what keeps us dozing in bed when we’d vowed to get up at 6am, and what has us wandering off to get a coffee when we’d resolved not to leave our desk until a task was finished.

By aiming at it, ads such as O2’s “effortlessly slip things under our radar and influence our behaviour without us ever really knowing that they have done so”, says Heath. He is well placed to know, having worked for 23 years in advertising before becoming a lecturer in the subject at the University of Bath. He avoids academic obscurantism and fills the book with clever dissections of well-known ads.

Its main fault stems from Heath’s early insistence that many people in the ad business have not recognised the importance of the subconscious, and instead see advertising as an old-fashioned form of “salesmanship” concerned with persuading an audience that is paying attention. Ad men and women may not speak his language of “implicit learning” but Heath’s examples suggest that many of them have grasped the essence of his message.

Take the Stella Artois ad that boosted the beer’s sales through a playlet set in Provence with French dialogue, no subtitles and music from the film Jean de Florette. While the overt message was that people would give up anything for the “reassuringly expensive” drink, Heath says it also flattered drinkers into feeling that they were smart, intellectual and in tune with art-house cinema. “Of course, because this communication was subsconscious, the drinker’s feeling of superiority was covert, and therefore couldn’t be identified and counter-argued.”

The case studies add up to an intriguing, down-to-earth introduction to the mysteries of the subconscious but they will probably be more eye-opening to the humble consumer than to ad agencies. If you don’t want to be subconsciously seduced yourself, the message is that you have two options: exclude all advertising from your world, or pay such close attention to ads such as O2’s bubbles that the byways to your subconscious are shut off. And a tedious task that would be.

Barney Jopson is the FT’s US retail correspondent

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