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Mesmerizing marketing: a compact cultural history

Stephen Brown
School of Marketing, Entrepreneurship and Strategy, University of Ulster, Jordanstown, UK
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to examine the widely-held belief that marketing holds customers in thrall and persuades them to buy things they otherwise would not. Design/methodology/approach Rather than adopt a scientic approach to the mesmeric marketing phenomenon, it embraces an artistic perspective, focusing on three crucial cultural moments in the emergence of the great manipulator mindset. Findings Whereas innumerable scientic experiments show that subliminal advertising does not work, except in certain circumstances, the cultural approach demonstrates that subliminals are, in fact, enormously successful. Regardless of scientic evidence to the contrary, most consumers believe that subliminal advertising not only works but is an established marketing practice. Practical implications The paper suggests that marketers should place less reliance on the scientic paradigm. Marketing science has its place a very important place but not everything can be captured in a simultaneous equation or linear regression model. Cultural components analysis is just as signicant as principal components analysis. Originality/value Received wisdom concerning subliminal advertising is challenged and creatively reinterpreted from a supra-science standpoint. Keywords Marketing, Advertising, Cultural studies, Marketing theory, Psychology, Individual psychology Paper type General review


European Business Review Vol. 20 No. 4, 2008 pp. 350-363 q Emerald Group Publishing Limited 0955-534X DOI 10.1108/09555340810886611

Up close and personal About 50 years ago, an uncontrolled marketing experiment was conducted by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In the course of a popular current-affairs programme, Close-up, a subliminal message was ashed 352 times. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, given the enormous controversy that was raging in America at the time, many of Close-ups viewers reported an overwhelming urge to drink Coke and eat popcorn. The only problem was that CBCs subliminal message did not mention soda or snacks or indeed any kind of comestible. It said Ring Now. But nobody did. Canadian telephone trafc showed no deviation from the norm and CBC received no unusual calls from Close-ups pre-programmed audience (Streatfeild, 2006). Dubious methodology aside, the abject failure of CBCs experiment should come as no surprise. Subliminal advertising is one of the biggest MacGufns in the history of marketing (Rogers, 1992/1993). It has long been recognised that James Vicarys adventures in persuasion his infamous claim to have exposed 45,699 New Jersey cinema-goers to subliminal ads which caused 18.1 and 57.4 per cent increases in Coke and popcorn sales, respectively, never took place as described[1]. Five years after the infamous subliminal scare of 1957-1958, Vicary confessed that his Coke/popcorn confection was a publicity stunt that got completely out of hand (Boese, 2002). Designed to promote his struggling market research agency, it careered out of control and morphed into a modern marketing myth, an urban legend on a par with

microwaved cats, headless hitchhikers and alligators in the sewers of NYC (Poundstone, 1993). Viewed in retrospect, it is clear that the subliminals brouhaha owed much to the conspiratorial temper of the times (Burnett, 2005). In the late 1950s, reds were under the bed, the Cold War was at its height, Senator McCarthy was scaremongering for his country and brainwashed vets from the Korean War were causing consternation among the security services, who inferred that the commies had a military-industrial edge over the west (Halberstam, 1993). Contemporary concerns about corruption in the marketing industries, broadly dened record company payola, game-show shenanigans, anti-competitive shopping centre covenants, teamsters in league with organised crime reinforced consumers sense that wool was being systematically and surreptitiously pulled over their eyes by slippery sales people (Brown, 2001). The s, most notably The Hidden simultaneous publication of several shock-horror expose Persuaders by Packard (1957), further reinforced the feeling that unscrupulous marketers not only had the nefarious subliminal technology but also were ready, willing and able to use it. Madison avenue, bless its odoric cotton socks, had the ability to make consumers shop till they dropped, whether they wanted to or not. Although, there is no solid scientic evidence to suggest that subliminal advertising works, except in cases where consumers are already predisposed to making purchases (Broyles, 2006; Cooper and Cooper, 2002), the basic idea refuses to lie down and die (Moore, 1992; Rogers, 1985; Rushkoff, 1999; Streatfeild, 2006)[2]. About 50 years on from the popcorn-precipitated fracas, many believe that marketers bend consumers to their misbegotten will. Lacerating latter-day attacks by anti-capitalist protesters and analogous analysts of the afuenza epidemic bear witness to this widely held perception (de Graaf et al., 2005; James, 2007; Klein, 2000; Lasn, 1999). Granted, professional marketers rarely, if ever, make such vainglorious claims. Ever since Levitts (1960a) eloquent articulation of the customer-focussed marketing concept itself a reaction to the great late-1950s subliminal scare (Levitt, 1960b) we have tended to see ourselves as servants rather than masters, as the satisers of freely-expressed consumer desire, not the calculating cause of it. Yet the idea that marketing somehow mesmerises its innocent victims and somehow manipulates them into buying, buying, buying until bankruptcy beckons and the bailiffs are at the door, is very deeply engrained in contemporary consumer society. The present paper attempts to explore the genealogy of this mesmeric marketing mindset. It does so, not by a rigorous analysis of the existing historical record, nor by an evaluation of the scientic evidence for and against subliminal persuasion. In keeping, rather, with the cultural studies ethos of micrological research, it focuses on three signicant contributions to the notion of commercially manipulated consumer compliance[3]. It starts with the wizard who started it all, turns to a prodigious cultural expression of the phenomenon and concludes with an overview of latter-day subliminal scares. The intention is not to develop a formal theory of marketing mesmerization, as such, but simply to trace some intriguing patterns of continuity and change, and to consider their implications for our understanding of marketing. You are feeling sleepy, sleepy The aforementioned contention that mesmeric marketing types hold their customers in thrall is far from breaking news. Whether it be the itinerant bible salespersons of the

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early eighteenth century, who unashamedly indulged in buy-now-or-burn-in-hell promotional stunts (Moore, 1994); or the notorious quack doctors of the seventeenth, with their purportedly palliative pills, potions, panaceas and purges (Porter, 2000); or indeed the Magi of the ancient Greek marketplace, who sold amulets, charms, magic spells and soothsaying services like there was no tomorrow (Brown, 1998), the preternaturally persuasive power of the pitchperson has long been recognised (and feared) by consumers (Friedman, 2004). However, the belief that one person, or group of people, can subliminally inuence/shape/determine the behaviour of others, owes much to the career of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), an experiential marketer avant la lettre (Watereld, 2002). Aptly described as the Wizard from Vienna, mesmer was a highly respected member of bourgeois society. A fully qualied medical doctor, with a protable upper-crust practice, he married into money and was a patron of the avant-garde arts (one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in particular). Until fate intervened just before his fateful fortieth birthday. A friend of the family, Francisca Oesterlin, was suffering from a particularly debilitating form of nervous prostration, which no amount of bleeding, purging or blistering could alleviate. Observing the ebb and ow of her attacks, Mesmer maintained that she was aficted by an imbalance in animal magnetism, an invisible force eld, akin to gravitation, that suffused the entire cosmos and all its component parts. Magnetism, fortunately, provided a means of channelling this universal uid and by passing a pair of magnets over Ms Oesterlin, Mesmer was able to induce a relaxed, trace-like state, stimulate violent cathartic convulsions and thereby effect a lasting cure. He mesmerised her, in other words (Forrest, 1999). Anton, admittedly, was not the rst to recognise the therapeutic value of stroking medicine, autosuggestion and what was later termed hypnotism (Meyer, 1980)[4]. But he was the rst to offer a formal theoretical explanation, the rst to place the phenomenon on a scientic basis and the rst to seek the approval of the medical establishment. The last of these, unfortunately, was not forthcoming, despite Mesmers long line of satised customers, since the very idea of invisible universal uids was considered much too close to quackery for comfort. As the procedure also involved suspiciously intimate relationships between (male) doctor and (female) patient, it was morally questionable to boot. Indeed, when a nubile patient of Mesmers, Maria Theresa Paradies, refused to leave his care and return to her parents as instructed, the ensuing scandal forced the Herr Doctor to high-tail it out of Vienna. By the time the defrocked physician reached Paris, his animal magnetism roadshow had added an all-important element of marketing, of hyperbole, of razzamatazz (Brown, 2008). The magnets were abandoned for a mesmerising stare, elaborate hand waving exercises and a singularly striking pose, which can only be described as akin to a congenital constipation sufferer caught in the moment of realisation that Ex-Lax works. Happily untroubled by low self-esteem, furthermore, the perfumed, periwigged, purple-clad peacock took the city by storm. Such was the popularity of his therapeutic salon an eighteenth century combination of the Betty Ford Clinic, Walt Disney World and the Four Seasons Hotel that Mesmer was forced to develop a system of mass therapy, a kind of proto-production line. This consisted of several baquet, enclosed wooden boxes lled with magnetised water, the healing power of which was transmitted by protruding metal rods. Padded crisis rooms were set up for

individuals unable to control their baquet -induced convulsions. Musical accompaniment was provided by pianoforte and the glass harmonica, a contraption consisting of half-lled bowls of water that emitted musical notes when struck. The constantly-circulating consultant-in-chief armed himself with a healing wand, which pole-axed passing patients when pointed in their general direction. And several handsome pre-operatives prepared the mainly female clientele by staring meaningfully into their eyes and gently stroking their . . . well, you get the picture[5]. Not content with staggering nancial success and enormous popular acclaim, Mesmer wished to have his system endorsed by the scientic establishment. After ge , Alain Delson, a royal extensive political manoeuvring by a well-connected prote commission was set up in 1789 and charged with investigating the animal magnetism outbreak. This twelve-man task force was headed by Benjamin Franklin, then US ambassador to France, and included such luminaries as Guillotin and Lavoisier (the latter had an unfortunate brush with the formers famous mechanism ve years later). Empiricists, rationalists and sceptics to a man, the commission allowed themselves to be mesmerised (unsuccessfully), spent long hours roped together at a baquet (without so much as a twitch, let alone a convulsion), and conducted various experiments on patients known to be particularly strong conductors of animal magnetism (they fell into trances when misinformed that a mesmerist was present and failed to respond when an exponent was hidden behind a paper screen). It concluded that while healing unquestionably occurred, this was not due to animal magnetism but to the imagination of the patients (Gould, 1991). Look deep into my eyes Although Anton Mesmers brilliantly successful method fell at the rst scientic hurdle, rejection by the medical establishment did not inhibit its development. Quite the opposite. The nineteenth century in certain respects was the century of Mesmerism. As Winter (1998) shows in her comprehensive study of mind control in Victorian society, countless practitioners of the ignoble art followed in the Wizard from Viennas footsteps. Particularly noteworthy in this regard were the Marquis de Puysegur, who eschewed elaborate hand movements when inducing the mesmeric trance and effected cures without cathartic convulsions; John Elliottson, who promoted mesmerism in England by means of a dedicated periodical, The Zoist, only to be forced out of his professorship at University College Hospital; James Esailade, who mesmerised elephantiasis sufferers in imperial India and then performed eye-watering operations on their unanaesthetised scrota; James Braid, who not only coined the term hypnotism but also abandoned Mesmers physical explanation of the patients soporic state for a psychological one; and Jean Martin Charcourt, who specialised in the treatment of hysteria, that peculiarly Victorian condition, and one of whose students, Sigmund Freud, went on to greater things (Miller, 1995). The apotheosis of nineteenth century mind control, however, was the so-called Trilby phenomenon (Purcell, 1977). In 1894, George Du Maurier, a cartoonist and illustrator for Punch magazine, dashed off the notorious novel. To his own (and his publishers) immense surprise it instantly became an enormous bestseller, not only in Great Britain and the USA, but throughout the civilised world[6]. It raced through numerous reprints (seven in the rst year alone), was quickly adapted for stage and screen (at one point 24 separate companies were touring the show) and, although exact

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sales gures are hard to ascertain (due to pirated editions and lax copyright protection), Du Mauriers pot-boiler is widely considered to be the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century and (thanks to the rise of circulating libraries) by far the most widely read (Pick, 2000). Trilby tells the tale of three British bohemians in 1850s Paris, who are entranced by an Irish artists model, Trilby OFerrall. Despite her decidedly racy background scandalously, she poses in the altogether one of the British bohemians, Little Billie, falls madly in love with the saucy minx and wishes to make an honest woman out of her. But as Ms OFerrall is an eminently unsuitable match for the upper-middle class man about town, she is persuaded to do the decent thing by his understandably chagrined relatives. The tart with a heart of gold nobly spurns Little Billies love-struck advances, much to her unsuitable suitors heart-wrenching regret. So far, so melodramatic. However, the real twist in the tale the twist that turned Trilby into a masterpiece of manipul-lit transpires on Trilby OFerralls reappearance. Endowed with a singularly sonorous voice, if unable to carry a tune, Trilby re-emerges as La Svengali, an operatic diva whose astonishing musical prowess is the talk of Western Europe. Her nightingale-like trills hold spellbound listeners in thrall, albeit Trilby herself is under the spell of Svengali, a malevolent mesmerist, whose hypnotic powers of persuasion are the source of the sopranos unearthly talent. Standing at the side of the stage, Svengali coaxes High Cs out of his melodious creation, until the dreadful day when he dies unexpectedly! Trilby immediately loses her operatic ability, performs disastrously during her grand London debut and, her stellar reputation in utter ruins, duly expires from nervous prostration. Her last words, naturally, are Svengali . . . Svengali . . . Svengali (Du Maurier, 1994, p. 261). -ridden story seems at this remove in time, it is Laughable though the cliche impossible to overstate Trilbys impact on the late-Victorian psyche (Pick, 1994). Just as the ctional heroine mesmerised her rapt audiences, so too Du Mauriers mega-selling novel hypnotised western society. It was the Harry Potter of its day[7]. Apart from the stupendous sales of the book itself and its massively successful theatrical adaptations, the world went wild for Trilbyana. Countless newspaper and magazine articles were written about Trilby and its self-effacing author. Copy-cat novels and egregious parodies soon appeared. A mind-boggling array of tie-in merchandise hats, shoes, sweets, sausages, soaps, toothpastes, brooches, hearth-brushes, kitchen implements, ice-cream sundaes, to name but a few were sold by make-a-quick-buck marketers. There were public performances of the music mentioned in the novel; Trilby waltzes and Svengali marches were written and performed; numerous stage magicians adopted the Svengali moniker and captivated audiences with their demonstrations of Mesmerism. Earnest academics held colloquia to debate the themes in Du Mauriers page-turner. Learned medical journals praised him for capturing the essence of the hypnotic trance. The virtue of the heroine was she molested by her Machiavellian manipulator? was much debated in salons and at soirees the world over. Preachers ponticated from their pulpits on the moral lessons of the immoral novel and the hellish consequences for its protagonist. A new town in Florida named itself after the tragic heroine (its attractions included Svengali Square and Little Billee Lake). The original manuscript was placed on public display by the London Fine Arts Society, where crowds queued round the block to see the holy artefact in its locked glass case. The author, furthermore, was inundated with fan mail, he was accused of

plagiarism, he was sued by litigious artists who recognised unattering portraits of themselves and, according to his friend Henry James, he was harried to an early grave by the outcry that accompanied his bestseller. Du Maurier died less than two years after publication (Lodge, 2004). Trilbyana did not expire with its creator, though. To the contrary, Du Mauriers untimely end merely added to his allure, as is often the case in the cultural industries. Trilby hats continue to slip in and out of fashion they are very much in at present, thanks to Justin Timberlake, Pete Doherty and Daniel Day-Lewis among others and the story is constantly retold in various cinematic and theatrical forms[8]. More signicantly from a marketing perspective, the notion of a malign, manipulative, Svengali-like gure is deeply entrenched in our collective unconscious (Pick, 2000). Whether it be pop music (Elviss Colonel Parker, Led Zeppelins Peter Grant, Spice Girls Simon Fuller, Pop Idols Simon Cowell) or politics (Tony Blairs Peter Mandelson, George W. Bushs Karl Rove, Adolf Hitlers Joseph Goebbels) or indeed the oaken boardrooms of big business (charismatic CEOs like Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Conrad Black, Martha Stewart, who hold whole companies spellbound) the concept of a commanding, conniving, coercive controller is a stock gure of our time (Booker, 2004). The hidden ipersuaders As the Mesmer scandal and Trilby episode artfully illustrate, we have long been in thrall to the idea that we are in thrall to a powerful other[9]. And nowhere is this belief in an alien enchanter better illustrated than in the Coke/popcorn panic of the late 1950s, when marketing was elevated to the role of manipulator-in-chief. In this regard, it is noteworthy that when the second edition of The Hidden Persuaders was published in the early 1980s, Vance Packard admitted his books success was almost entirely due to the associated subliminals scare. Intriguingly, kooky though the bulk of the book proved to be, it was his scary description of sub-threshold effects supplied by a particularly engaging informant, one James Vicary! that lit the blue touch paper of bestsellerdom. Better yet, if somewhat ironically, the great subliminals scare did wonders for the advertising industry. Demand for motivation research soared in the aftermath of Packards polemic (Hine, 1999). Ernest Dichter, no less, wrote to the outspoken author had stimulated. thanking him for the additional business his shock-horror expose A bemused sociology professor reported that whereas 10 per cent of his class were horried by Packards revelations, 60 per cent planned to pursue a career in subliminal advertising (Horowitz, 1994). Indeed, it is arguable that Packards attack did more to spread the idea that marketing was an all-powerful persuader the be-all-and-end-all of business than any number of contemporary studies on the benets of customer-centricity (Keith, 1960; Levitt, 1960a; McKitterick, 1957). He endowed marketers with superhuman powers, powers that marketers did not actually possess but were prepared to pretend they did, especially when it came to selling services to impressionable clients. The idea of subliminal advertising, then, quickly entered the pantheon of post-war conspiracy theory (McConnachie and Tudge, 2005). Alongside the inexplicable assassination of JFK, the suspicious death of Marilyn Monroe, the manifest fakery of the American moon landings, the Roswell Incident, the Philadelphia experiment, the Gemstone le, the Trilateral Commission and countless other outpourings of the

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conspiracy-industrial-complex, subliminal persuasion was as much part of the 1960s counterculture as long hair, ared jeans, hippie beads, hallucinogenic drugs, tie-dye T-shirts and open air rock festivals, man (Thompson, 2008). Whats more, just as hippie chic comes back into fashion every decade or so, too subliminal advertising rears its hideous head on a regular basis (Moore, 1982, 1992). In the 1970s, for example, a Canadian marketing academic called Wilson Bryan Key noticed that the word S-E-X was secretly embedded in magazine ads for Gilbeys Gin. He also spotted penises sprouting on packs of Camel cigarettes, to say nothing of naked breasts, heaving buttocks and unnatural acts involving donkeys in Howard Johnsons restaurant menus. As if that were not enough to be getting along with, he further informed his aghast/agog public that an unspeakably erogenous expression appeared no less than twelve times on every single Ritz cracker. Crackers, clearly, was a word widely used in connection with key, though that did not stop him writing four books on subliminal seduction, all of them huge bestsellers (Key, 1973, 1977, 1981, 1989). Nor did it stop the subliminal debate re-emerging in the 1980s, albeit this time in the form of self-help tapes, which contain sub-audible messages designed to assist listeners attempts to lose weight, stop smoking, increase condence, improve memory and more besides. Yet despite substantial scientic evidence that tapes do not work, the market quickly grew to an estimated $50 million per year (Pratkanis, 1992). Whether these self-help sales were boosted by associated subliminal advertising Do not drink Coke! Do not eat popcorn! we will probably never know. What we do know is that, the 1990s saw another iteration of the subliminals controversy, this time courtesy of Judas Priest (Streatfeild, 2006). When two Nevada teenagers committed suicide after listening to the bands brand of heavy metal, it was alleged that one of the tracks on their album stained class contained the hidden message, Do It. This was what tipped the drink- and drug-fuelled youngsters over the edge. A much-publicised court case ensued and, with the assistance or numerous expert witnesses (key included), the testimony covered everything from Vicarys popcorn experiments to the rumours that leading rock bands slip scary satanic messages onto their best-selling albums. After several weeks of televised courtroom confrontation, during which key confessed to seeing sexually explicit subliminals on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, between the pages of sears mail order catalogue (and many more beside), Judge Whitehead ruled that subliminal persuasion, if not quite a crock, was pretty close to a crock. Whiteheads ruling did not make a blind bit of difference, however. As with ofcial condemnation of Mesmer, Du Maurier and Vicarys popcorn palaver, the more a practice is condemned by the establishment, the more popular it becomes. Thus, the backmasking controversy is still alive and well in the rap music community, where leading recording artistes stand accused of including subliminal allusions to upscale brands and advertising slogans. Subliminal self-help tapes are still going strong, though these days it is CDs and digital downloads and computer programmes that zap mouse potatoes as they surf and scarf. Shock-horror books are still being published on seductive subliminal advertising campaigns and real-world controversies erupt on a regular basis (as when the word RATS was ashed during a Republican Party ad for George W. Bush).

The current decade, what is more, is witnessing a worrying twist in the inexorable subliminals spiral (Taylor, 2004). Not only is the scientic evidence nally catching up with cultural conviction albeit the success of subliminal priming falls far short of out-and-out persuasion (Bargh, 2002, 2007) but a whole new cybliminal strain has also come to the fore. As everyone knows and fears, the world wide web is full of endish phishers, who are conspiring to steal our identities, buy luxury goods at our behest, visit pornographic XXX-rated web sites while, we sleep and run up massive credit cards bills which hang round our innocent necks like virtual albatrosses. The subliminal advertisers of the 1950s may have persuaded consumers to buy what they did not want, but at least the unwitting customers got to keep the merchandise. Nowadays we end up paying for stuff and suffer the collateral credit-rating consequences without so much as a glance at the goodies. Our computers, likewise, are no longer under our personal control, thanks to sneaky trojans like the Storm virus that are linked to collective spam farms in the Caucasus or wherever. It would not be too long surely before television programming in second life is interrupted by subliminal ads and a bonkers academic sees S-E-X embedded on Linden dollars, billboards, Ritz crackers, et cetera. Do avatars dream of cybernetic sheep? Subliminal schlbiminal Cybliminal persuasion may or may not represent the next big outbreak of alien enchanter panic much depends on whether governments continue to treat unencrypted personal data in a cavalier manner but it is fair to infer that something similar will appear on the mesmeric marketing horizon. The archetypal idea of an evil wizard, someone who possesses superhuman powers and persuades people do what they otherwise would not, is very deeply engrained in the collective unconscious (Pick, 2000). It nds expression in innumerable narrative forms from Satan and Shylock to Svengali and Osama bin Laden (not forgetting Sauron, Steerpike, Snape, the Sith, to say nothing of the superego-shackled Freudian id). In archetypal terms, subliminal persuasion is the commercial equivalent of Saddam, Stalin and similar Big Brothers. And it follows that no matter how many studies prove subliminal advertising does not work, or is a fairly minor inuence on consumer behaviour, the belief in subliminals, or something very similar, is never going to go away. Scientic refutations only serve to fuel the ames, in fact, because the results simply serve to bring the topic to the publics attention once again and are subject to classic conspiratorial counter-argument, they would say that, wouldnt they? Perhaps, it is time to admit that subliminal advertising does work. It may not work in a strictly scientic sense, as the CBC experiment showed 50 years ago and countless carefully conducted experiments have shown since (Broyles, 2006)[10]. Nevertheless, it works in a cultural sense. Popular culture is replete with references to subliminal persuasion, whether it be the X-Files or The Simpsons or Fight Club or, heaven preserve us, Josie and the Pussycats (Archer, 2000). Retail stores reputedly employ subaudible messages to deter shoplifters (presumably pet shops do something similar with dog whistles) and state penitentiaries in America allegedly use them to quell criminal impulses (and no doubt to discourage breakouts, escape tunnel construction and riots in Cell Block No, 9). Studies have shown that more than

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80 per cent of the US population is aware of subliminal advertising and 68 per cent believe it is employed by the necromancers of Madison Avenue (Bargh, 2002; Broyles, 2006; Twitchell, 1996). Marketers routinely exploit this customer conviction through tongue-in-cheek references to subliminal persuasion. Less than nine months after the original subliminal scare, Butternut coffee was spoong the effect on American television. In the 1990s, Seagram ran a series of award-winning ads with S-E-X impregnated ice cubes and similar hidden pleasures. No so long ago, sprite was parodying the hidden persuaders patter in its Sublymonal Advertising campaign (lymon being a neologistic combination of lime and lemon). Indeed, ads about subliminal advertising are particularly effective because they atter the audience and co-opt their seen-it-all, cannot-fool-me cynicism. They say, in effect, we know you are marketing savvy, we know you are cool and smart and hip and stylish, we know you are not the kind of person who did succumb to subliminals, even if they did exist. And so are we. Now buy our product, please! They are, in many respects, the epitome of post-modern marketing insofar as they og the uff of marketers naval-gazing (Brown, 1995). They also and this is arguably the most important point about the controversy since Close-up encouraged Canadian consumers to call illustrate the existential dilemma at the heart of marketing. The vast majority of marketing educators, researchers, executives, spokespersons, thought-leaders and what have you continue to see the subject in scientic or proto-scientic terms (Svensson and Wood, 2006). The reality, however, is that marketing is not a science and never will be. What it really is a massive and enormously inuential cultural formation, akin to the music business or the lm industry. It should be viewed, interpreted, understood and written about in rling, 2005). Marketing scientists cultural terms (Holt, 2003; Schroeder and Salzer-Mo can pooh-pooh subliminal persuasion till the cows come home humming Im lovin it, but the cultural proof is unassailable. Subliminal persuasion is just the tip of the cultural iceberg, furthermore. Many of todays anti-capitalist protesters maintain that marketing is an alien enchanter, full stop. Marketers, they believe, employ their nefarious wiles (subliminal embeds included) to foist sugary snacks on innocent children, induce body-image anxiety among impressionable adolescents and encourage shopaholic, binge-drinking, junk food-lled adults to buy unnecessary brand name goods (Zuboff and Maxmin, 2003). Marketers, they contend, are malevolent wizards who possess special powers, are quite prepared to use them and, despite the caring-sharing fac ade, remain utterly ruthless in their pursuit of prots (Mark and Pearson, 2001). Marketers, they maintain, enchant, enthral, tempt and torture their victims with alluring images of the good life, thereby encouraging consumers to sell their souls to the devil (or acquire a Satanic plastic card, at least). Professional marketers, naturally, beg to differ. Marketing, we counter, is customer focussed, caring-sharing, socially responsible, environmentally friendly, bound by draconian codes of conduct, etc. Yet however much we protest our innocence it is almost impossible to escape marketings allotted archetypal niche. Half a century on from the subliminal scare of 1957-1958, marketing still stands accused of egregiously manipulative behaviour. Despite overwhelming proof that subliminal advertising does not work, the belief that marketers possess secret weapons of mass persuasion is irrevocably embedded in consumer consciousness. Marketing, for many people,

is a modern day mesmerist, akin to the eponymous eighteenth century physician and the ctional yet deeply inuential Svengali gure of the nineteenth. Marketing is the Mesmer of materialism, the Svengali of shopping addiction, the Simon Cowell of consumer society. That being the case, perhaps it is also time to admit that marketing is not just the mesmerizer it is the mesmerized as well. Just as Svengali was enthralled by the crystal-voiced creature he had created, and just as Mesmer was obsessed with obtaining ofcial recognition for his therapeutic system, so too marketing is captivated by the idea of customer centricity, it is in thrall to the rigorous requirements of proper science, it is mesmerised by the notion that marketing is A good thing (a view that, to put it charitably, is not shared by society as a whole). About 50 years on from the great subliminal scare, maybe it is time to snap out of our scientistic trance. Maybe it is time to accept that marketing scholarship is suffering from a severe case of autosuggestion, self-hypnosis, intellectual somnambulism. Maybe it is time to break the spell of Ted Levitts subliminals-precipitated marketing concept. Maybe it is time to accept that marketing is not actually about myopia, it is about mesmerization.

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Notes 1. In early 1958, a student from Hofsra University checked out Vicarys story (Rogers, 1992/1993). The owner of the New Jersey cinema where the alleged experiments took place knew nothing whatsoever about them and indeed the auditorium was simply too small to provide the 45,000-plus sample size that Vicary claimed. Vicary also claimed to have a patent pending on the mechanical device that projected the subliminal messages hence his reluctance to reveal the nitty-gritty details of his exhaustive research but searches of the patent ofce archives reveal no such application (Streatfeild, 2006). The curious thing about the whole kafufe, the thing that no one noticed, is that the subliminals-salted movie was called Picnic. And, yes, its central scene comprised a slap-up, al fresco eating and drinking occasion! Perhaps, the uplift in Coke and popcorn sales had more to do with the actual movie than the alleged embeds. 2. Lest there is any confusion, it must be stressed that the phenomenon of unconscious processing had long been recognised by cognitive scientists (LeDoux, 1996; Oatley and Jenkins, 1996). What is more, some very interesting research on subliminal priming is currently in train (Bargh, 2002, 2007). There are big differences, nevertheless, between processing, priming and persuasion. 3. As epitomised by the inter-war critic Benjamin (1973), cultural research methods often focus on the unique, the idiographic, the individual incident or artwork that illuminates the whole. This is, in many ways, a reformulation of the old, pre-scientic idea that the part contains the whole, that the universal is in the particular and vice-versa. Such ideas are a commonplace in business and management case studies, for example though they are rarely celebrated outside the interpretive research paradigm (Holbrook, 1995). 4. A particularly important precursor was Valentine Greatrakes (1628-1683), an Irish faith healer who cured by the laying on of hands. 5. Nothing if not public-spirited, Mesmer also magnetised several nearby trees so that the indigent could grab one of many dangling ropes and get their magnetic inux for free, albeit en plein air. Indeed, an enraptured acionado of the great mans system suggested that, the headwaters of the Seine be magnetised at source, thereby ensuring that the entire Pays de France beneted from Mesmers remarkable medical breakthrough!

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6. Trilby, incidentally, was the very rst novel to top the very rst bestsellers list, published by The Bookman in February 1895 (Purcell, 1977). 7. A rerun in many respects of Trilby-mania, even down to the alien enchanter gure, Lord Voldemort, the Harry Potter books are by far the biggest sellers of our time. They have a mesmeric hold on the reading public, as the pandemonium on publication day bears witness. They have been turned into monster hit movies (and computer games, theme parks, soundtrack albums, etc). They have incited court cases, plagiarism suits, innumerable magazine articles and television programmes, hellre and brimstone sermons and a mound of tie-in merchandise, everything from candy wands to whooshing broomsticks. Countless cash-in, copy-cat and para-parody publications have appeared and the author has been plagued by rabid fans and paparazzi alike. Earnest academics organise colloquia on the reception and mythopoetics of the bedazzling boy wizard. Perhaps, the most striking parallel between the two is that Harry Potter, like its Victorian forebear, is self-reexive, insofar as it anticipates its own reception. Just as the hypnotised singer had a mesmeric hold on her audiences, so too Harry Potter presupposes Harry Potters enormous popularity. The very rst page of the very rst book states that Harry is a world-famous wizard, which is exactly what he turned out to be. 8. For example, The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux (serialised in Le Gaulois, 1909-1910) was directly inspired by Du Mauriers original. 9. Most notably the little devil thats supposed to sit on our shoulder, urging us to overeat, overindulge and generally succumb to temptation. Meanwhile, the cherubic angel that is our conscience squats on the other shoulder, begging us to resist, to refrain, to reconsider, usually unsuccessfully. 10. In this regard, consider David Lettermans celebrated talk-show confession, I dont believe in subliminal advertising. Then again, I went shopping yesterday and bought a combine harvester! References Archer, B. (2000), Blink and youll miss it, The Guardian, 4 February, p. 13. Bargh, J.A. (2002), Losing consciousness: automatic inuences on consumer judgment, behavior, and motivation, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 29, pp. 280-5. Bargh, J.A. (2007), Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Mental Processes, Psychology Press, New York, NY. Benjamin, W. (1973), Illuminations, Fontana, London. Boese, A. (2002), The Museum of Hoaxes, Orion, London. Booker, C. (2004), The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, Continuum, London. Brown, S. (1995), Postmodern Marketing, Routledge, London. ` la Rimbaud: illuminating the marketing imaginary, in Brown, S. Brown, S. (1998), Tore down a et al. (Eds), Romancing the Market, Routledge, London, pp. 22-40. Brown, S. (2001), Marketing The Retro Revolution, Sage, London. Brown, S. (2008), Fail Better! Stumbling to Success in Sales & Marketing, Cyan, London. Broyles, S.J. (2006), Subliminal advertising and the perpetual popularity of playing to peoples paranoia, Journal of Consumer Affairs, Vol. 40 No. 2, pp. 392-406. Burnett, T. (2005), Conspiracy Encyclopedia: The Encyclopedia of Conspiracy Theories, Collins & Brown, London. Cooper, J. and Cooper, G. (2002), Subliminal motivation: a story revisited, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Vol. 32 No. 11, pp. 2213-27.

De Graaf, J., Wann, D. and Naylor, T.H. (2005), Afuenza: The All-consuming Epidemic, Berrett-Koehler, San Francisco, CA. Du Maurier, G. (1994), Trilby, Penguin Classics, London. Forrest, D. (1999), The Evolution of Hypnotism, Black Ace Books, Forfar. Friedman, W.A. (2004), Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America, Harvard University Press, Cambridge. Gould, S.J. (1991), The chain of reason versus the chain of thumbs, in Gould, S.J. (Ed.), Bully for Brontosaurus: Reections in Natural History, Hutchinson, London, pp. 182-97. Halberstam, D. (1993), The Fifties, Ballentine Books, New York, NY. Hine, T. (1999), Populuxe: From Tailns and TV Dinners to Barbie Dolls and Fallout Shelters, MJF Books, New York, NY. Holbrook, M.B. (1995), Consumer Research: Introspective Essays on the Study of Consumption, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA. Holt, D.B. (2003), What becomes an icon most?, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 81 No. 3, pp. 43-9. Horowitz, D. (1994), Vance Packard and American Social Criticism, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC. James, O. (2007), Afuenza: How to be Successful and Stay Sane, Vermilion, London. Keith, R.J. (1960), The marketing revolution, Journal of Marketing, Vol. 24, pp. 35-8. Key, W.B. (1973), Subliminal Seduction: Ad Medias Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America, Signet, New York, NY. Key, W.B. (1977), Media Sexploitation, Signet, New York, NY. Key, W.B. (1981), The Clam-Plate Orgy and Other Subliminal Techniques for Manipulating Your Behavior, Signet, New York, NY. Key, W.B. (1989), The Age of Manipulation: The Con in Condence, the Sin in Sincere, Madison Books, Lanham, MD. Klein, N. (2000), No-Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, HarperCollins, London. Lasn, K. (1999), Culture Jam: How to Reverse Americas Suicidal Consumer Binge And Why We Must, Quill, New York, NY. LeDoux, J. (1996), The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, Touchstone, New York, NY. Levitt, T. (1960a), Marketing myopia, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 38 No. 4, pp. 45-56. Levitt, T. (1960b), M-R snake dance, Harvard Business Review, Vol. 38 No. 6, pp. 76-84. Lodge, D. (2004), Author, Author: A Novel, Secker & Warburg, London. McConnachie, J. and Tudge, R. (2005), The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories, Rough Guides, London. McKitterick, J.B. (1957), What is the marketing management concept?, in Bass, F.M. (Ed.), The Frontiers of Marketing Thought and Science, American Marketing Association, Chicago, IL, pp. 71-82. Mark, M. and Pearson, C.S. (2001), The Hero and the Outlaw: Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY. Meyer, D. (1980), The Positive Thinkers: Religion as Pop Psychology from Mary Baker Eddy to Oral Roberts, Pantheon, New York, NY. Miller, J. (1995), Going unconcious, in Silvers, R.B. (Ed.), Hidden Histories of Science, Granta, London, pp. 1-35.

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Further reading Galbraith, J.K. (1958), The Afuent Society, Penguin, Harmondsworth. About the author Stephen Brown is a best known for Postmodern Marketing, he has written numerous books including Fail Better, Free Gift Inside, Writing Marketing and Wizard: Harry Potters Brand Magic. He is a Professor of Marketing Research at the University of Ulster, his papers have been published in the Harvard Business Review, Journal of Marketing, Journal of Consumer Research, and many more. Further details are available from his web site: www.sfxbrown.com. Stephen Brown can be contacted at: sfx.brown@ulster.ac.uk

Mesmerizing marketing


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