Deceptive and Subliminal Advertising in Corporate America: Value Adder or Value Destroyer?
Mujtaba, Bahaudin, Jue, Arthur L., Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship
A frequently under-scrutinized area of ethical practice in organizations, deceptive and subliminal advertising has served as a method by some firms to convey messages intended to persuade and influence consumer behavior. With the increasing focus on ethical lapses in corporate America, such advertising is explored within this discussion as a potential psychological and behavioral socialization method that has been perceived widely by consumers and advertisers as efficacious and potentially detrimental in its effects. The results of a qualitative survey, on the topic of subliminal advertising, with 65 participants are discussed and summarized. Recommendations are provided for enhancing corresponding public awareness through the development of robust methods of ethical evaluation. A framework grounded in values theory and spirit-centered leadership is offered to assess controversial or subliminal advertising and its role in social value maximization.
Unethical Business and Advertising
Corporate America has become increasingly criticized for perceptions of unethical practices and intentions. Recent high-profile cases of exploitative corporate brutalism (Morgan, 1998) are well-documented in the popular press. For example, companies such as WorldCom, Enron, and Arthur Andersen (among others) have been portrayed as breaking trust with public faith (Ampofo, Mujtaba, Cavico, and Tindall, 2004) through deceptive practices and unsavory agendas that compromised the espoused values they had communicated to investors, employees, customers, regulators, and other stakeholders (Pohlman, 2004). Pohlman stated that all too often, managers and employees are pressured to improve the bottom line in the short term at all costs; and this can result in situations where the lack of focus on long-term value creation generates difficulties for the organization as observed with Enron and other firms in the last five years. In efforts to pursue more profit, boost stock performance, or enhance competitiveness, these firms engaged in either obscuring the facts, intentionally reporting inaccurate fmancials, and Grafting messages intended to manipulate public perceptions of reality (Kroeker & Losi, 2002; Wessel, 2003).
Unethical orientations such as these have generally received widespread public attention after the discovery or disclosure of potentially illegal actions. For instance, WorldCom's demise occurred in response to the revelation of over nearly $4 billion of reclassified assets intended to increase its stock valuations (Wessel, 2003). Adelphia was accused of carrying more than $2.3 billion in off-balance-sheet debt (securities and Exchange Commission, 2002). During the Enron fiasco, investors lost more than $60 billion (Baron, 2002). Ironically, prior to becoming indicted for obstructing justice, Arthur Andersen had sponsored studies that link ethical behavior and rewarding integrity with high performance cultures and long-term competitiveness (Business for Social Responsibility, 2004; Toffler, 2003). Corporate fraud examiner and CPA, Patrice Viton (2003), observed that financial misrepresentation on balance sheets and income statements has reached epic levels with frequent abuses occurring in revenue recognition practices, provisions for uncertainty in future costs, asset valuations, and related-party transactions.
Yet, besides evidences of dubious financial and legal abuses (Ampofo et al, 2004), another unethical but arguably more subtle and less publicly denounced practice may involve the use of deceptive and subliminal advertising. Advertising is typically characterized as the communication of messages about products, brands, or services targeted at audiences for the purpose of informing, persuading, and/or reminding (Kotler & Armstrong, 1990). Effective ads increase loyalty, create name recognition, and generate sustained, repeated sales for savvy enterprises. Implemented via long-term promotional plans, they target well-defined populations with specific goals linked to a firm's strategy through sound market analysis and carefully crafted positioning statements (Mujtaba & Douglass, 2003). Successful advertising plans pinpoint desired market segments, highlight appropriate features and benefits, specify value offered, articulate delivery media, provide for sufficient budgets, and clearly outline responsibilities for plan execution. Yet, advertising plans can also mask subversive intentions. Many deceptive campaigns have been accused of tacitly or explicitly undermining the public welfare and ignore ethical mandates for more social responsibility (Bullock, 2004).
The American Marketing Association (AMA) has striven to curb such unethical advertising via its code of ethics, specifying that marketers must avoid knowingly doing harm (AMA, 2004). It espouses values of honesty, fairness, responsibility, respect, openness, and citizenship, calling for "marketing communications about goods and services [that] are not intentionally deceptive or misleading" (pp 3). According to the AMA, products must perform as advertised and advertisements must (1) avoid dehumanizing content, (2) represent intentions transparently, and (3) exhibit societal-consciousness. Punitive measures for code infractions include membership suspension or termination. The FTC, FCC, and ATF have enacted similar regulations against some forms of subliminal advertising (Bullock, 2004). Although these goals are commendable, codes and creeds have often proven inadequate or ambiguous in resolving the practical, day-to-day realities of deciding between competing options, creating wide latitude for the justification of situational ethics and plausible deniability (Badaracco, 1997). Suspending or revoking membership may present a valid deterrent for association members but do little to deter non-members.
While accounting fraud or other legal abuses have captured potentially greater coverage in the popular press, they are often complemented by supporting undercurrents of manipulative, deceptive, or subliminal advertising (Bullock, 2004). Widely accepted disinformation has created systems of groupthink that distort perceptions: "Prior to its collapse, for example, investors in... Enron may not have been entirely receptive to cues that contradicted their belief that the firm was well managed" (pp. 168-169). Although deceptive advertising has proven difficult to recognize and challenging to mitigate, this discussion explores its potential long-term effects as a value adder or destroyer in corporations, nations, and society at large by (1) reviewing the nature and efficacy of deceptive or subliminal advertising, (2) highlighting perceptions of its influence among working adults and graduate students, and (3) introducing other associated dilemmas and relevant current issues. Recommendations are provided to assist both practitioners and consumers in identifying and addressing the ethics of such advertising in the development or implementation of promotional plans and the gestalt consumption of advertising content.
Deceptive Advertising in Retail and e-Commerce
Deceptive advertising has long been problematic in the retailing industry. For example, the FDA constantly struggles with difficulties in effectively policing and curtailing false advertising of nutritional supplements and health foods, which have been promoted as miracle cures to heal or prevent serious ailments (Barrett, 2003; Jones, 2004; Kotler & Armstrong, 1990). Notwithstanding regulatory proactivity, methods of circumventing FDA guidelines continue to abound through the careful design of marketing plans and strategies (Jones, 2004; Taylor, 2004). Deceptive advertising in product pricing reflects a similar challenge in retailing, which received the focus of numerous legislative efforts. For instance, the Truth hi Lending Act was enacted to ensure full disclosure of pricing with respect to advertised retail financial services such as consumer credit offerings (Smart Text Corporation, 2004). The ultimate marketing objective of most retailers, however, is to offer consumers the highest possible value consistent with basic assumptions underlying economic price elasticity of demand (Kotler & Armstrong, 1990, Kotler, 1997). The generic hypothetical advertisement in Figure 1 illustrates one such case where a message intended to enhance perceived value is communicated to consumers via a statement of significant discounts of up to 50%:
While exercising caveat emptor, the average consumer would probably trust that the retailer sponsoring this advertisement is representing in good faith a less-than-normal price for the merchandise under consideration. Yet, the innocent looking advertisement could actually become deceptive on a number of fronts, particularly if no time limit exists for the clearance sale. New York's attorney general recently accused a clothing retailer of just such a ploy: "The company promoted sales at least 22 times, leaving few days when there wasn't a sale... .Customers who rushed to a 'final sale' might have ended up paying more than those who shopped after the deadline" (Walker, 2003, p. ID), hi this case, civil and other monetary penalties ensued for the clothing retailer, but some observers attempted to justify the practice as ethical by appealing to argumentent ad numerum, or argument by numbers (Walker, 2003), a fallacious assumption that the clothing retailer's actions were justified because every one else does the same thing (Whitman, 2001). In the end, the clothing retailer's utilitarian ethics (Hosmer, 1996) led to the misrepresentation of value through its advertising, which eventually became an equifinal (Bertalanffy, 1968/1988) value detractor for both the firm itself and consumers on multiple legal and socio-economic dimensions.
In addition to traditional forms of controversial retail advertising, a plethora of new uses for such marketing tactics have also emerged with the advent of e-Commerce and the Internet. The FTC determined that approximately 14% of fraudulent marketing offers now occur through Internet and email advertising (CBA Reports, 2004). Mimicking conventional forms of deceptive and fraudulent direct mail, Nigerian Gang email solicitations have perpetuated fraud by offering targeted recipients large sums of money in exchange for assistance with smuggling currency out of typically third-world countries such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, or South Africa (Wearden, 2002). Internet spam advertising has contributed to a dramatic rise in identity theft, the top consumer fraud complaint in the United States (California Credit Union league, 2004). Almost 50% of email on the Internet is considered spam (Kissell, Engst, & Seff, 2004), and one of every eight consumers has been victimized by identity theft (California Credit Union League, 2004). Cyberpiracy has also enabled some firms to deceptively advertise products under the guise of another company's more recognized brand name or trademark (Jordan, 2004). Besides FTC and other legislative efforts to mitigate value-destroying effects of deceptive online tactics, individual e-commerce firms are beginning to assume more proactive roles in policing abuses by peer companies (Bishop, 2004).
Yet another potentially deceptive online advertising technique that is increasingly abused involves anchoring, providing consumers with reference prices that create external value benchmarks which subsequently influence consumer search or purchase decisions (Biswas, Pullig, Krishnan, & Burton, 1999). Internet advertisements, for instance, use price comparisons such as Retail value $10, Our price $5 to create semantic cues intended to influence consumer perceptions of value. Although section 233 of the FTC guidelines specify that such assertions may ensue only after a significant number of comparable goods have been sold at retail prices in the marketplace, "few fictitious price cases have been initiated by the FTC in recent years" (Calfe as cited by Biswas et al., 1999, p. 5) due to difficulties of interpretation and verification. Through additional research in this area, Biswas et al. (1999) determined that even when presented with implausible and exaggerated reference prices, consumer search behaviors become significantly diminished via anchoring. The internal assignment of value is pliable regardless of whether a reference price appears believable or not. These and other findings create tremendous ethical implications for policy makers and corporations seeking to advertise responsibly in a value-added online manner.
Subliminal Advertising: Ontology, Efficacy, and Axiology
An ongoing arena of controversial marketing also includes the use of subliminal advertising. Subliminal advertising involves communication methods that tend to target subconscious processes within consumers that could result in implicit versus explicit learning via subtle perceptions of sight, sound, and even smell (Soat, 2001; Kotler & Armstrong, 1990; Knight, 2004). Cases have been argued that through appeals to Freudian, Pavlovian, and Gestalt psychology advertisers subliminally exploit this unconscious awareness for devious purposes: "By producing fear we can alter people's behavior. When caught in fear, we regress step by step to ever more infantile and animalistic drives" (Dichter as cited by Bullock, 2004, p. 15). Methods of targeting unconscious perceptions typically associated with subliminal advertising include fleeting images (flash frames in movies), figure-ground illusions, embedded illusions, faint double exposures, ambiguous text or images, double-entendre, and incidental or insignificant data in print and other visual advertising (Bullock, 2004). Benady (2003) and others (Kotler & Armstrong, 1990) have suggested that almost all advertising can become subliminal in nature, defining the term and methods more broadly as including rapid-fire image techniques (rapid scene changes), pulsating sounds, minimalist (repetitive) music, and hypnotic flashing logos. In Japan, a new device has even been developed called an air canon that can deliver subtle smells and aromas to specific consumers walking through a department store, which are then unconsciously processed by the perceiver, while leaving others nearby unaffected (Davidson & Matovic, 2004; Knight, 2004).
The image in Figure 2 represents one figure-ground example first created in the 1970's by illustrator, Nelson Carrick, on behalf of subliminal researcher, August Bullock (2004), which has been subsequently published in his work, The Secret Sales Pitch. At first glance, based on a number of experiments by the authors with over 230 participants in the United States, over 91% of most casual observers perceive the graphic as consisting of four simple, artistically conceived flowers or plants in an outdoor setting with accompanying insects, bees, birds, etc. Some viewers tend to associate the flowers with a romantic relationship between the plants, as the plants seem to be facing as well as touching each other. However, upon further reflection, additional hidden messages may also become readily discernable.
According to Bullock (Personal Communication and Interview on October 23rd 2004 by the authors), this figure-ground illustration demonstrates how an individual consumer's cognitive perceptual filter operates through adherence with Gestalt principles that subsequently facilitate a form of subliminal suggestion. Gestalt simply refers to perceiving "whole objects as opposed to separate parte of objects [sic]" (p. 27). Essentially, everything in the image is unconsciously perceived holistically, including the hidden message contained within the image. Coupled with context (perceiver's past experience, current environment, personal attitudes, etc.), certain information in the picture becomes initially filtered or suppressed from consciousness, while other parts are acknowledged in autonomic sense-making or the conscious processes of meaning creation.
In the case of the figure-ground subliminal suggestion examined here, a person's cognitive filter "decides what the figure is, and suppresses the ground' (Bullock, 2004, p.27). If the perceiver were to focus attention, instead, on examining the background of the image, or the space between each of the flowers, an outline of the three-letter word SEX might then become visible, as explicitly highlighted in Figure 3 (see the appendix for this figure). Without seeing the highlighted picture in Figure 3, it often takes more than 30 seconds for about 50% of the participants to actually see the three letters once they have been told to look for it. In the actual sessions with managers who see this picture for the first time, some participants need more specific direction to consciously see it while others are soon able to pick the word SEX from the picture on their own. The subliminal content within this message (Figure 2) is intended to reinforce the romantic and sensual innuendos explicitly visible in the initial image, such as the birds and the bees. As previously mentioned, this illustration highlights just one of several subliminal techniques. Closely related approaches could involve imbedding words or secondary images within a primary image perhaps coupled with words and phrases containing double-meanings or seemingly insignificant content in the image's periphery. Regardless of form or manifestation, a vehement debate has subsequently ensued regarding the nature and utility of subliminal advertising relative to at least three key areas: (1) whether it actually exists as an intentional practice within the advertising industry, (2) whether its effects are as efficacious in behavior modification as commonly described in the popular press, and (3) its socio-economic axiology as a value adder or destroyer.
Origin and Practice of Subliminal Suggestion
While the origin of subliminal advertising has been well-documented, its continued and deliberate use in the advertising industry has been an issue of intense controversy. Hong (2001) contended that Leibniz (c. 1704/1981) may have been the first to foreshadow subliminal messaging 300 years ago. Theus (1994) maintained that laboratory experimentation with "response to stimuli without conscious perception" (p. 272) commenced as early as the mid-1800's. The earliest advertising application of such research may date to 1913 (Hollingworth, 1913). However, putative widespread public interest in the phenomenon ensued in the 1950's with at least two well-publicized events. First, James Vicary held a New Jersey press conference on secret subliminal experiments conducted using a tachistoscope developed by Eastman Kodak, an instrument able to flash sub-second, consciously imperceptible images (Bullock, 2004; Kotler, & Armstrong, 1990; Parpis, 2003; Scat, 2001). His experiment involved flashing the words Hungry? Eat Popcorn and Drink Coca-Cola in periodic intervals to an audience of 45,000+ movie-goers, which supposedly increased concession sales dramatically with 57% more popcorn and 18% more coke sold. Vicary's figures were later discredited as exaggerated, but subliminal advertising has proliferated ever since. secondly, at around the same tune, Vance Parker (1957) authored the best-seller, The Hidden Persuaders, a germinal source of pop culture surrounding subliminal advertising. Public outcries subsequently emerged, which seemed to quench corporate interest in subliminal persuasion. Yet, over a decade later Wilson Bryan Key (1973) authored Subliminal Seduction, the first in a series of works claiming that subliminal manipulation continues to thrive as perpetrated by devious and ill-intentioned large advertising conglomerates.
Perspectives regarding the intentional use of subliminal suggestion have ranged from terse denials, to derisive ridicule, to frank acknowledgement of widespread employment by corporate advertising agencies. For example, although the American Association of Advertising Agencies emphatically denies that subliminal advertising exists (Parpis, 2003)» definite pornographic and other lewd subliminal suggestions have been found in numerous ads from well-known firms, e.g. Coke during the 1980's among others (Mikkelson & Mikkelson, 2004). Bullock (2004) presented an exposé of numerous subliminally suggestive film and print ads created as recently as 2002. Speaking of the Democratic National Convention, a classically trained film music composer observed, "There is always a standard they trot out at political conventions, a tired old rock song from at least 20 years ago.... There's a lot of subliminal advertising going on in the choice of the music" (Rubin, 2004). Pro-Republican subliminal advertising during the 2000 presidential elections was discovered in TV ads as well (Benady, 2003; "FCC," 2001). Parpis (2003) highlighted a recent spin in subliminal advertising, the attempt to overcome consumer resistance by positioning it as part of an innocuous tongue-in-cheek hide-and-seek game with the public. Still, Parpis unequivocally claims, "If you've ever wondered whether agency production departments use the long-rumored practice of subliminal techniques, they do" (p. 26). Subliminal advertising is routinely discussed in standard marketing textbooks, which openly acknowledge that "many ad agencies employ psychologists and neurophysiologists to help develop subtle psychological advertising strategies" (Kotler & Armstrong, 1990, p. 158). Through personal investigative research, Bullock (2004) secured letters from advertising executives, confirming that "the advertising business is such that a person who does not use them [subliminal advertising techniques] doesn't understand his craft very well" (p. 127). Indeed, subliminal suggestion permeates at least some corporate advertising and involves a wide range of benign as well as inferentially dubious purposes or intents.
Perceptual and Persuasive Efficacy
Does subliminal suggestion really work? A number of studies have suggested that subliminal suggestions such as weight loss messages, assertiveness cues, back masking in music, and embedded pictures remains utterly ineffective (Gable, Wilkens, Harris, & Fernberg, 1987; Greenwald, Spangenberg, Pratkanis, and Eskenazi, 1991; Moore, 1982; Pratkanis, 1992; Pratkanis & Greenwald, 1988; Rosen & Singh, 1992; Thorne and Himelstein, 1984; Vokey and Read, 1985). However, Epley, Savitsky, & Kachelski (1999) approached the issue by first separating reviews of subliminal perception from persuasion. They cited a number of studies supporting the idea that subliminal priming can, indeed, be perceived unconsciously (Bornstein & Pittman, 1992; Dixon, 1981; Holender, 1986; Merikle, 1982; Greenwald, 1992; Greenwald, Draine, & Abrams, 1996; Greenwald & Draine, 1998; Merikle & Joordens, 1998). Subliminal priming involves quickly presented messages followed by a pattern mask designed to disrupt conscious processing. Furthermore, unconscious perception can then lead to liking (Zajonc, 1968), especially with repetition, which in turn influences judgment, learning, and conditioning (Bargh & Pietromanaco, 1982; Bargh, Bond, Lombardi, & Tota, 1986; Cuperfain & Clark, 1985; Hawkins, 1970; Korsnick, Betz, Jussim, & Lynn, 1992; Baldwin, Carrel, & Lopez, 1991; Theus, 1994): "These studies serve to demonstrate that subliminal stimuli can influence high-level cognitive processes .... There is no a priori reason why such applications are not possible [in advertising]" (Epley, Savitsky, & Kachelski, 1999, p. 44,46). Through experiments utilizing the prisoner 's dilemma where participants' biases towards competition (versus cooperation) were enhanced via subliminal stimulation, Neuberg (1988) also supported the view that behavior can be influenced subliminally. Numerous other researchers and practitioners have agreed (Bargh et al., 1996; Bargh, 1997; Chen & Bargh, 1997; Dehaene et al., 1998; de Azevedo, 1985; Hagert, 2003; Kilboume, Painton & Ridley, 1985): "Discrimination without awareness is an artifact" (Theus, 1994, p. 290).
Besides unconscious awareness, Bullock (2004) has suggested that another prerequisite may be necessary for sustaining subliminal efficacy, that is, relevance to the perceiver. Once disturbing subliminal content surfaces in consciousness, its motivational effectiveness seems to diminish (Kotze & Moller, 1991; Mendelsohn & Silverman, 1982). Theus (1994) also maintained that subliminal stimuli become more effective the closer they approach the threshold of awareness but also suggested that verbal subliminal stimuli seems less effective than visual stimuli. From a practitioner's perspective, recording industry veteran, Lex de Azevedo (1985), unequivocally insisted that the verbal may become extremely efficacious, especially when coupled with alluring music. Music, itself, influences bodily functions such as galvanic skin responses, blood pressure, respiration, and pulse rates. Certain rhythms may even weaken body muscles (p. 35). Studies have shown that individuals respond to such affective stimuli even when indiscernible (Benady, 2003). Again, Aylesworth, Goodstein, & Kalra (1999) determined that archetypal (universally understood) embeds influence affective feelings, which subsequently influence brand attitudes. A significant number of advertising executives (about half of those surveyed) also believe that subliminal advertising is extremely effective (Simpson, Brown, and Widing, 1998; Rogers & Seiler, 1994). In short:
Our brains are marvelously perceptive; they pick up almost any message within sight or sound, whether we consciously know it or not. Those subconsciously received messages may have as much an effect on us as the messages we consciously seek out. (de Azevedo, 1985, p, 37)
Evaluating the efficacy of all subliminal advertising in any form becomes an imperative yet complex task. As briefly introduced here, determining efficacy may hinge upon a number of variables, including the content of advertising, composition of targeted audiences, social climate, and message context.
Value Adder or Value Destroyer
Given the increasing pervasiveness of subliminal advertising and growing evidence of its effectiveness, understanding its axiological value becomes a paramount consideration. Regardless of efficacy, consumers in general believe that embeds affect their behavior (Jones, Krentler, & Varvoglis, 1989; Zanot, Pincus, & Lamp, 1983). Hence, many consumers tend to feel betrayed when confronted with subliminal advertising even though some of it has been used to promote arguably benevolent causes, e.g. religious art (Null, 1992) or therapeutic applications (Bullock, 2004). While benign subliminals exist, numerous other corporate advertisers "employ emotionally provocative stimuli, targeted towards particular psychological weaknesses [sic]" (Bullock, 2004, p. 72), which could cumulatively adversely affect social norms on a large scale. As mentioned earlier, just as the FTC has prosecuted comparatively few fraudulent pricing cases, abuses of subliminal advertising seem to have been relatively unaddressed as well. Bullock (2004) noted that the macro-economic consequences of prosecuting subliminal advertising would be severe. Hence, he opined that the FTC has only outlawed flash-frame as opposed to other forms of subliminal messaging for utilitarian economic considerations. Controversial uses of subliminal advertising as weighed against these economic effects have created legal and ethical dilemmas, e.g. when is subliminal advertising considered destructive enough? That is, when does it reach the threshold warranting legal attention equal to other ethical lapses such as accounting fraud? Whereas accounting fraud involves tangible effects in terms of dollars lost to consumers, investors, or other stakeholders, the potential influences of negative subliminal advertising are arguably more subtle over time, yet possibly more devastating in terms of their influence on the modification of social norms.
Rather than legal infractions, perhaps the axiology of subliminal advertising may be more interconnected with symptoms of deconstructive postmodern cynicism (Anderson, 1992; Borgmann, 1993), a pervasive social ethos infatuated with the search for hidden agendas and plurivocalism. If so, at least some assignment of value may rest in lived experiences of the perceivers. To explore this dimension, qualitative surveys on subliminal advertising were administered by one of the authors to 65 working adult graduate students pursuing masters and doctoral degrees between 2001 and 2004. Representative horizonal statements (Moustakas, 1994) of perceptions are summarized below (Table 1) in four hermeneutically derived thematic clusters. This survey technique also involved presenting respondents with the picture in Figures 1 as an attempt to use a narrative paradigm method of evaluating advertising ethics (Bush & Bush, 1994). This paradigm involves finding gaps between the ethical intentions of advertisers and assessments of consumers through symbolic sense-making, the meaning experienced or derived by the perceiver. As reflected in the thematic analysis summarized above, the narrative interviews of respondents seemed to reveal a perception of subliminal advertising as unethical or at least unsavory and of dubious value due to its deceptive nature and intent, usually questionable content, and controversial effectiveness. Regardless of whether it actually is effective or conducive/destructive towards perpetuation of positive social norms, the overall perception of such advertising in this qualitative research was that it serves as a method of reducing trust between corporations and consumers. That is, subliminal advertisings' lack of value may rest in its perception as an inhibitor of critical thinking.
Additional germinal research on the ethical value of subliminal advertising to consumers is beginning to occur in greater abundance (Hyman, Tansey, & Clark, 1994; Zinkhan, 1994). For example, Simpson, Brown, and Widing (1998) proposed that unethical perceptions of subliminal and deceptive advertising tend to negatively affect consumer responses to it. They measured responses on three variables: (1) attitude towards the ad, (2) attitude towards the brand, and (3) purchase intention. Implications of these researcher's findings may have negative ramifications for advertisers who opt to employ subliminal techniques in a potentially unethical manner. In other words, the ethical dilemma consumers face when viewing objectionable advertising is to purchase the brand or not, and many consumers choose the latter. The informal qualitative research presented in Table 1 above seems to support these findings. That is, the perceived unethical use of subliminal advertising does not pay in more than one sense. Over the short term, such advertising may positively influence affective impulses and even direct purchase behavior, but when awareness is present, negative attitudes subsequently prevail, which could result in long-term adverse consequences for corporations using subliminal content unethically. In fact, a backlash could occur similar to the one that transpired in the case of Benetton's clothing ads, which featured convicts on death row. One of its large retail channels, Sears, Roebuck and Co., ultimately dropped the entire Benetton product line (CBSNews.com, 2000). As awareness increases, perceptions of controversial, deceptive, or subliminal advertisements may motivate consumers, whether corporate or otherwise, to take similar recourses.
Ethical Issues Reinforcing Negative Value Perceptions
Beyond the act of deception (i.e. false pricing practices in retail or online commerce), exploitative motivations underlying deceptive and subliminal advertising may contribute to perceptions of their negative value, as introduced above. Bullock (2004) observed that exploitative advertisers tend to focus on creating subliminal and deceptive content that triggers disturbing thoughts or emotions, which can then subsequently appeal to or encourage the enactment of base primal instincts and drives:
The idea that emotionally upsetting images have powerful subliminal effects is supported by an area of research known as 'psychodynamic drive activation.' Extremely disturbing subliminals, aimed at particular unconscious conflicts, can increase neurotic disorders ... Increasing the anxiety exacerbates the neurosis which in turn triggers an increase in consumption. (Bullock, 2004, pp. 72, 75)
In other words, such exploitative motives behind deceptive and subliminal advertising aim at strategically pressuring areas of psychic predisposition and promoting addictive behaviors, which consequently tends to create perceptions of negative ad value in the minds of consumers. A number of ethical socio-economic and organizational issues that become ready fodder for such exploitative tactics include: (1) the vulnerability or alienation of certain social segments (children, disadvantaged minorities, etc.); (2) the power of popular appeals to negative emotions (fear and violent attitudes); and, (3) the decay of long-standing social taboos (sexuality deviancy, pornography, etc.).
With respect to vulnerable or alienated social groups, Tarlach (2001) highlighted the 1970's cartoon Josie and the Pussycats as conditioning children via subliminal messaging. A three-minute trailer for the movie promoted more than 50 product placements, including logos for Starbucks, AOL, Coca-Cola and McDonald's. New forms of TV subliminal advertisements such as blipverts have been used to target the "inactive, sick, and the unemployed" (TV Acres, 2004). From an ethical perspective, such advertising may engender questions as to its appropriateness or fairness in terms of targeting groups collectively less capable of evaluating such commercial persuasion (Treise, Weigold, Conna, & Garrison, 1994). The R. J. Reynolds attempt to target minors with its cigarette campaigns (Sullum, J., 1998; Treise et al., 1994) may also have reinforced ethical concerns about advertising that promotes experimentation with harmful substances or creates conflicts with parents over purchases/consumption. Furthermore, R. J. Reynolds has targeted African Americans and other putatively disadvantaged groups (Gardiner, 2002). Alaniz (1998) noted that (1) there are five times more alcohol advertisements in Latino neighborhoods man white neighborhoods, (2) there exists an overall disproportionate concentration of alcohol advertising in low-income minority communities, and (3) such advertising has also been linked with children's attitudes towards alcohol. The fact that alcohol and tobacco companies are also frequent users of subliminal advertising (Bullock, 2004) raises ethical concerns about such collectively exploitative practices and perceptions of negative consumer as well as social value creation.
Regarding appeals to negative emotions, ethical questions arise when advertisers employ excess amounts of fear through graphic depictions of consequences, by inducing high levels of anxiety, discomfort, and insecurity. As an empirical example, due to the constant mass media coverage of the random sniper killings in Washington DC during 2002, many individuals in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida area avoided jogging outside their homes during the early morning or late evening periods, fearing that the sniper could be lurking in their neighborhoods. Even with a distance of about 1,000 miles between the two cities, a high level of discomfort, fear, and anxiety existed among the Fort Lauderdale population due to the explicit media reporting. Similarly, Bullock (2004) noted that "subliminal advertisements generate feelings of anxiety and depression" (p. 88) that can reinforce fear and violent themes. N.F. Dixon also opined, "Unconsciously received material that touches on a particular drive or conflict area (e.g. castration anxiety) has an effect on the psychopathology and behavior or people" (as cited in Bullock, 2004, p. 105). Fear appeals have also been utilized for the public good in explicitly alerting consumers of impending dangers such as the carcinogenic nature of cigarettes, effects of drug usage, ravages of environmental exploitation, and consequences of drunk driving. However, as Simpson, Brown, and Widing's (1998) research findings might predict, the deceptive nature of implicitly evoking negative emotions aimed at reinforcing addictions and neurosis may, in the long-term, lead to brand avoidance as consumers develop increasing awareness of such ads and corresponding negative value perceptions based on their personal ethical judgments.
Challenging social norms of decency and morality through sex appeals have also been among the long-standing uses of deceptive and subliminal advertising, not to mention advertising in general. These practices have caused widespread ethical concerns over the exploitation and stereotyping of women as well as the breakdown of social mores and collective moral attitudes (Treise et al., 1994). Pornographic subliminals have regularly occurred in various advertising media over the past five decades, not just in tobacco and alcohol promotions but also in health, travel, teen, retail, online, and movie ads (Bullock, 2004). In fact, Simpson, Brown, and Widing's (1998) germinal study on the ethical perceptions of subliminal advertising utilized sex appeal as the focus of its research. A nationally shown print ad for Edge shaving gel, depicting nude subliminal figures hidden in shaving lotion on a man's face, was shown to 312 college students (with subliminal content explicitly highlighted). The results of the study indicated that the "use of perceived unethical and deceptive factors [such as sex appeal] in advertisements may significantly affect consumer responses to ads in a negative manner; thus, the use of potentially unethical advertisements may have negative ramifications for advertisers" (p. 132). Indeed, as designing corporate advertisers seek to exploit these areas of sensitivity for short-term gain, negative ethical perceptions and subsequent avoidance on the part of consumers may continue to proliferate (Treise et al., 1994).
Toward More Ethical Leadership in Advertising
Advertising companies that engage in deceptive and subliminal advertising to promote sales may in fact subscribe to valid principles of utilitarian ethics (Cavico and Mujtaba, 2005) where the ends justify the means as well as rule-based justice theory where the law defines rightness (Hosmer, 1996). These frameworks tend to tie managerial decision-making to whatever a system will allow (Kotler & Armstrong, 1990), while outcomes may result in sub-optimal social welfare. Systemic actions that ensure greater social welfare under such assumptions could potentially include mandatory registration of subliminal advertising with government regulators prior to using them in target markets (similar to protocols in the pharmaceutical industry). Likewise, more comprehensive industry ethical codes could be developed, updated regularly, and strictly enforced by industry, public, and consumer organizations. Severe punitive sanctions could then be imposed for policy violations. However, as demonstrated herein, the moral dilemmas in corporate advertising abound, and decision-making among multiple ethical alternatives and models often remains unclear, even with robust ethical policies in place (Badaracco, 1997). Given this complexity, another ethical approach might involve linking decision-making by advertising leaders to natural law or virtue ethics (LaZara, 2001) where responsibility rests in the exercise of societal consciousness and a sense of stewardship (Block, 1996; Kotler & Armstrong, 1990; Hosmer, 1996). This approach would tend to appeal to principle-centered (Covey, 1995) and/or values-based ethical strategies (O'Toole, 1996; LaZara, 1999).
For example, Pohlman and Gardiner (2000) introduced value driven management (VDM) as a holistic ethical decision-making framework for determining true value adders and value destroyers. VDM is based upon values theory, which maintains that internal values drive individual actions and behaviors (Pohlman & Gardiner, 2000; O'Toole, 1996; LaZara, 1999). The underlying theme of VDM is to make decisions that maximize value over time for all relevant stakeholders (Cavico & Mujtaba, 2005) through an examination of values drivers similar to Kantian universalism (Hosmer, 1996). In other words, deciding on ethical direction is accomplished by examining the sets of values held by an organization's relevant constituents or stakeholder groups. The framework extends not only to organizational owners but to global, national, or regional cultures and subcultures as well as micro-organizational climates and/or the values of employees, suppliers, customers, competitors, and third party entities such as unions and regulators. In determining ethical actions based on values theory, principled advertisers would contemplate questions as to what actions, people and/or processes either add or destroy long-term value for all stakeholders-and in what ways. It would then become the responsibility of both leaders and followers within advertising firms to maximize value-creation through a collective understanding of these values drivers rather than based on pure economic profit motives.
In the Pohlman and Gardiner (2000) VDM system, eight critical facets are emphasized that inform value driven management: (1) external culture or the social context in which decision-making occurs; (2) internal culture or the unique context in which intra-organizational decisions are made; (3) employee values, which must align with inter- and intra-organizational values in ways that maximize total value; (4) supplier values, which usually involve fair treatment of partners in channel partnerships; (5) customer values with regard to quality expectations and moral considerations, for example; (6) third party values that may include rule-based ethics centered in compliance; (7) competitor values, which tend to drive their strategies and tactics; and, (8) owner values, which include the shareholder's values whether tied to economic value maximization, societal conscious goals, or other objectives. Although practical and simple to articulate, the VDM method may still suffer from some of the same difficulties posed by postmodern complexification (Hage & Powers, 1992) that encumber utilitarian ethical strategies. That is, values tend to exist as diverse, divergent, subjective, and frequently changing phenomena. Many practitioners and scholars have noted the difficulty of prioritizing competing values and ethical principles (Badarraco, 1997; Kotler & Armstrong, 1990, Jue, 2004): "Managers need a set of principles that will help them analyze the moral importance of each situation... but what principles should guide companies and marketing managers on issues of ethics and social responsibility? [sic]" (Kotler & Armstrong, 1990, p. 527).
Consequently, one emerging ethical framework that may assist hi the prioritization of values and principles during the process of assessing deceptive and subliminal advertising is spirit-centered leadership (Jue, 2004; Jue & Mujtaba, 2004a, 2004b). An increasing subset of avant-garde practitioners and thinkers have begun to call for a radical shift to spiritual entrepreneur ship, which accepts the supremacy of transcendent principles over all others: "What makes the shift to spiritual entrepreneurship so critical is that it removes our reliance on outside measures to guide our business decisions" (Sfeir-Younis, 2002, pp 9). This mode of ethical decision-making places greater focus on appeals to transcendent principles, which may be aligned with Jung's collective consciousness as manifested through conscience (Madsen, 2001; Jue, 2004). Spirit-centered leadership creates a balancing fulcrum that utilizes virtue ethics, principles of stewardship/servant-leadership, and emotional intelligence in governing all other values that emerge in leadership decision-making. Using spirit-centered leadership to prioritize VDM could create a robust method of assessing both the role of specific advertisements in maximizing value as well as increasing awareness of the potential adverse consumer and social effects arising from negative forms of deceptive or subliminal advertising. Regardless of the ethical framework or combination selected, the increasing incidence of subliminal and deceptive advertising in the postmodern milieu definitely necessitates an equally urgent focus on both understanding the nature and bounds of its ethical use as well as ensuring that value is maximized rather than destroyed for consumers, organizations, nations, and society at large.
As explored in this discussion, the practice of deceptive and subliminal advertising continues to occur in the corporate arena, which raises questions as to its utility, efficacy, and value. Does subliminal advertising turn consumers into mass herds of mindless automatons clamoring to purchase trite and folksy kitsch that they had no intention of initially buying? Perhaps not, but increasing research and empirical evidence indicates that such advertising can and does subtly influence consumer attitudes, perceptions, judgments and even behaviors. Furthermore, both formal and informal research on ethical attitudes in marketing indicate that consumers perceive subliminal and deceptive advertising as a value destroyer, tending to avoid companies or brands identified as engaging hi it. The very nature of deceptive advertising creates ethical issues that warrant greater awareness on the part of citizens, communities, and corporations. Beyond the plethora of possible legal and regulatory ameliorants, these issues require individuals and organizations toseriously consider and decide on the nature and scope of their own core ethical and moral assumptions. After all, ethical and unethical forms of advertising are prevalent throughout the global community since advertising is of the very essence of democracy:
An election goes on every minute of the business day across the counters of hundreds of thousands of stores and shops where the customers state their preferences and determine which manufacturer and which product shall be the leader today and which shall lead tomorrow. (Barton as cited by Mujtaba & Douglass, 2003)
When faced with making these moral choices, many alternatives exist that can provide guidance, including company policies, industry standards, governmental law or regulations, and even structured social or religious institutions. A qualitative narrative approach was also used to ascertain consumer perceptions versus advertising intentions. In addition, a values-based solution coupled with spirit-centeredness attuned to personal conscience and virtue ethics may represent a robust alternative for assessing/addressing subliminal and deceptive advertising content as well as its value or lack thereof. Such a framework would inform and govern the appropriateness of all other ethical strategies through a clear prioritization of values driven management in accordance to principles aligned with achieving spiritual synchronicity or homeostasis rather than economic profit-maximization. Whether a deconstructive artifact of the postmodern milieu or a carefully repackaged illusory art of primeval origin, deceptive and subliminal advertising in corporate America will likely continue to encroach upon consumers, demanding greater attention to understanding its influence as a potential value destroyer as well as the ethical approaches for addressing its proliferation as 21st Century capitalism advances en crescendo.
1 From The Secret Sales Pitch: An Overview of Subliminal Advertising (cover), by A. Bullock (2004b), San Jose, CA: Norwich. Copyright © 2004 by August Bullock. Used with permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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Bahaudin Mujtaba, Nova Southeastern University
Arthur L. Jue, University of Phoenix
About the Authors
Bahaudin Mujtaba is an Assistant Professor of Human Resources and International Management. He is also the Director of Institutional Relations, Planning, and Accreditation for Nova Southeastern University at the H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Bahaudin has worked as an internal consultant, trainer, and teacher at Training Development Departments of Human Resources as well as retail management in the corporate arena for 16 years. He currently serves on the editorial review boards for the Society for Advancement of Management (SAM) Journal, Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship (JAME), and others on ad hoc basis. Academically, Bahaudin has been teaching graduate business courses both nationally and internationally (Bahamas, Jamaica and Brazil) since 1996. Bahaudin's undergraduate degree is from the University of Central Florida. His MBA and DBA degrees are from Nova Southeastern University. His current research and focus are concentrated in the areas of ethics, diversity in higher education and learning outcomes assessment.
Arthur Jue is a native of Silicon Valley, California and serves on the Board of Directors of Meriwest Credit Union where he functions as Corporate secretary and Chairman of the Executive Compensation, IT security, and Nominating Committees. His professional experience includes 20 years of technical and program management responsibilities in the IT industry. He has held numerous line and mid-level management positions in IBM. Arthur received a CCD from the London Business School, was a Brigham Young University President's Scholar, was Outstanding Graduating Senior/Valedictorian of San Jose State University in 1992, and has attended Harvard's Advanced Leadership Institute. He has a B.Sc. in Marketing with a Music Minor, an MBA with emphasis in Technology Management, and a Doctor of Management in Organizational Leadership from the University of Phoenix. His research interests include understanding the nature and influence of spirit-centered leadership in entrepreneurial enterprise. Arthur has been a missionary in New Zealand, is an Eagle Scout, and enjoys playing the violin.…
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Publication information: Article title: Deceptive and Subliminal Advertising in Corporate America: Value Adder or Value Destroyer?. Contributors: Mujtaba, Bahaudin - Author, Jue, Arthur L. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Applied Management and Entrepreneurship. Volume: 10. Issue: 1 Publication date: January 2005. Page number: 59+. © Nova Southeastern University, H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship Oct 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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