The Miller Brewing Company is running a TV advertisement in which they take credit for inventing subliminal advertising. Perhaps the claim is in jest, yet there is a dark undercurrent where a large corporation brags about how effectively they can manipulate their customers.
The purpose of advertising is to manipulate the perceptions of consumers. Advertising creates desires where previously none existed in order to create demand for the output of industry. Discussions of economics generally assume that supply follows demand: if this were the case, however, advertising would not be necessary. In many cases, supply creates demand — and advertising is an instrumental part of this process.
That advertising alters perceptions is not a trivial fact: it is central to advertising’s effectiveness. Nissan is running an advertisement boasting about the safety features they incorporate into their automobile design. After detailing the automobile’s safety features, the advertisement concludes: “the only thing left to fear is your imagination.”
An advertisement that instills the perception that driving is safe can have tragic consequences: driving is just about the most dangerous thing the typical American does on a daily basis. In the last 13 years, 2,977 Americans have died from terrorism. Since 2001, some 468,743 Americans have died in automobile accidents. On average, automobiles kill more Americans every month than terrorists killed on 9/11. Yet the policy implications of these two figures could not be more different.
Were Americans to perceive the true dangers inherent in driving, perhaps Federal highway subsidies and automobile manufacturer bailouts would arouse more indignation than they have, while the time and expense and social changes ushered in by the War on Terror might be redirected towards changing social values to discourage driving — by creating walkable neighborhoods and funding mass transit effectively, for example. This would certainly save more lives than military adventures abroad. Advertising and marketing exert a subtle though profound effect on the perceptions of Americans, influencing what policies are permissible.
Advertising creates reality. Advertising creates mass psychology. This influence is not benign, nor like the fabled boasts of snake oil salesman, but orchestrated perception management campaigns by organized industry meant to benefit organized industry. To the extent that advertising is ubiquitous, and to the extent that everybody assumes that advertising involves exaggerations or lies, the outcome is in many ways affected subliminally — without being noticed.