Now You See It, Now You Don’t

To get the full impact of this BMW commercial, you have to watch it in a theater and close your eyes.

What BMW has done is utilize a phenomenon called the after-image effect. At the end of the commercial they use a powerful photo flash to literally imprint the BMW logo into the viewers’ eyes, so when viewers close their eyes they see “BMW” in afterglow. This would be subliminal advertising except that BMW told the audience in a German theater what they were about to experience.

That apparently wasn’t the case in a 1957 experiment conducted in a movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey. There, a man named James Vicary claimed to have placed a tactistoscope (a device that flashes a series of images rapidly onto a screen) in the projection room. During a screening of “Picnic,” it flashed the messages “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Hungry? Eat popcorn” on the screen every five seconds. The messages lasted 1/3000th of a second, too fast for viewers to register the messages consciously, but still trigger an overwhelming urge to go to the refreshment counter. He claimed that Coca-Cola sales increased by 18.1% and popcorn sales jumped by 57.8%. About five years later, Vicary admitted his “experiment” was a hoax, but the concept of subliminal advertising lived on.

In 1974, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission ruled that subliminal techniques “whether effective or not, were contrary to the public interest” because they involved “intentional deception of the public.” They warned that any stations caught using the technique would lose their broadcast license.

That doesn’t mean that advertisers don’t try to sway viewers subliminally appealing to the desire to be sexier, younger, healthier, happier by using products preferred by models and movie stars who appear to be sexier, younger, healthier, happier…

The BMW ad is brand imaging in the most literal sense. It’s a fun and memorable, but unlike triggering an impulse to buy a bag of popcorn, it probably won’t set off a stampede to buy a Beemer.

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