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7 Sneaky Subliminal Messages Hidden in Ads

Even since ad man James Vicary declared he raised sales at concessions by flashing key words like “Drink Coca-Cola” during films in a New Jersey theater in 1957, consumers have been wary of “subliminal” advertising. No one, after all, wants to feel manipulated.

While Vicary turned out to be full of it—he could never replicate his data for curious observers and eventually admitted it was a hoax—both the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agency have provisions warning advertisers against any psychological funny business. That hasn’t stopped art departments or ad firms from staving off boredom (or trying to stir up controversy) with covert messages that might go unnoticed at first glance. Check out some of the most infamous hidden prompts:

1. FOOD NETWORK’S FLASH OF CONTROVERSY

McDonald's

During a 2007 episode of Iron Chef America, the 24-hour food channel became a delicious suspect in subliminal wrongdoing. Spliced into a chef showdown segment was a logo for McDonald’s, which flashed on the screen for a brief moment. After Internet investigators accused the company of burrowing even further into our impressionable brains, McDonald’s denied the claims, telling USA Today that “we don’t do subliminal advertising.” Food Network declared the screen shot a “technical error.”

2. PALMOLIVE’S SHOWER BUDDIES

Palmolive

A print ad for Palmolive’s foaming shower gel might have been designed with frenetic page-flipping magazine readers in mind. If you stop and take a moment to digest the ad, you’ll notice the woman’s forearm is considerably more masculine than the rest of her.

3. KFC’S DOLLAR SNACKER

YouTube

When commercial footage is slowed to a crawl, it’s easy to spot a glaring addition to an otherwise conventional fried chicken sandwich. KFC grabbed some attention in 2008 for inserting a pretty clumsy-looking dollar bill in the lettuce for its KFC Snacker menu item. The company pulled a similar stunt in 2006, when they buried a code inside of a commercial for the Buffalo Snacker that could be redeemed for free food. The goal was to get viewers to stop speeding past commercials during DVR playback.

4. THE BOARD GAME INCIDENT

Television spots for the barely-remembered memory board game Hūsker Dū that aired in 1973 inserted a series of frames that read “Get It." The game’s manufacturer, Premium Corp. of America, admitted a staff member had placed the images. The FCC fielded the incident, and subsequently condemned such tactics as being “contrary to the public interest”; it’s believed to be the first example of subliminal advertising on television. Then again, if anything had been truly subliminal prior to that, who would know?

5. AN AUSTRALIAN MUSICAL INTERLUDE

YouTube

The ARIA Awards are held every year to honor Australia’s biggest achievements in the music industry. While viewers may have expected to see commercials during the broadcast on Network Ten in 2007, they might not have expected to be exposed to images “below or near the threshold of human awareness.” That’s how the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) described their choice to flash 10 images of corporate sponsors (like Toyota, above) during the ceremony. The channel got a scolding and had to promise never to do it again.  

6. POLITICAL RATS

Doing the already-dodgy reputation of political advertising no favors, Presidential candidate George Bush came under fire in 2000 for a television spot criticizing opponent Al Gore that flashed the word “rats” for one-thirtieth of a second. While calling the accusation of subliminal interruption “bizarre,” the Bush campaign nonetheless had the spot pulled from the air. According to The Guardian, campaign ad producer Alex Castellanos had previously produced a spot for Senatorial candidate Jesse Helms in which a pair of hands is briefly seen crushing a picture of opponent Harvey Gant.  

7. MARLBORO’S HIDDEN CODE

Cigarette company Marlboro was left kicking tires after the European Public Health Commission prohibited them from advertising on Formula 1 racing vehicles. To get around the ban, Marlboro designed a bar code for the chassis that looks vaguely like a pack of their smokes when it begins to blur while traveling at around 200 miles per hour. Declaring the strategy “subliminal,” the EPHC exerted pressure and the design was removed. Marlboro parent company Philip Morris told The Wall Street Journal in 2010 that "The barcode was never intended to be anything other than a neutral design, one that was not linked to the sale of tobacco products. It was never intended to be a reference to the Marlboro brand in any way."

BONUS: DAFFY’S WAR PROPAGANDA

This one is not an ad, but is still worth a mention. Warner Brothers’ series of Looney Tunes shorts were never short on pro-American sentiment during World War II. While many were downright hostile toward Japanese characters, others—like 1943’s Wise Quacking Duck—were a bit more subtle. The cartoon tried to deliver a message when Daffy takes a moment to spin a statue from left to right; its shield briefly reads, “Buy Bonds.” It’s obvious upon repeat viewings, but theatergoers in the 1940s didn’t have the luxury of slow-motion playback.

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John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
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#TBT
The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
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John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

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Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
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History
Why Lucky the Leprechaun Was Missing From Some Lucky Charms Boxes in 1975
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Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

It’s hard to picture a box of Lucky Charms without a smiling leprechaun plastered on the front of it. But cereal fans living in New England in the 1970s may remember a brief period when Lucky was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a forgetful wizard who was barely given a chance to make a blip in cereal mascot history.

As Atlas Obscura shared in a recent story, Waldo the Wizard became the face of Lucky Charms in select stores in 1975. At that point, Lucky had been representing the brand since it was introduced over a decade earlier, but General Mills was toying with going in a different direction with the marketing.

Lucky’s shtick hasn’t changed much since Lucky Charms was introduced in 1964: In commercials, the leprechaun is enjoying his treasured cereal when a group of hungry kids comes along. Instead of offering to share, Lucky plots to keep his Lucky Charms to himself and always fails. It’s not exactly controversial as far as kids' ads go, but in the mid-1970s, executives worried that the mascot's unfriendly attitude towards children would rub consumers the wrong way.

Enter Waldo: a wizard who wore a green cloak spangled with hearts, stars, clovers, and moons, and, like Lucky, adored Lucky Charms. But unlike Lucky, Waldo was always warm with kids and never hesitated to share his breakfast. Instead of running away, his gag was that he was always forgetting where he put his box of Lucky Charms, to which the kids responded by reminding him that he could just conjure some up with magic.

Shoppers responded positively to Waldo during his trial run in New England stores, but after less than a year, General Mills pulled the plug on the experiment. It turned out that having a slightly more innocuous character wasn’t worth abandoning the original mascot after spending so much time and money promoting him.

While he’s undergone a few redesigns in the past 50 years, Lucky is still prominently displayed on every box of Lucky Charms. His cereal-hoarding tendencies have also remained the same, though Lucky was written to be a bit friendlier following Waldo’s short-lived era.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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