Abusing the Power of Suggestion in Russian Ads

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Deep within a Russian television advertisement for a local beer, Klinskoye, lurked a split-second message for another thirst-quencher: Pepsi.

An image of Palmolive Fruit Essentials soap was there and gone in a blink on the NTV television network. Young viewers of Russian MTV unconsciously absorbed marketing messages for Secret deodorant, the New Musical Express newspaper and the Red Hot Chili Peppers album, "By the Way."

In fact, according to Russian scientists, subliminal television advertising, although illegal in this country, is strewn across the airwaves.

Russian television stations insist that they have no way of knowing whether video material provided by advertising agencies contains subliminal messages. Advertising firms and the companies whose products appear in subliminal messages deny any involvement.

"There are very many cases. I'm surprised by the quantity," said Svetlana Nemtsova, deputy director-general of the All Russian Research Institute for TV and Radio Broadcasting, a state agency.

"There are channels that are impossible to watch," she said, referring to the amount of subliminal advertising broadcast. "There are channels that don't overdo it, and there are channels that don't do it at all."

She declined to list the offenders.

But time is running out for them. Nemtsova and other Russian scientists at the broadcast institute have developed equipment to trace subliminal messages that will constantly monitor Russian TV airwaves by the end of the year.

Nemtsova said the institute hasn't pursued TV stations for breaches. That would be the role of the Ministry for Press, Broadcasting and Communications after the device goes into operation.

"We're still testing this device, but we can see what outrages are going on the air," she said.

The broadcasting ministry issued a joint warning in June to television stations to stop using subliminal advertising. Those caught could be removed from the air or fined, it warned.

Two years ago, ATV, a television station in the Siberian city of Yekaterinburg, was banned from the air for two months after being caught bombarding viewers with the subliminal message to keep on watching it.

In 1974, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission warned that subliminal advertising--not consciously perceived by the eye but apprehended subliminally--was "contrary to the public interest." Broadcasters can be fined or sanctioned, but advertisers are not barred from using the messages.

But debate has raged in the U.S. about how effective subliminal advertising really is. Many experts have concluded that there is no evidence it is any more compelling than ordinary advertising, although some contest this.

In the United States, there is no routine monitoring of advertisements for subliminal messages because they are not seen as an issue.

In Russia, the issue is viewed with greater alarm. Subliminal advertising is seen here as more persuasive and potentially damaging than it is by many in the U.S.

Professor Grant Demirchoglyan, an expert on biology at the All Russia Institute for Physical Culture and Sport, a state agency, even suggested that terrorists could use subliminal images to "zombify" targets, adding that it was possible that "psychotropic" viruses could be transmitted subliminally through computer screens to damage the human mind.

Demirchoglyan said that it would require repeated viewing to compel a viewer to act but that "any evil intention can be transmitted subliminally."

Representatives for Procter & Gamble and Pepsi denied knowledge of any cases of subliminal advertising. A spokeswoman at Colgate Palmolive in Moscow said no one was available to comment.

Natalya Kolmakova, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble, which makes Secret deodorant, said the material aired for journalists at the broadcast institute must be "either some mistake or else some prank."

Alexander Shalnev, spokesman for PepsiCo Holdings, raised the possibility that Klinskoye might have inserted a hidden advertisement of Pepsi into its own beer commercial but acknowledged that such a scenario made no sense.

"I don't even want to comment on this because it doesn't make any sense," he said.

Sergei Vasilyev, director-general of the Media Services Video International advertising company, said he knows of no cases of subliminal advertising on Russian television and argued that the risks outweighed the benefits.

"If it's proven and published, it would be a horrible scandal," he said. "I think the damage they might incur dwarfs the extra sales they could get."

Sergei Khudyakov, director of the advertising sales department at NTV Media, said it's impossible for TV stations to tell whether video material contains hidden inserts.

"As of today, we are powerless to do anything," he said. "We are victims of the same hidden advertisements, just like everybody else around here.

"But the advertisers' logic is obvious here," he said. "Even though this practice is considered illegal, why not use it, since there is no way of detecting it? They know they will always get away with it.

"The use of hidden inserts is known to be effective. Any normal company would do it."

Nemtsova said that her institute built its new detection device, known as ODSV-1, at the request of the broadcasting ministry and that it took four years to develop.

The device actually casts almost too wide a net. Not only does it capture subliminal images, but also frames with poor focus or quality, and blank frames filled with black, white or another color.

Some images are perplexing. In a clip aired on MTV, the body of a woman wearing a T-shirt bearing the word "porn" was superimposed with a man's head.

"What is that? Something incomprehensible. I don't even know what it's supposed to be!" Nemtsova exclaimed, before showing a string of other cryptic subliminal images in video material bearing the MTV logo.

Demirchoglyan, the professor from the sports institute, argued that subliminal messages are more effective because they are absorbed by a viewer unknowingly and that his or her will is subdued. The normal resistance to advertisements isn't triggered, he insisted.

"The people in advertising understand this perfectly well," said Nemtsova, showing a computer disc for the Russian advertising industry that extolled the virtue of ads that bypass conscious thought. One section described how to advertise using hidden television messages. The maker of the disc, like many CDs and videos bought in Moscow, was anonymous.

The subliminal advertising controversy is long-lived. In 1957, James Vicary, who had an interest in a company called the Subliminal Projection Co., claimed to have aired subliminal frames at a New Jersey movie theater over a period of six weeks urging the audience to drink Coca-Cola and eat popcorn. He claimed an 18% increase in Coke sales and a nearly 58% increase in popcorn sales during the six weeks.

But later attempts to reproduce his results failed. In 1962, he admitted that he had overstated the case: "The story leaked out to some newspaper guys, and we were forced to come out with [the results] before we were really ready. Worse than the timing, though, was the fact that we hadn't done any research, except what was needed for filing a patent."

The most recent U.S. controversy over subliminal advertising occurred in the 2000 presidential election, when the word RATS appeared briefly during a Republican ad while a voice-over criticized then-Vice President Al Gore's policy on prescription drugs. The FCC wrote to 217 television station executives, asking them whether they were aware that the word RATS flashed on the screen and, if so, why they had broadcast the ads?

When the Russian detecting device begins work at the end of the year, the broadcasting ministry will decide which cases are breaches of the law and which are permitted.

Nemtsova rejects the claims of Russian television stations that they have no way of knowing whether they are airing subliminal advertising in tapes received from ad agencies.

Although the state will monitor all stations constantly, Nemtsova believes that television stations should take responsibility upon themselves for airing untainted video material. She says each station should install the device to check the quality of the material being broadcast.

"Factories that make vodka or sausage check the quality of their products," she said. "People who show video materials should be responsible for checking the quality too."

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Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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