What was once seen as a novel tool for both spies and ad-men has turned into a bit of meta-marketing for avocados: On Super Bowl Sunday, Texas-based marketing group Avocados From Mexico aired a pair of commercials that both used satirical subliminal messaging. Turning subliminal messaging into the butt of their commercial’s joke, however, was a risky move for these avocado hawkers. Science says their attempt at mind-bending might have worked in both ads, had they not tried to stretch the joke.
Using subliminal messaging in ads is not a new idea. In a now-declassified 1958 CIA document, author Richard Gafford meditates on the “operational potential” of subliminal messaging. The proven ability to influence the subconscious behavior of people seemed like a psychological process ripe for an “intelligence operative” to use, Gafford wrote. The data, he claims, has been studied for “at least 70 years” and is now primed for “possible commercial exploitation by the advertising world.” That seems to be exactly what Avocados From Mexico, which is owned by the Mexican Hass Avocados Importers Association and the Association of Growers and Packers of Avocados From Mexico — did on Sunday night.
In its first commercial, a spinning Jon Lovitz demands that we eat guacamole:
All of the stereotypes of hypnosis are present here: dizzying spirals, flashed images, and hushed whispers to “listen to the celebrity.” While our culture has primed us to know these are jokes, it doesn’t mean that they won’t work.
Hypnosis and subliminal messaging are linked in their ability to manipulate the mind’s subconscious. Spinning imagery — like the ad’s swirling slices of avocado toast — is believed to help the mind divide its consciousness into distinct components, priming it for external influence (like the demand: buy avocados!). Whispered messages, while a more scientifically controversial component of subliminal messaging, are also believed to prime the subconscious to be open to hypnotic suggestions. When some people hear whispers, Emory University psychologist Linda Craighead told Yahoo News, they may be experiencing something “akin to the phenomena associated with hypnosis and relaxation response.”
Meanwhile, flashing imagery — like the sudden appearance of a bowl of guac — is believed to influence our decision making if we are open to a particular need, such as having a new dip at your Super Bowl party. The first commercial may seem like a joke, but its components are likely to still influence you to buy an avocado.
The second Avocados From Mexico ad is more explicitly subliminal: In the ad, the leader of a secret society, complaining that the public knows too many of its secrets, says, “at least they don’t know about subliminal advertising.” The scene quickly cuts to the hypnotic Lovitz, demanding that the viewer eats avocados, then back to the secret society going to town on some guac.
In this case, the advertisers make a big mistake: Research has shown that telling viewers that they are about to receive subliminal messages eliminates the influence of those messages. The commercial makes us laugh, but it’s not going to get us to actually buy Mexican avocados.
In its next commercial, Avocados From Mexico might want to use subliminal messaging to help viewers forget the following: That American consumers may be looking at a 20 percent price increase on a product that’s demand is causing rapid environmental degradation.