Bleed it Out

By Robert Wilson Jr.

Half a century ago, marketing consultant James Vicary pulled a hoax on the American people as a way to promote his advertising agency. He reported that he flashed the words “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat popcorn” on the screen for a millisecond during a movie in a theater and caused large numbers of people to visit the concession stand. He called the effect subliminal advertising. Subliminal means that the effect functions below the threshold of consciousness. Years later, when others failed to duplicate his results, Vicary admitted that he made the whole thing up. Nevertheless, the myth continues.

Is there any advertising that works below the threshold of consciousness? Yes, much advertising is clearly designed to speak to consumers on a subconscious level. Ads are created to get you to relate to the setting; background music; age, race and gender of the actors; their clothing; and the activities in which they are involved. The idea is that you will recognize yourself in these people and make the connection, “Ah, this is my kind of product.” You don’t think it; you feel it. And feelings move us to act.

A few years ago I was involved in nonprofit fundraising for a Christian Mission in Africa. To learn what type of appeal would bring in the most money, we conducted a series of focus groups. We asked, “Which would you be more likely to do:

A. Give money to feed starving babies; or
B. Give money to teach people how to grow drought-resistant crops that would end starvation in their community?”

The answer they gave was almost universally B. The comments we heard frequently included the proverb, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life.”

We then tested both appeals. Feeding starving babies won by a landslide. The lesson we learned was that the emotional appeal to save a child’s life is much more powerful than a logical appeal for teaching a village survival skills that would eliminate starvation. From that point, the heart-tugging stories of babies dying headlined every ad we ran.

Emotion trumps logic every time. Take, for example, Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl who was naked, shrieking and running from her village that had just been bombed with napalm. Fear, despair and suffering were written all over her face. More than anything, it was her complete vulnerability that captured our attention. One snapshot revealed the gut-wrenching horror of war, and millions of people whose hearts were touched turned their attention toward ending the Vietnam War.

Perhaps you recall hearing these potent words in a speech by Jesse Jackson back in 1984.

“These hands ” these black hands ” these hands that once picked cotton will now pick presidents.”

Thrilling words. Exciting words. I remember them well. And even though I wasn’t his target audience, they created a powerful image in my mind, and when he finished, all I could say was, “Wow!” Meanwhile, for millions of African Americans, it was the motivation needed to put apathy aside and go to the ballot box.

We are charged and moved by many emotions. Here are just a few: acceptance, amusement, anger, angst, annoyance, anticipation, arrogance, awe, anxiety, bitterness, calmness, caution, confidence, courage, determination, disappointment, discontent, disgust, desire, delight, elation, embarrassment, envy, excitement, fear, friendship, frustration, gratitude, grief, guilt, hate, happiness, impatience, inadequacy, irritability, inspiration, joy, jealousy, kindness, loneliness, love, lust, modesty, negativity, nostalgia, paranoia, patience, pity, pride, regret, resentment, sadness, self-pity, serenity, shame, surprise, timidity, torment, worry, yearning and zeal.

Which ones move you?


Robert Evans Wilson Jr. is a motivational speaker and humorist. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and people who want to think like innovators. For more information, visit http://jumpstart

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