Subliminal or subtly symbolic? Look at these logos and decide

Some people still believe in Bigfoot, too.

The phrase “subliminal advertising” has a long and checkered history. James Vicary coined it in 1957, on the basis of a research study he allegedly conducted in a movie theater. In his initial account, he said that “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat popcorn” were flashed on the movie screen — too briefly for anyone to consciously notice — and Coke and popcorn sales went up as a result.

An admitted hoax

Five years later, in a 1962 Advertising Age interview, Vicary admitted that the study was, in his words, a “gimmick” and the whole idea of subliminal advertising was a hoax.

But that hasn’t stopped people who should know better from believing in it, the way some folks believe in the existence of Bigfoot.

In 1974, a book by Wilson Brian Key claimed that advertising agencies were retouching sexual images into, among other things, ice cube photos to subliminally seduce consumers into buying advertised brands of liquor.

The most recent book claiming the existence of subliminal advertising came out a little over two years ago, on April 22, 2010.

Does “subliminal” just mean “subtle”?

Over the course of those years, “subliminal” has taken on a different meaning when applied to advertising — hidden, subtle, too hard to notice.

In that highly corrupted sense of the word, subliminal advertising of a sort may be said to exist, in brand logos.

Logo designers, whether working locally in Richmond or globally, specialize in nonverbal communication. When assigned to create a logo, they’ll create anywhere from half a dozen to thousands (charging anywhere from a few hundred dollars to a few million). And each of their designs will ideally have some graphic, nonverbal, way of trying to communicate some feature or selling point of the brand whose logo it’s intended to be.

That’s not a matter of psychological or emotional appeal, which advertisers do use, but simply graphic designers doing their stuff. Sometimes they do it so poorly, the nonverbal communication is too subtle for anyone except a fellow logo designer to even notice, much less comprehend.

That’s when it’s called hidden communication, or subliminal.

You be the judge

So check out the well-known (for the most part) logos in this slideshow. There’s a piece of nonverbal communication in each. That nonverbal communication may be too subtle to notice. If you do spot it, its intended meaning may be too obscure to figure out. (If you can’t, the caption below each logo will explain it.)

Now: Are those logos being subliminal? Are they just subtle? Are they too subtle for their own good? Are they downright obscure? Did you enjoy trying to figure them out?

We report. You decide.