SKY TV has confirmed it has been running flash-frame ads that sit right at the level many people would find hard to spot, but the broadcaster tells Fair Go it’s not so much subliminal, more a case of unintentional advertising.
The flash-frame ads on The History Channel lasting just 40 milliseconds advertise feature films, chewing gum, soup in a cup - and alcoholic beverages.
"The one that really upset me was the Bundaberg range of alcohol on it and I think really that is not acceptable," says Peter McDermott who reported the ads to Fair Go.
"I’m not a drinker actually, but there is the potential perhaps if someone's drying out or on the wagon and that could be the thing that tips them over."
Peter had only noticed after his son pointed out the ads. He then clocked up to five a night.
"There’s something just not right and they shouldn't be there," says Peter.
Psychologists have studied flash-frame and subliminal messaging since the 1950s after a widely-reported hoax fanned fears that they amounted to mind-control.
A cinema owner in the US claimed he’d ramped up sales of popcorn and soft drinks by inserting subliminal ads into films he was screening. He later revealed he’d made that up, but the fear was off and running.
"We know that those subliminal messages do have an impact, but we can't say definitively that they're going to be that strong or they're going to last a long time," says Dr Lisa McNeill from Otago University School of Business.
Studies since have shown some effects are possible from flash frames, which made consumers more trusting for a short time, or from music, which helped influence the types of wine shoppers were buying.
But Dr McNeill says companies want a strong and conscious bond between consumers and their brand, so subliminal ads don’t tend to give them what they want.
"What we want as an advertiser is the strength of that impact. We want a call to action and we want you to keep repeating that action."
New Zealand’s Advertising Standards Code requires advertisers to prepare and place ads with a due sense for social responsibility. Alcohol advertising is also more closely controlled.
However, the Advertising Standards Authority won’t uphold a complaint if the ads are unintentional and that is what SKY TV has told Fair Go is the case here.
"When SKY receives content from an international source, the adverts from that country are also included," says SKY spokesperson Kristy Martin.
"In this case, we receive the feed for the History Channel from Foxtel in Australia."
A team here marks when the adverts begin and end with cue tones, which are used to replace those foreign ads with local ones.
"The timing can drift a frame or two meaning viewers could potentially see a "flash frame" before or after the NZ break."
SKY says it has taken steps to ensure this doesn’t occur again.