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MPs look to curb controversial marketing plans

MPs have called for regulations to be put in place to control the use of a controversial marketing technique about to be trialled for a new safe sex campaign.

Inception Communication techniques are refined in the US (Pic courtesy of Ambu)

Inception Communication techniques are refined in the US (Pic courtesy of Ambu)

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Arnold Middleton, MP for Furness and a member of the Commons Select Committee on communication, raised a question in parliament yesterday over the first use in the UK of a highly controversial technique, originally developed in the US by the CIA and banned in a number of European countries, called Inception Communication.

Politically sensitive, the technique is being tested for the government-funded Sexaware campaign by the London based ad agency Creative Orchestra. "We know this technique is highly controversial and as a form of subliminal advertising has enormous power over consumers," said Creative Orchestra’s head of insight Chris Russell. "For some messages this is a technique that works amazingly well and what better message to implant in a sleeping persons mind than a safe sex one."

Responding to questions raised in a Commons Select Committee grilling, Middleton released a statement saying: "This technique is frightening in its ability to implant subliminal advertising messages into the minds of people while they sleep. Even though it currently requires subjects to volunteer, how can we trust companies not to use it irresponsibly? As a result I am asking the Information Commissioner's Office to impose a section B474 to ban the technique until it can be reviewed."

International professor of neuro-science, Rajam Singh of the Berkeley Science School, explained that the technique uses low frequencies beta waves - common in regular brain activity - to convey information directly into the cerebral cortex via the synapse. "Rather than using the eyes, ears or other senses, in the way conventional communications do, this short cuts the process straight to the nervous system. It’s no more extraordinary than TV is to the eye," said Singh.

Lucy LeBon, head of the Advertising Media Research Unit at London University, is one of a growing number of academics calling for immediate controls. "In the wrong hands Inception Marketing [as it has been dubbed by the US ad industry] could be both abused and subversive."

Far fetched it isn’t. Developed originally as a fast educational process by the CIA at Phoenix University, Arizona, inception techniques mean images, ideas and even large quantities of information (like operation manuals) can be implanted into the mind while an individual is asleep. It’s a development of the original sleep learning techniques (also known as hypnopædia) used to teach languages through audio tapes. But scientists discovered that by using beta waves (between 12–15 Hz) they could shortcut the ears and input information directly into the vestibular nerve. It was first tested as an advertising technique in 2010 in an experiment in New York for a sports drinks brand, but has since been tightly controlled by US regulators for fear of it being used by subversive groups or terrorists.  

Orson Welles experimented with subliminal messages to affect mood in his classic film Citizen Kane. And it was in 1957 that subliminal advertising was experimented with in cinemas using split second images placed in a short film. Although results were inconclusive, the outcry at the time led to a ban. Subliminal advertising is not permitted on TV in the UK, but as Inception Marketing doesn’t use conventional ad media it is exempt from Ofcom regulations.  

Open research studies have shown  subliminal messages are more effective when emotive. Professor Valerie Goldwater, director of the Association of Cognitive Neuroscience Research Institutes, who was involved in the ad test for Creative Orchestra, said: "There has been much speculation about whether people can process emotional information unconsciously. We have proved that people can perceive the emotional value of subliminal messages and have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words which have more of a rapid impact," she explained. "‘Kill your speed’ should be more noticeable than ‘slow down', for example."

Largely speaking, readers needn’t lose sleep over widespread use of the technique. Currently, volunteers need to drink an ionised drink which contains Choline, which enhances neurotransmitter acetylcholines, and DMAE, a chemical produced in the brain, which together enhance the brain’s beta wave function to make a person into a receiver. Opponents of Inception Marketing claim it would be easy to spike drinks, food or even a water supply. And LeBon added: "Supposing a big cola drinks company put these chemicals into their drink and then secretly transmitted subliminal messages? We wouldn’t know." While admitting that he shared many of the concerns raised by Inception Marketing, Creative Orchestra’s Russell said: "it maybe highly controversial but it's highly effective. I agree that it needs to be limited to the few who can be trusted to use it responsibly but like the nuclear bomb it’s here and anyone can access the technology."  

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