Classic Message: Subliminal Advertising, or Not

(Note: I published this column in 2002 in Arkansas Business. Some incorrect assumptions are unfortunately durable. Just ask Leo.)TagHeuerAd

Pardon me — do you have the time? If your watch is showing a time other than 10:10, then you’re obviously not living in the world according to magazine and newspaper advertising.

The vast majority of print ads for watches and clocks show the time as 10:10 or something close to it. Why? Legend has it that someone in the business, some time ago, believed that at 10:10, the hands on a clock made a kind of smiley face — and that this smiley face subliminally would encourage consumers to be so happy that they would want to purchase said advertised watch or clock. (I guess 8:20 would conjure up Mister Frowny Face.) The practice is so embedded within the industry that even ads for digital watches and clocks (which can neither smile nor frown) generally show the time as 10:10.

A wealth of research has demonstrated that such subliminal advertising attempts aren’t effective with consumers. Yet, the practice remains.

Several years ago, The Wall Street Journal uncovered this phenomenon in a “Column Four” article. Following some interviews with watch and clock marketers and advertising production pros, the reporter concluded that the practice was indeed common. More interestingly, most of the pros involved in creating timepiece advertising had no idea why the practice was common. The 10:10 rule was apparently one of those things that, well, just was.

In order to update you on the status of the 10:10 rule, I conducted a nonscientific test. I picked one magazine that was likely to include several ads for watches and/or clocks; in this case, it was the May issue of Esquire. I looked for the percentage of timepiece ads that followed the “smiley face” convention.

Four timepiece marketers had advertisements in the issue: Bell & Ross, Cartier, IWC and Movado. All of the timepieces were watches, and none of those watches had a digital readout (I guess the traditional look is firmly back in vogue).

The details of my exhaustive analysis were

  • The Bell & Ross ad contained six photos of its watches in which the time was visible. Those times were 10:10, 10:10, 10:05, 10:07, 10:03 and 10:03.

  • The IWC ad featured a photo of one watch. The time was 10:08.

  • Cartier’s three-page spread had three photos of its Roadster watch. The times were 10:10, 10:09 and 10:09.

  • The Movado ad had one photo of its SE watch and four photos of tennis star Pete Sampras. (Note to Movado: Pete is wearing a long-sleeve turtleneck in the photos, and it isn’t clear whether your endorser is even wearing a watch. Oops.) The Movado watch has no numerals, but it appeared that the time was 10:09.

It appears that watch marketers are continuing the longstanding industry practice. And, if we believe the conclusions from the WSJ article still apply, many of these marketers are following convention with little or no idea why they are doing so.

What do you hear within your business when strategy is being set? Phrases such as, “Let’s just base it off last year’s budget,” “That’s the way it’s always been,” or “That’s just the way I was taught to do it,” should raise big red flags. Continuing past practice is fine, as long as (1) everyone understands the assumptions that drove the practice and (2) those assumptions still hold.

So when you set marketing plans, don’t take anything for granted. And remember that magazine ads are about the only place where time truly stands still.

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