Ghost Sites of the Web

Web 1.0 history, forgotten web celebrities, old web sites, commentary, and news by Steve Baldwin. Published erratically since 1996.

June 23, 2005

Using Subliminal Terror as a Marketing Tool

I'm always fascinated whenever I see instances of our innermost fears and terrors being expressed in contemporary advertisements. Take this animated ad for Yahoo's DSL service, which I captured this morning from an application called WeatherBug. In it, we see a man, evidently on fire, being propelled past one, possibly two, high-rise buildings. The hottest point of this man's inflammation is superimposed on the topmost point of the high-rise buildings, which makes it appear that the buildings themselves might themselves be exploding into flame.

It is impossible, at least for me, to see this ad without being reminded of the horror of 9/11/01, which happened in my home city of New York. And I very much doubt that I'm alone: the tactile memories of flames, projectiles, falling people, and urban skyscrapers set aflame are etched in our collective psyches and will likely remain so for many years to come.

What were Yahoo's creative people thinking when they commissioned this ad? One cynical interpretation is that they might have viewed this ad's potential for reawakening the fear and horror of four years ago as an advantage in terms of making sure it was memorable: a key point for differentiating successful from unsuccessful ads.

But it is equally likely that none of Yahoo's creative team were aware of the connections that would be made between the burning man in this ad, the flames that might or might not be coming from the building, and our deepest fears and terrors about what might happen again (a story that ran yesterday on posed the likelihood of a major WMD attack within the next 10 years as at high as 70 percent).

If this is so, it suggests that our fears and terrors have become so completely absorbed by our collective unconscious that they will spawn a whole new genre of ads in which terror and its multiple unconscious associations will be used as a powerful new marketing tool.

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