Subliminal cigarette marketing

The Tobacco Documents Library is an online database of millions of tobacco industry documents made public through court cases. Included are letters written to cigarette companies including several where the public have complained about ‘subliminal messages’ hidden in adverts.

Quite frankly, they are a joy to read, and this is my favourite among many hidden gems. It’s a letter from an organisation called Morality in Marketing to the makers of Camel cigarettes:

Dear Mr. Johnston

While at first we were enchanted with your popular new advertising campaign featuring head-shots of a “cool camel,’ in the course of an in-depth analysis by our media researchers the subliminal message inherent in your ads was cracked. Consequently, we must withdraw our agency’s support of this ad and include Camel Cigarettes on our hit-list of “Prurient Products” to boycott.

Your subtle ploy to titillate your audience with pornographic imagery of male genitalia disguised as harmless camel heads has not gone undetected. You can only imagine the extreme sense of anxiety, frustration and embarrassment I now feel when I am continually exposed to this graphic homosexual depiction of penile putrescence.

We have a bone to pick with you: where do you get off on displaying this root of all sin to hype your cigarettes? How long will you continue to promote your product by flashing gigantic sex glands on bill-boards throughout this country? As an up and coming organization dedicated to educating the American pubic about decency in advertising, we do not advocate censorship. However, while our desire is not to be too hard on you, we, as chaste Christian consumers, strongly urge you to cut off this media deluge of frontal nudity.

Additionally, could you please send to me a list of promotional materials offered to your customers and their children in conjunction with this extended marketing gimmick . We would be particularly interested, for obvious reasons, in any products which might involve oral contact (ex. mugs, glasses) or fondling (ex . stuffed replicas of the camel).

A prompt reply to this inquiry would be greatly appreciated. Thank you and God Bless You.

Firm in Our Faith,
Reverend Peter Manale

Interestingly, most of the other letters complaining about subliminal messages are a bit fixated on hidden representations of the ‘male genitalia’, probably fuelled in part by a similar urban myth.

I couldn’t find anything in the tobacco documents database to suggest that the industry was particularly interested in subliminal advertising, although there are several documents about subliminal flavours in cigarettes.

In fact, an academic paper [pdf] was written on exactly this topic, finding that the industry had done research to show that adding consciously undetectable amounts of menthol flavour to regular cigarettes caused “altered perception of tobacco smoke and its constituents via cooling, smoothing, and anesthetic effects; increased impact through stimulation of trigeminal receptors; interaction with nicotine controlling its perception, delivery, and uptake; and increased respiratory irritation and toxic effects”.

I heard a rumour that if you smoked cigarettes backwards you could hear Judas Priest songs but it never worked for me.

Link to subliminal complaints letters in tobacco docs database.

2010-02-26 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Slate has a little-told story of how the U.S. government poisoned alcohol during Prohibition with deadly consequences.

An important study on how video games can hamper reading and writing skills in young boys by displacing other activities is covered by Not Exactly Rocket Science.

The New Yorker has a long but shallow article on the scientific status of psychiatry. Draws almost entirely on popular books for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.

If you want to hear me discussing the recent ‘technology scares’ article on the radio show On the Media you can find the audio here. The transcript features my misspelt clone self ‘Vaughn’ Bell.

The Wall Street Journal journal has a great piece on scientific creativity and how science funding is increasingly going to older researchers.

The process of brain development is concisely captured in an award-winning PhD Comics infographic which you can find on Neurophilosophy.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an excellent piece on attention and classroom multi-tasking.

A hilariously bad fMRI neuromarketing ‘study’ on Facebook pages is covered by The Neurocritic.

The Guardian reports on a talk where universities are told to consider dope tests as student use of ‘smart drugs’ soars. Although doesn’t mention bonus marks for handcapping oneself with illicit drugs.

A blog of Vintage and Anchor book hosts a discussion between neuroscientist David Eagleman and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein about how to marry the limitations of science with literary imagination.

The Globe and Mail discuss the proposed changes to the DSM-V that would make being too interested in sex a mental illness.

A new study published in the British Medical Journal on Dutch patients with chronic fatigue syndrome found no evidence of infection with the XMRV virus. If you’re not sure why this is an important piece of a controversial puzzle, read an earlier Mind Hacks post.

Neuroworld reports on a intriguing study finding that the happiness boost from a holiday starts the day you start planning it. As I’m still planning a weekend in Butlins with Shakira, this is welcome news.

As the 60’s generation ages, marijuana use is becoming more common in older folks. Don’t bogart that joint old friend.

Scientific American discusses how the enteric nervous system, the one in your gut, influences mood and well-being.

A dodgy survey to see how common the made up diagnosis ‘Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder’ is in women is discussed by Dr Petra. Dodgy survey coincidentally from a drug company trying to promote their 0.7 more satisfying sexual events per month drug. That’s 0.023 more satisfying sexual events per day ladies. Spine tingling, I know.

Alison Gopnick’s new book ‘The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life’ gets an extended review in The New York Review of Books.

Science News covers and interesting study finding that white matter tearing and stretching may cause its most serious damage by breaking microtubules.

Interesting new blog Nonessential Reading covers a study finding that students who were made to think about ideas related to disorder and randomness in the world were more inclined than their peers to believe in God or a similar nonhuman entity. Therefore, ghosts are cleary leaving my flat in a mess.

XKCD has a fantastic comic strip about free will and mind reading.

Mathematicians offer tip-offs to LAPD, reports New Scientist. It could have been a lovely story about geeks helping the cops investigate the Riemann hypothesis (imagine an infinite series of donuts…) but turns out to be about mathematical modelling of crime hot spots.

Frontier Psychiatrist has a piece in the BMJ about assessing suicide risk in a gentleman who’s experienced a series of unfortunate events.

Singing ‘rewires’ damaged brain, reports BBC News. Before, everything washed the brain. Now, everything rewires the brain. So who’s giving it a lick of paint? Answer me that pointdexter.

The New York Times reports that afternoon naps can increase the ability to learn. Useful to know for when you get fired for sleeping on the job. I don’t think I was cut-out for lap dancing anyway.

The keep fit effectiveness of video-game exercise bikes is discussed by The BPS Research Digest.

Scientific American covers an important new meta-analysis on the effectiveness of psychodynamic therapy, although seems to think this is an amazing innovation, when a similar study was published in 2008.

Good vibrations aid mind-controlled steering. Sounds dirty, isn’t. A piece on brain-computer interfaces from New Scientist.

Clearing the fog of vision

Neuroscientist Pawan Sinha gave an inspiring talk to TED India about his work on providing treatment for visual problems and how this is over-turning many of our long-standing assumptions about how the brain develops the ability to make sense of the visual world.

Sinha focuses on children and adults who have grown up with congenital cataracts – a clouding of the eye’s lens that prevents light from entering the eye.

In essence, it’s like growing up with a blindfold on or while wearing very clouded glasses. The condition is easy to treat with minor surgery but removing the cataract ‘blindfold’ after childhood doesn’t give the personal normal vision.

This is because we are not born ‘seeing’ like we do in later childhood, the brain learns to do so in the early years of life through having experience of the visual world. For example, being able to separate objects from their background is something the brain learns to do – so we can tell that there is a postbox in front of the wall and not that there is a wall with a picture of a postbox on its surface.

Without this experience the visual system doesn’t acquire these abilities and so people who have cataracts removed later in life typically do not have normal vision – despite their eyes being restored to full function.

It was thought if cataracts were removed in late childhood the person would be stuck with missing visual skills, even though their sight would improve in some areas. However, Sinha and has team published an important study in 2006 on a woman who had cataracts removed at the age of 12, well past the time where vision was assumed to be salvageable, but who had near normal vision twenty years after her surgery.

This suggested to the research team that visual development can happen later in life and wasn’t fixed in the early years, as had been assumed from animal studies or from assessments of patients that had only happened shortly after surgery.

Sinha runs Project Prakash that provides cataract surgery to people in India but this has also allowed him the opportunity to study visual development in more detail and his TED talk is on how is combining both the humanitarian and scientific mission to expand our understanding of the visual brain and advance treatments for visual problems.

Link to Pawan Sinha’s TED India talk.
Link to Project Prakash website.

Area responsible for neuroscience errors located

I liked this funny and recursive brain diagram from tech journalist Quinn Norton that makes fun of our tendency to be wowed by brain scans.

The diagram has a good evidence base. A 2008 study found that adding a picture of a brain scan to a scientific argument about human nature made the general public more likely to be believe it even if brain activity wasn’t relevant to the point being made.

Another study published in the same year found that simply adding an irrelevant sentence about the brain had a similar effect.

Thankfully, Norton has now located the brain area responsible for our problem with understanding bogus neuroscience explanations.

Link to recursive brain diagram.

The birth of a visual artist, after blindness

Psychologist Lawrence Rosenblum’s Sensory Superpowers blog covers the remarkable story of blind artist John Bramblitt who creates the most strikingly vivid images but didn‚Äôt start painting until he lost his sight.

To judge colour Bramblitt feels the small differences in the thickness and texture of the paint and the piece discusses how such fine touch distinction become more possible after sight loss owing to what is known as cross-modal plasticity:

For color, Bramblitt uses oil paint, which has proven critical to the process. While oil paint is messier, more pungent, and dries much slower than acrylics, it offers something that no other paint can: idiosyncratic viscosity. According to Bramblitt, “White feels thicker on my fingers, almost like toothpaste, and black feels slicker and thinner. To mix a gray, I’ll try to get the paint to have a feel of medium viscosity”. In fact, he has learned to recognize and mix all the colors he uses by his sense of touch. And the colors are the first thing one notices about Bramblitt’s work ( While the subjects of his paintings are immediately recognizable, proportioned, and smartly stylized, the colors are supremely vibrant, and nearly psychedelic in their rendering.

John Bramblitt has developed his touch skills in particularly impressive ways. But the enhancement of the touch sense is known to generally occur for blind individuals. Research has shown that regardless of training in Braille, the blind have better touch skills than the sighted, especially when it comes to touching complex spatial patterns. This cross-modal plasticity is thought to be a result of the blind’s visual cortex being reassigned to other senses. Brain imaging shows that when touching complex patterns, the visual cortex of blind, but not sighted individuals is activated in systematic ways. Moreover, inducing a transient brain lesion (using transcranial magnetic stimulation) in visual cortex will disrupt some of the tactile skills of blind, but not sighted subjects.

The author of the article researches cross-modal plasticity and followers of his blog will be aware that he often comes up with striking examples of the effect in action.

We covered another one of his posts, about blind mountain bikers who make clicks as a form of human ‘echolocation’, back in July.

If want to see more of Bramblitt’s artwork, there’s plenty more over at his website.

Link to ‘Painting by Touch’ article.
Link to John Bramblitt’s website.

On riding the mistake wave

I’ve just read a funny and insightful interview with neuroscientist Vincent Walsh from last November’s Current Biology that’s full of over-caffeinated anecdotes and understated wisdom.

It’s really worth reading in full but, unfortunately, the whole thing is locked behind a paywall (a bargain at only $31.50), but I’ve reproduced part of the piece below:

What’s the best advice you have ever given to others? I interviewed a truly exceptional person for a PhD last year. I told her ‚Äúfor God’s sake don’t waste your talent on me as a supervisor‚Äù. I haven’t seen her since. It is rewarding to be listened to.

What has been your biggest mistake in science? Oh, I haven’t even begun to peak on mistakes. I have so many more to give. I make mistakes all the time. In fact, I can’t think of any of my most rewarding papers for which I wouldn’t either interpret the data differently now or start/end with a different theoretical perspective. If you’re still being right about the same shit you were right about 20 years ago, then something tells me you’re either not thinking or you’re just moving papers as product. The whole point of intellectual activity is to come to new conclusions. I don’t see how one can think and keep coming up with the same conclusion, unless it’s really dull stuff. It’s almost our job to be wrong. How can you not make mistakes if you’re reaching for something? I don’t understand people who are proud of never having made one.

One of my scientific heroes is Semir Zeki. I think he’s been substantially wrong on almost everything, but his contribution to science has been far bigger than those who haven’t had the intellectual smarts or courage to put new ideas into the literature. This is no side swipe, I actually think Zeki should have shared the 1982 Nobel prize: he had completely rewritten the architecture of the visual cortex by 1978. The best most of us can hope for is to be fruitfully wrong ‚Äî and you need to be damned clever and courageous to be so. I can only dream of getting things as intelligently wrong, but there’s time.

Do you really mean that? Yes, I mean it with knobs on actually. The view comes from my love of the history of science. I get really angry when people say nonsense like ‚ÄúGall was discredited‚Äù or ‚ÄúLet’s not make the phrenological error‚Äù. I even heard someone say that ‚ÄúNewton has been discredited‚Äù. Such things display a deep ignorance of what Gall contributed and of how history proceeds (the point being that it isn’t a procession of course). Some people think that knowledge of the history of the subject is some kind of optional indulgence but it’s not, it’s essential and it’s also the gateway to humility.

We really haven’t kept up with the general pace as a science. If you reincarnated Gall and explained to him where we are up to, you could bring him up to speed over a pint. If you did the same with a physicist or cell biologist from the same period, the poor buggers’ brains would be throwing sparks by 1905, spewing smoke by 1930 and be in total meltdown by 1953 ‚Äî and that’s when the pace really picked up! Being interestingly wrong is so underrated. Galileo’s ridiculously premature attempt to measure the speed of light is one of my favourite experiments in the whole of science ‚Äî it was based on great thought, not on tweaking a variable.

How do you run your research group? Er ‚Äúrun‚Äù? I think I run after it most of the time…

Link to locked Current Biology interview.

Touch me

Photo by Flickr user lintmachine. Click for sourceThe New York Times has an interesting short article on psychology studies that have looked at the emotional influence of brief touches.

The evidence that such messages can lead to clear, almost immediate changes in how people think and behave is accumulating fast. Students who received a supportive touch on the back or arm from a teacher were nearly twice as likely to volunteer in class as those who did not, studies have found. A sympathetic touch from a doctor leaves people with the impression that the visit lasted twice as long, compared with estimates from people who were untouched. Research by Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute in Miami has found that a massage from a loved one can not only ease pain but also soothe depression and strengthen a relationship.

In a series of experiments led by Matthew Hertenstein, a psychologist at DePauw University in Indiana, volunteers tried to communicate a list of emotions by touching a blindfolded stranger. The participants were able to communicate eight distinct emotions, from gratitude to disgust to love, some with about 70 percent accuracy.

“We used to think that touch only served to intensify communicated emotions,” Dr. Hertenstein said. Now it turns out to be “a much more differentiated signaling system than we had imagined.”

The piece goes to to discuss research on sports team success and touch but it misses out one of my favourites studies in the area, that we covered back in 2007.

It found that a light touch on the arm increased the chances that a male research assistant would persuade a woman in a nightclub to dance with him, or to swap phone numbers.

UPDATE: Christian just sent me this study finding that a light touch from a doctor encourages patients to take medication properly:

Although the positive effect of touch on compliance has been widely found in the literature, a new evaluation has been carried out in a health setting. Four general practitioners were instructed to slightly touch (or not) their adult patients who suffered from a pharyngitis when they asked them for a verbal promise to take the prescribed antibiotic medication. One week later, patients were solicited at home to evaluate the number of tablets that were taken. Greater medication compliance was found in the touch condition.

Link to NYT piece on the psychology of touch.