No smoke without fire? Are accusations of subliminal advertising unfair on Marlboro?

There is a sub-plot in Kevin Smith’s sophomore movie Mallrats that revolves around a hapless and increasingly frustrated character that fails to see a sailboat in one of those Magic Eye images that burned brightly briefly in the popular cultural landscape of the early 90s.


Having stared at the barcode that adorns the back of Ferrari F1 drivers’ suits and is alleged to carry subliminal advertising for Marlboro cigarettes, I share his pain.

To catch up, doctors’ groups and the European Public Health Commissioner have suggested that Philip Morris, owner of the Marlboro brand, might be guilty of subliminal advertising via a red and white bar code on suits worn by drivers including Fernando Alonso.

This, of course, would be a contravention of European law that prevents tobacco companies from sponsoring sports events or teams.

Ferrari, which is said to be backed by the Marlboro maker, denies the charges, adding that the bar code is part of the “livery” of the car.

Is this another of the great Marlboro packaging conspiracy theories akin to the accepted fact of the playground that if you looked sideways and squint keenly at a pack you could see the acronym KKK?

Or an attempt to park a brand image in the minds of consumers without speaking of it, showing and certainly ever naming it?

It is certainly something, that is for sure, and given that the tobacco industry’s marketing options have all but been obliterated, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that it would turn to targeting the sub-conscious.

Marketing to the dark pools of the mind? Or a natty addition to the Ferrari F1 outfit?


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