From Bill Moyers to Marshall McLuhan to Raymond Williams, cultural observers of the late 20th century have charged the images of consumer culture with profound effects on life and consciousness. In tones of utter certainty, critics like these have warned of the deleterious effects persuasive commercial imagery has on the human mind, the collective behavior, and the society’s values. Folk beliefs about the powers of advertisers to manipulate viewers from behind the screen of conscious rationality have shown remarkable steadfastness since they first appeared on the scene in the 1950s.Whether the discourse occurs in a tavern or a lecture hall, the power of persuasive imagery has become one of the given premises of postindustrial life.
It is remarkable in light of all that has been claimed to find how little, even at the dawn of the 21st century, is really known about the human response to visual images, including those of persuasive intent. Despite the almost religious tone of conviction that attends charges of “manipulation” or “subliminal seduction” through pictures, the hard evidence that such effects can be consistently produced is simply not there. Instead, researchers who have chosen actually to investigate how consumers respond to the visual aspects of advertising, packaging, and other corporate signs have discovered that the questions are much more complex, the phenomenon more subtle, the viewers sturdier, and the sense of certainty more elusive than most observers have taken the time to imagine.