Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 11/9/2006 Far be it from me to question our own news team's sense of priorities, even though their glorious leader Graeme Wearden is off on two weeks' honeymoon following a successful merger and acquisition in the Oxfordshire countryside this weekend.

Monday 11/9/2006

Far be it from me to question our own news team's sense of priorities, even though their glorious leader Graeme Wearden is off on two weeks' honeymoon following a successful merger and acquisition in the Oxfordshire countryside this weekend. They're normally well inured to security companies making claims that stretch one's credulity — and today's story, that Panda Labs says it's detected spam emails with embedded subliminal advertising, may on the face of it appear to be one such.

The claim is that some of those dodgy emails saying that a particular stock is about to go through the roof are supplemented (Panda doesn't say how) by "10 to 40 milliseconds" of the words BUY BUY BUY in various positions on the screen. Like mobile phone viruses and the abject susceptibility of Apple's OS X software to attack, such ideas seem more wishful thinking than sober fact.

But the story is justified, I think, for three reasons.

It's the sort of thing that's likely to be picked up by the mainstream media and, in the unlikely event that they get some details wrong, it's good to have something down to present a more technical view.

Then there's the chance to remind people about subliminal advertising, which is a subject that borders on urban mythology. The idea was born in the stew of credulity surrounding science in general and psychology in particular back in the 1950s and, like so many alternative ideas thrived in the 1960s, despite there being no evidence that it worked. Further studies continued to fail to support it, but such information is rarely news. Most people I've asked know that it's illegal but not that it doesn't work. Like witchcraft, the laws against it help promote a spurious authority.

So, not only is it unlikely that the suspicious emails deliberately set out to be subliminal —  after all, flashing BUY BUY BUY is hardly the exclusive domain of psychologists —  but that, even if they did, they'd have any more effect than plain unadorned spam. Some people do respond to these stock option emails, certainly enough to make the exercise worthwhile: one analyst followed the market for a couple of months and found that if you bet on the advertised stocks going down you could make a decent enough profit. But that's unlikely to be the result of advanced advertising techniques: more good old-fashioned stupid cupidity.

And the final reason to run the story is that it's a chance for us to do our own research into subliminal advertising. But that's a story for another day.