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Subliminal ads with a twist of lymon

I DIDN’T CHOOSE to write this column. It’s the product of careful conditioning by the neuroscientists at the Coca-Cola company whose latest ad campaign for Sprite has done something to my prefrontal cortex that I can’t quite explain.

There’s a sparkly, sweet, citrus taste on the tip of my tongue. I’m almost tempted to run out and buy a case of Sprite.

Sprite calls the campaign “Sublymonal.” Sublymonal advertising is not, under any circumstances, to be confused with subliminal advertising, the despised and widely discredited practice of manipulating public opinion by embedding sinister messages in TV shows and movies.

The soft drink’s marketers have been using the word “lymon” — a coinage that Sprite group director Don King calls the “unique proprietary spin on our lemon-lime flavor system” (cue the “Manchurian Candidate” scientists in white lab coats) — to describe the drink ever since it first appeared in grocery stores in 1962.

Now in a clever feat of Madison Avenue-style self-parody, Sprite is using the word to poke fun at the all too scandalous idea that advertising is designed to influence human behavior.

It works, I think. I can’t say for sure. I’m too thirsty to collect my thoughts.

ONE OF THE “SUBLYMONAL” ADS is a fast-cut dream sequence that looks like something Salvador Dali might produce if he were to shoot a 60-second soft drink ad with the special effects budget of “Superman Returns.”

It opens with the word “Obey.” The plot, if there is a plot, is more difficult to summarize than “Pulp Fiction.” There’s a man in a white sanitorium with a tongue wagging out of his eye socket; two naked Sumo wrestlers in green and yellow body paint bumping stomachs in a forest; and two Lilliputian nurses applying green and yellow defillibrators to the lips of a beautiful woman. The voiceover — “crisp, clean, exuberant” — slips past imperceptibly.

All that CGI handiwork doesn’t come cheaply. The effects were done by Framework, the same shop that provided the effects for “Superman Returns.” It’s the most cinematic of the ads, and that’s no coincidence. Two 30-second versions of the spot debuted on TV during the NBA conference finals. The 60-second version opened wide in some 25,000 movie theaters last Friday.

IT’S ONLY FITTING that the Sublymonal campaign is playing in theaters. As it happens, the subliminal craze of the 1950s was triggered by an enterprising exhibitor in New Jersey who claimed he boosted concessions sales at his drive-in by flashing the words “drink cola” and “eat popcorn” on the screen.

Now, like all discredited advertising trends of bygone days, subliminal advertising is making a comeback. Last year, I wrote a magazine story about three social psychologists in the Netherlands who reported that flashing the words “drink” and “cola” in front of test subjects for 15 milliseconds actually made them more thirsty. Today, we live in a world of ever more sophisticated neuromarketing, in which scientists put test subjects in MRI machines to gauge their reactions to Coke and Pepsi.

All these trends have left me wondering whether marketers shouldn’t spend less time dreaming up clever TV spots and spend more time reading Freud. In the future, we won’t watch commercials. We’ll just have them embedded in our collective unconscious.

IS IT POSSIBLE TO EMBED a subliminal advertisement — or two — in an article about subliminal advertising?

I’m not saying. But I will make one confession: The hunk of newsprint you’re holding is the final advertising column I’ll write for Daily Variety. Over the last 12 months, I’ve been exposed to so many TV commercials and movie trailers and billboards and one-sheets and viral Internet campaigns, I’ve begun to lose all sense of journalistic objectivity. Enough is enough.

When Nora Ephron stopped writing her media column for Esquire in the 1970s, she complained that she was tired of her own first person singular pronoun. “I figure if I stop writing a column for a while,” she wrote, “it will reduce the number of first person singular pronouns in circulation by only a hair; still, it seems like the noblest thing I can think of to do this week.”

I share her instincts. Going forward, my own first-person singular pronoun will only appear in these pages subliminally. I’m glad that’s out of the way. Now, could I interest you in a Sprite?

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