Whether you’re having a lighthearted dinner conversation around the table with your family at home, or you’re having an in-depth argument with a colleague, the topic of subliminal messages remains an interesting and complex one at that.
While some may not believe subliminal messaging is truly real, others have conducted extensive research saying otherwise. Still, even if you do think this kind of subconscious messaging is real, you may not be sure if today’s advertising techniques include the practice.
Today we’re going to hit the basics about subliminal messaging: What is it? Does it work? Are people using it today?
What is Subliminal Messaging?
To some, subliminal messaging is synonymous with mind control. Many view it as a dark and twisted way to manipulate consumers, voters, influencers, etc. into thinking whatever it is the deliverer of this message wants them to believe.
However, subliminal messaging goes a bit deeper than simple mind control.
Subliminal messaging is a way of sending a thought or an idea to someone via words, images, or even sounds that are not perceived by the conscious mind. These kinds of messages target the subconscious, so when a consumer sees them, they are not aware of it.
Subliminal messaging is not to be confused with supraliminal messaging, which is similar but has significant differences.
When it comes to supraliminal messages, an individual perceives stimuli and signals on the conscious level. However, they are unaware that these sounds, images, etc. are affecting their behavior.
A typical example of supraliminal messaging that experts use to give people a better understanding of it is the famous British supermarket music experiment.
In this experiment, which took place in the late 90s, researchers used the music in a British supermarket to test its effect on buyers.
The experts played French music and German music, alternating them day by day over two weeks. When the time frame was up, the results were in – and they erred on the side of effective supraliminal messaging.
The data concluded that on days when French music was playing, consumers bought more French wines. And, when they switched to German music, they found that the German wine outsold the French wine.
Furthermore, after questioning the shoppers on how music influenced their buying habits, most participants stated they had no awareness of its impact.
This experiment concluded that though the buyers could easily hear the music that was being played, they had no idea that it was subconsciously influencing what they purchased that day in the store.
This illustration helps us understand the difference between supraliminal and subliminal messages. During a subliminal message, people are unaware of the stimulus used. Various techniques go into accomplishing a subliminal message.
How it All Began
Subliminal messaging has been a known concept since about the 1950s. The original findings of this idea go back to the first experiment conducted by researchers James Vicary and Frances Thayer. It is a widely known experiment that you may have even heard of.
It was a straightforward experiment that hits right at the heart of subliminal messaging and advertising. These two men integrated two phrases into a movie without any of the viewers knowing about it.
During the film, the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” appeared on the screen, but only for a single frame. The words appeared and disappeared so quickly that no one was aware that it had happened.
The goal here was to test how much the subconscious mind could perceive.
The data gathered from this experiment showed that after the subliminal messages appeared, there was an 18.1% increase in Coca-Cola sales and a 57.8% increase in popcorn sales.
It’s important to note that some say that this experiment turned out to be a hoax, but nonetheless, it certainly sparked interest, outrage, and paranoia everywhere. Suddenly, everyone thought that advertisers were manipulating the unconscious mind of their consumers. There was no way of knowing if commercials or movies or even radio stations were using this tactic to increase their profit.
A little while later, there was another study done on subliminal messaging at Harvard in 1999. This experiment used a method very similar to the popcorn and Coca-Cola test.
During the experiment, subjects played a computer game. During the game, a series of different words would flash on the screen. The terms only remained visible for a few thousandths of a second, making them imperceivable to the naked eye.
One-half of the participants received positive words, including “accomplished,” “wise,” and “astute.” The other half viewed negative words such as “diseased” and “senile.”
At the end of the experiment, it was noted by researchers that those who got positive words exited the room quite quickly when they were allowed to leave. Those who received negative words moved significantly slower.
Still, some deny that subliminal messaging is real at all. The well-known author of The Exorcist was famously outspoken about his disbelief in the subliminal. His stance was that if you can see it, it’s not subliminal.
This, of course, came about after he was accused of using subliminal messaging in the movie adaptation of his book.
A closer look at the science behind this concept might help you make up your own mind about the realness of it all.
What Does the Science Say?
The word subliminal itself means below the threshold of conscious perception. This refers to any image, sound, or sensation that you are unable to perceive consciously – yet your subconscious mind detects it without you knowing it.
Your subconscious mind also cannot determine what is right and what is wrong – unlike your conscious mind, where you are continually making decisions and deciding the answer. Because of this sensation, your subconscious mind accepts these messages as true.
A popular way to explain the difference between the conscious and the subconscious mind is the iceberg visual.
In this visual, your conscious, or your surface mind, is portrayed by the top of the iceberg; it exists above the water. This is what you see when you pass by an iceberg in the ocean – just the top.
This part of your mind is visible to you, and so you can use it to make deliberate and exact decisions in your daily life.
Although this part of your mind is what you can see and control, it actually only accounts for a small percentage of your ideas, thoughts, and actions. The subconscious controls the majority of your life.
In the iceberg image, the subconscious mind is depicted as the bottom of the iceberg. In a real-life iceberg, the majority of the structure exists underwater. While you might see what looks like a small iceberg on the surface, there’s likely a much larger piece below.
This represents your subconscious mind. While your subconscious is virtually unknown to you, it is continuously active and processes tons of messages and sensory information. The subconscious is what holds your memories, creativity, emotions, and body maintenance.
Think about the things your body accomplishes on a regular basis without your conscious effort. The most basic example is your breathing. We all need oxygen to survive, but none of us have to remind ourselves to inhale and exhale consciously.
Likewise, our body heals itself when we’re sick, repairs tissue from a cut, and regulates our heartbeat. None of these things are done with the help of our conscious mind.
Many experts like to think of our subconscious as a type of autopilot that simply functions without our help.
Even learned experiences could become subconscious. When you learn how to ride a bike and nail down the balance, pedaling, and steering, you don’t have to do much thinking to hop back on it in the future.
All of this is to say that the subconscious automates a lot of actions in our life and has a massive influence on our daily routine and decisions. This is why some believe you can tap into that source of unquestioned ideas and processes and embed other thoughts within your mind without you consciously knowing it or working towards it.
In the same way, how your subconscious is programmed, per se, is how your conscious mind is going to adapt. Because the subconscious mind doesn’t let you decide right from wrong, whatever has been embedded in it is going to affect your conscious mind automatically.
So, enter in several positive subliminal messages about popcorn, and the idea here is that you will automatically think of popcorn as a positive thing.
But Does it Really Work?
The answer to this question is a little iffy and, therefore, difficult to answer. Although specific experiments and statements have alerted individuals to the idea and possibility of subliminal messaging in the past, very few advertising professionals have used it.
At least, not many have come out and directly admitted that they have.
There have been several TV networks and ad agencies who conducted extensive research on the idea, but unlike some of the other experiments we talked about earlier, their results were not as positive.
For example, the Canadian Broadcasting Company tried the technique in the late 1950s with little success. They attempted to get consumers to use their phones by quickly flashing the words “Telephone Now” across a 30-minute broadcast. They showed these words 352 times, yet they received no calls.
With all of the research we have available about how active the subconscious mind is, versus the ups and downs of what research has shown us over the last 70+ years, it’s hard to say for sure whether subliminal messaging is genuinely a valid form of advertising or sending a message.
However, that hasn’t stopped people from looking for it. There are several examples that individuals over the years have spotted and claimed to be subliminal messages. Many of these examples turn out to be sex-related, in an odd twist that involves sexual messages in a wide range of children’s movies.
Let’s take a look at some of these examples.
The Lion King
Disney is often a target of conspiracy theorists, so it’s no surprise that many people out there believe there are hidden messages that exist in these movies. The Lion King is one of them.
Perhaps one of the most popular theories, there is a scene in the Lion King that shows Simba – the film’s main character – flop down in the grass on the edge of a cliff.
When he does so, he stirs up some grass, weeds, and leaves that fly off into the night sky. What is typically taken as a nifty special effect by both kids and parents alike has been scrutinized as a subliminal message.
Some claim that if you pause the film at the right frame, you can see that the debris Simba has stirred up spells the word “sex” in the sky. This may sound like a bit of a stretch, but there are several video clips where people are happy to point this out, drawing over the letters to make it more clear.
Animators who worked on the movie have come out saying that the message was supposed to read “SFX,” as a nod to the film’s special effects team, but not everyone believes the story.
Why someone would want to send a subliminal message of sex to children is entirely unknown, but it’s a theory that many swear by.
If you’re unfamiliar, Judas Priest is a heavy metal band that was popular in the 90s. They faced great controversy over accusations that one of their songs held subliminal messages telling listeners to “try suicide” and “do it; let’s be dead.”
The accusations were so severe that the band actually found themselves in the midst of a court case after two men shot themselves after listening to the record. While one of the men died, the other survived and subsequently sued both the band and CBS Records.
The surviving fan tried to make a case stating that these supposed subliminal messages caused the two men to try to kill themselves, while Judas Priest denied any notion of this.
Of course, due to the lack of sufficient evidence to establish that a subliminal stimulus was present, the judge sided with the band and threw out the case.
George W. Bush
The political race between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the year 2000 sparked debate on whether or not political campaigns were using subliminal messages in their television ads.
The Bush administration came under attack after a TV commercial came out, focused on Al Gore’s healthcare policies and proposals.
Towards the end of the commercial, the word “bureaucrats” appears on the screen. Al Gore and his administration claimed that the last few letters of the term, which spell out “rats,” appeared a split-second before the rest of the word. This, in turn, was alleged to have put a negative subliminal message in the voters’ minds concerning Al Gore and his policies.
Back in the day, it wasn’t unusual to see a commercial or an ad for cigarettes. However, marketing for the products has significantly narrowed due to furthering research about the health disparities that can come with smoking.
Specifically, in the late 1990s through the early 2000s, there were several professional sports organizations that maintained concern about advertising for cigarettes in their stadiums, equipment, and players.
One of these administrations was Formula 1 racing.
Even today, race cars boast tons of advertisements and logos for companies who endorse them – it’s a significant source of income for the racers. But, while you may have seen a cigarette ad on nearly every race car during the sport’s early years, you won’t see one now.
The famous brand of cigarettes, Marlboro, got a little sneaky and got their logo on the cars in a subliminal way.
Rather than printing the actual logo or name of the brand on the race cars, they created a barcode-style design that looked just like that – a barcode. However, when the vehicle reached high speeds around the track, the lines of the barcode blurred to resemble the highly recognizable cigarette box greatly.
Of course, this attempt was quickly shut down by the European Public Health Commission, and the design was eventually banned because it was too close to the actual Marlboro design. The company tried to state that the similarity was unintentional, but they didn’t fool many people.
Food Network and McDonald’s
Things become even fishier when subliminal advertising seemingly takes place between two very well-known yet unconnected entities.
In the early 2000s, the Food Network was accused of delivering subliminal messages during one of its most popular shows, Iron Chef America. The claim was that during the episode, the McDonald’s logo flashed on the screen for just a fraction of a second.
While most average viewers didn’t even notice this very brief display, there were a few who caught onto the trick and expressed outrage at the attempt.
Both corporations denied that this was an intentional attempt at subliminal messaging, with the television network claiming it as a technical error and McDonald’s merely stating, “We don’t do subliminal advertising.”
Again, there’s no way of knowing whether or not they’re telling the truth.
Those from younger generations may not recall this family-friendly game, but if you do, you may also remember the scandal that went along with it.
The game was released in the early 1970s and featured memory-driven gameplay with no language barrier. It was advertised as a family game and published by Premium Corporation of America.
Like with many new products and games, the corporation also put out a series of television ads to promote and increase sales. However, during these commercials, the words “get it” would pop up in single frames, nearly invisible to viewers.
After receiving complaints from viewers, the FCC performed an investigation. An executive from Premium Corporation of America eventually admitted that the claims were, in fact, accurate, and issued an apology.
It was this case that prompted the FCC to release a statement saying that subliminal messages within television ads were contrary to the public interest and therefore put a ban on them.
Though the idea of subliminal messaging generally has a negative connotation to it, there was a time period during the 90s when many people turned to it as a form of self-help. The CD and cassette industry took over, latching onto the idea that you could use subliminal messages to reprogram the mind and deliver positive and helpful words.
Many record companies released records that embedded subliminal messages containing positive affirmations. These tapes and records ranged from addiction recovery, weight loss, eating habits, and confidence boosts. Lots of people bought into this industry, believing that the hidden messages were helping to improve their subconscious and the thoughts and feelings that it provoked.
But, like the negative examples of subliminal messaging, there is little evidence that showed any real improvement due to the tapes or records themselves.
In fact, experts at the University of California credited any positive change to the placebo effect – which is the idea that if you make someone think something is happening, their mindset – and not the product itself – can actually change things for the better.
Is Subliminal Messaging Better Than Supraliminal Messaging?
Just as we can’t say for sure whether or not subliminal messaging works in all instances, we also can’t be the definitive judge on which is better – subliminal or supraliminal. There are arguments that exist on both ends, so the best thing to do is address these arguments and form our own opinions.
Many experts and researchers claim that supraliminal messages are better and more effective because they deliver apparent and direct messages rather than trying to cover up whatever concept it is they want to get across.
Since subliminal messages go for the subconscious, it can be difficult to prove how effective they are. Meanwhile, supraliminal messages are more outright and blatant, making them seem more compelling to some people.
Supraliminal messages can be understood by the conscious mind, and therefore they almost let the subject in on the trick. It can be more of a pleasant surprise to find yourself looking at a supraliminal message, whereas those who learn they have been duped by a subliminal message may not be so thrilled.
Several examples of supraliminal messages make it clear that they are simply a clever tactic and not an evil secret. One of those examples is the Amazon logo.
Amazon is a highly recognizable name, and once you see it, you know who we’re talking about. While the name, at this point, is enough to grab people’s attention, the logo still uses a bit of subtle supraliminal messaging to let people in on the fun.
If you take a closer look at the logo, you will notice that there is an arrow going from the first letter A to the letter Z. This is a simple yet effective message telling consumers that Amazon sells everything you need from A to Z.
Additionally, the arrow doubles to form what looks like a smile. So, the whole message kind of comes together to say that Amazon has everything you need, and you’re going to have a pleasant experience shopping with us.
This kind of message is totally different from a subliminal message because individuals are aware that it’s there. Though it’s been cleverly sewn into the name of the company, Amazon is not trying to trick anyone or make your mind up for you.
It’s messages like these that lead some folks to believe that supraliminal messaging is not only better than subliminal messaging, but it’s a lot more ethical.
Regardless of how much “friendlier” one might find supraliminal messages, there are still those who believe subliminal messages have a more significant impact. The reason behind this opinion is linked to the power of the subconscious mind.
Remember earlier how we discussed the iceberg illustration and how much of our daily lives are controlled by our subconscious? Well, if an advertiser can tap into that power and have that kind of control over someone’s conscious mind through the psyche, then they’re bound to send a pretty powerful message.
The issue here is more so whether or not this technique is right and ethical. Mostly, we’re talking about a minimal kind of mind control, which tends to turn people off right from the start.
However, if it works, you can’t argue that it’s not useful. Since the subconscious mind does not have reasoning skills, anyone who can get a message or information to that part of our brain can potentially succeed in determining our decision-making.
We have already talked through several examples of this practice, and many of them had negative results. Though many did try to use the subliminal to make positive changes in their lives, it was unclear whether that was due to the subconscious receiving imperceivable messages or simply because of the placebo effect.
Subliminal messages have the potential to be a powerful force, but who knows if the world will ever be okay with advertisers and politicians seemingly controlling our mind.