Subliminal Marketing: Everything you Need to Know about this Controversial Advertising Tactic

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I. Introduction

Subliminal marketing is the use of subtle messages in advertisements to subconsciously persuade consumers to behave in a certain way. These subtle messages are not immediately noticeable. Rather, they are meant to embed themselves into our subconscious mind, influencing our feelings and actions over time.  

James Vicary made the public aware of this type of advertising in 1957 with his movie theater experiment. Vicary claimed to have increased Coke and popcorn sales at a movie theater using subtle messages that flashed quickly on the screen. In an interview with Ad Age in 1962, however, Vicary admitted that he fabricated the results of the experiment.

Nonetheless, the idea of subliminal advertising sparked public fear and paranoia. This was compounded by two influential books, The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard and Subliminal Seduction by Wilson Bryan Key, which both explored the idea that the advertising industry was purposely manipulating consumers. In response to the public outcry, in 1974, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released a notice against subliminal advertising, stating that it is deceptive and contrary to the public interest.

Since this time, there have been countless studies conducted and articles written to try and determine subliminal marketing’s effectiveness and morality. Here, you will find a summary of the available information on subliminal marketing so that you can better understand the topic as it relates to your Shopify store.

II. Types of Subliminal Messages

Subliminal messages are subtle communications that we perceive unknowingly (not in the conscious mind). There are two main types of subliminal messages: auditory and visual.

Auditory subliminal messages appeal to one’s sense of hearing, and there are two kinds: subaudible messages and backmasking. Subaudible messages involve low-volume audio cues that are barely perceptible because they are masked by a louder audio message. Examples of subaudible messages can be found in the self-help cassette tapes that were popular in the 1980s and claimed to help people with losing weight, quitting smoking, and more. The other type of auditory subliminal message is called backmasking. This is when messages are recorded backwards and thus, hidden when the audio is played normally. There are numerous examples of backmasking in popular songs, including: The Beatles’ Rain, Weird Al Yankovic’s Nature Trail to Hell, and Ozzy Osbourne’s Bloodbath in Paradise.  

There are also two types of visual subliminal messages: subvisual messages and embeds. Subvisual messages, like those used in James Vicary’s experiment, involve visual cues that are flashed so quickly that viewers can’t consciously perceive them. Embeds are static images that are hidden in a larger image so that we cannot perceive them when the image is shown quickly. One example of this is KFC’s 2008 advertisement for its Snacker sandwich, in which you can see a dollar bill embedded in the lettuce if you pause the video and look carefully.

Regardless of the form subliminal messages take, they all work in the same way.

III. How Subliminal Messages Work

Subliminal messages involve sensory stimuli, like sounds or images, that trigger our subconscious mind. Though we may not consciously realize the stimuli are there, because they are delivered quickly or hidden effectively, our brain still processes them. Why is this?

The brain processes 11 million bits of information every second, but only 40-50 bits of information can be handled consciously.  That means the rest happens subconsciously, without your awareness.

Our subconscious is responsible for keeping our heart beating, our lungs working, and other automatic functions that keep us alive. It is also where we store and retrieve data. And according to Harvard professor Gerald Zaltman, 95% of our purchase decisions happen in the subconscious mind. This explains why marketers might hope to affect consumers’ subconscious mind with subliminal messages - to influence their buying behavior and increase sales. But can subliminal messages actually change behavior?

The effectiveness of subliminal messages is up for debate. Ian Zimmerman, psychology professor at University of Minnesota Duluth, summed it up nicely when he said, “Subliminal messaging can actually be influential [but] they can’t make you go buy something you don’t want or vote for a political candidate you don’t like. The messages just aren’t that powerful.” To learn more about the effectiveness of subliminal advertising, jump to Section VI and read about various scientific studies on the topic.

IV. Examples of Subliminal Messages

There are many examples of subliminal messages in popular culture. One example is from the movie The Exorcist, where a subvisual image of a white-faced demon flashes quickly on the screen. There are also numerous claims of subliminal messages in various Disney movies, such as the word “sex” supposedly hidden in the clouds in The Lion King.

A famous example of a subliminal message hidden in music is from Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. When played backwards, some say the lyrics hold a message saying, “Oh here’s to my sweet Satan/The ones whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan/He will give you, give you 666/There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.” In his TED Talk, Michael Shermer, founder of Skeptic magazine, explains that subliminal messages like this one and others are simply a result of our brain’s natural inclination to seek out patterns to make sense of the world.

As the topic of this article suggests, there are also many instances of subliminal messages in advertisements. One of the first companies to attempt to use subliminal messages in their advertising is Husker Du, the board game. The Husker Du television ad from 1973 supposedly contained the subvisual message, “Get it”. Another widely cited example is a print ad from Gilbey’s Gin in which the word “sex” appears to be hidden in the ice cubes (below).

Have these companies or people received any backlash from using subliminal messages in their movies, music, or ads? Are there any regulations around subliminal marketing? Continue reading to find out.

V. The Legal Status of Subliminal Advertising

In Britain and Australia, subliminal marketing is banned. In the United States, however, there are no formal laws restricting subliminal advertising. Government agencies, such as the FCC and FTC, have released statements against the controversial practice, declaring that it is deceptive. Nonetheless, the FCC only regulates the broadcasters, not the companies responsible for producing the advertisements, so punitive action is rarely taken.

Individuals are allowed to sue if they feel they have been negatively affected by a subliminal message. The most notable of these cases involves the heavy metal band, Judas Priest. The parents of two boys, James Vance and Raymond Belknap, sued the band and their label for including hidden messages in the album “Better by You, Better by Me”.  The parents claimed that the subliminal messages influenced their sons to commit suicide. Judas Priest won the case, with the judge ruling that, “the scientific research presented does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude.”

Given the definition of subliminal marketing, it can be hard to prove that musicians, companies, or advertisers are actually employing this technique. That is, subliminal messages are intended to affect behavior unknowingly, so how can a consumer demonstrate that the advertisement influenced them to take a certain action? Whether or not subliminal advertising can affect behavior is certainly up for debate.

VI. The Effectiveness of Subliminal Advertising

There have been many studies on the effectiveness of subliminal advertising. From these studies, it appears the general consensus is that subliminal messages can work, but only in specific circumstances.

For instance, Ian Zimmerman, an experimental psychologist who studies consumer behavior, states that in order for subliminal messages to be effective, they must be aligned to our current needs and goals. In other words, a subliminal message might influence you to buy something that you were already planning on buying anyways. Johan Karremans of the Netherlands conducted a study published in 2006 that verified this. In the study, participants were subliminally exposed to the message “Lipton Ice”. The results showed that participants were more likely to choose the Lipton beverage over another, but only if they were already thirsty. This idea extends to charitable giving as well. In a study conducted by Andersson, Miettinen, Hytonen, Johannesson, and Stephan in 2017, they found that subliminal messages to donate only affected people who had strong universalism values and an intention to give already.

When subliminal influences are effective, though, their effect does not seem to last long. In a study by Smarandescu and Shimp in 2015, they confirmed Karreman’s findings (above), but found that subliminal messages have no effect when there is delay between the stimuli and the decision. This would imply, then, that while subliminal advertising may work in controlled lab settings, it would not be effective in the real world. That is, if a consumer is exposed to a subliminal advertisement, their purchase decisions when they go to the grocery store would not be affected because of the time in between the two events.

Other authors, like psychologists Pratkanis and Aronson, believe that subliminal messages are not effective at all. In their book, Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion, the authors state that they have sorted through countless articles and academic papers on the topic of subliminal persuasion and have found that there is no clear evidence supporting the idea that it works. “Many of the studies fail to find an effect, and those that do are either fatally flawed on methodological grounds or cannot be reproduced,” they explain.

Regardless of its efficacy, is subliminal advertising considered ethical?

VII. Ethical Considerations of Subliminal Advertising

Ethically speaking, subliminal advertising is seen by many as manipulative, persuading consumers to unknowingly act against their will. But, as Robert Noggle argues in his article on persuasion and manipulation, whether manipulation is unethical comes down to intent.  

Gratz seems to agree in his paper on The Ethics of Subliminal Communication. He argues that when advertisers are open and honest about their intent to persuade behavior with their communications, it is ethical. However, with subliminal communication, advertisers are covertly trying to manipulate our behavior, which makes it unethical.

In his paper, The Inconclusive Ethical Case Against Manipulative Advertising, Michael Phillips explains that the main ethical problem most people have with subliminal advertising is that it denies them autonomy in decision-making. He examines Robert Arrington’s view of autonomy and advertising’s manipulation, which states that, “even purchase decisions induced by subliminally implanted advertising could be autonomous if the consumer's implanted subconscious desires are consistent with her conscious ones.” In other words, if a person’s desires and their decisions are aligned, then their decision was likely made autonomously, even if subjected to some external influences as well.

The other factor that must be considered when discussing the morality of subliminal messaging is can these communications also be used to manipulate people’s behavior for the better? A discussion of this is below, along with an exploration of subliminal messaging used in other areas outside of advertising and pop culture.

VIII. Subliminal Messaging in Other Areas

Subliminal marketing also extends into politics. An example is George W. Bush’s campaign ad from 2000 attacking Al Gore’s prescription plan. Within the ad, the word “rats” is said to appear and linger a second before turning into “bureaucrats”. Due to complaints, the ad was pulled by the Republican National Committee (RNC). The FCC conducted an investigation into the ad, but there were no repercussions for the RNC or the broadcasters of the ad.

As discussed above, self-help cassette tapes with subliminal messages surged in popularity in the 80’s. And subliminal messaging is still used for psychological purposes today. One trend in this area is hypnotherapy, whereby people tap into their subconscious through a dream-like state in which you might be more open to subliminal suggestions. The practice of hypnotherapy is used clinically to treat chronic pain, depression, and PTSD. In this way, subliminal messaging can also be used for positive impact.

In fact, a 2014 study found that older individuals exposed to positive subliminal messages around aging showed improved physical functioning for a number of weeks. Another study demonstrated that positive subliminal messages enabled athletes to perform better. So if subliminal messages manipulate people’s behavior positively, are they still considered unethical? That’s for you to decide.  

IX. Countermeasures against Subliminal Advertising

If you are concerned about subliminal advertising manipulating your behavior, there are a few strategies you can employ to help you detect its use and defend against its effects. The first is to really slow down when you are making a purchase decision. Take a minute to stop and intentionally consult with your conscious mind. Ask yourself, “Why am I wanting to buy this?” and “Do I really need this?”.

Another tip that might be effective is to occupy yourself with other important tasks while advertisements are playing on the TV or radio.  According to a study conducted by Bahador Bahrammi, a neuroscientist at University College London, the brain does not absorb subliminal messages when it is busy processing other things. So try focusing your brain on a difficult math problem or complex work task to keep any subliminal messages from being absorbed by your subconscious.

X. Conclusion

Most evidence presented on subliminal messages suggest that they are only effective in specific instances. So if subliminal messages are used in advertising, it seems that these messages cannot subconsciously alter your behavior.

Rather, the public just appears to be fascinated with the idea of subliminal messages and their use in advertising. William O’Barr, professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, suggests in his paper on subliminal advertising that consumers want to believe in the idea of it more than there is actual evidence that it is a technique used by marketers.

Sheri Broyles confirms this in her paper, Subliminal Advertising and the Perpetual Popularity of Playing to People’s Paranoia. Broyles writes about a 2004 study which confirmed that the majority of the public had not only heard of subliminal advertising, but thought that advertisers used it and believed that it was effective too. Broyles states, “The public likes to believe the worst about advertising.”

So is subliminal messaging something you should employ as part of your marketing strategy?

As a Shopify store owner, rather than get entangled in the ethical dilemma that is subliminal advertising, why not opt for a marketing tactic like influencer marketing that is proven to be effective and also morally sound? Influencers, individuals who have trust and clout in their communities, can successfully influence (not manipulate) consumers’ purchase decisions. In fact, Inmar Intelligence found that 84% of shoppers have made a purchase based on the recommendation of an influencer. And Famous Finder makes finding influencers super easy by searching your customer base for those with a strong following in their community. Try out Famous Finder for free today!

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