Did You See That? How Subliminal Messages Work

September 2, 2009

By: Allison Ford (View Profile)

Subliminally suggestive ad

They’re everywhere … appearing on billboards and in magazines, in television commercials and in movies. Sometimes they can even be detected in popular songs (but only if you play them backward). They’re subliminal messages, and they control what we buy, what we think, and what we do, all without our conscious minds even realizing it. How do they work? Or maybe the better question is—do they really work at all? 

Making a Mountain out of a Myth
In 1957, a market researcher claimed that he flashed suggestive phrases on the screen during the playing of a film—suggestions like “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat Popcorn,” which lasted no longer than 1/3000th of a second. He grandly proclaimed that after flashing these suggestions every five seconds, concessions sales experienced amazing increases, and declared that “subliminal advertising” was successful. 

Subliminal comes from Latin words meaning “under the threshold.” Subliminal messages are those that are said to exist just under the threshold of human perception. They are the images and sounds we see and process in our unconscious mind, like minor details we don’t fully notice or things that happen too quickly for our brains to register. Subliminal messages are said to penetrate the unconscious mind, creating a desire that we can’t consciously understand. 

Scientists and psychologists know that our brains can indeed pick up information without realizing it. It’s how poker players can tell when their opponent is bluffing, even though they can’t articulate why, and it’s the basis of our intuition, the little voice that tells us that something is wrong even when our conscious minds don’t pick up on troubling details. 

Unconscious processing isn’t inherently sinister, but when the American public heard about Vicary’s idea of using subliminal messages in advertising, people went crazy. The media picked up on the story and television and radio stations began airing subliminal ads at a fever pitch. They became so rampant, and advertising became so mistrusted, that legislation banning their use was even debated in Congress. In 1973, a doctor named Wilson Key published a book called Subliminal Seduction, which alleged that most modern advertisements were full of hidden symbolism and images. He even claimed to see the word “sex” spelled out in the ice cubes on a liquor advertisement. In 1974, the FCC stated that subliminal advertising was “contrary to the public interest,” and that stations who aired subliminal messages risked having their broadcast license revoked. 

Manufacturing Reality
The big problem? Subliminal messages don’t work, and never did. Vicary himself was never able to duplicate the results of the infamous movie theater experiment, and eventually he admitted that he had fabricated his findings as a marketing stunt. In fact, some historians doubt that he ever conducted the experiment at all, and no studies since have ever been able to show that subliminal messages or advertising have any affect on people’s behavior or sales of any particular product. 

The truth about subliminal messages hasn’t stopped some people from claiming that companies still use hidden imagery to sell products, and it hasn’t prevented some companies from actually trying it out. There are many claims that TV commercials and other advertisements use unconscious suggestion to try to encourage behavior. Although ads often feature less-than-subtle sexual imagery or even overt innuendo, the evidence for subliminal messages, such as phallic images or covert messages written in a model’s hair, is tenuous. 

There’s also little evidence to support the many claims that evil messages are embedded into heavy metal and rock music, although people regularly blame these “hidden messages” for bad behavior, saying that the messages are encoded into the music, and often only revealed if you play the song backwards. In 1985, the families of two teenagers killed in a suicide pact sued the band Judas Priest over some alleged satanic phrases in their songs, which the families claimed influenced the boys’ behavior. Similar allegations have been levied against groups like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Queen, and Ozzy Osbourne. A judge dismissed the Judas Priest case, stating that even if the subliminal messages existed (which he doubted), there was no proof that they worked. 

The Mind Sees, Even When the Eye Doesn’t
Studies have shown that people can indeed respond to unconsciously perceived stimuli. In one study, when a fleeting image was followed by an electric shock, subjects became conditioned so that their palms sweated in anticipation once they “saw” the image. Another study in the United Kingdom demonstrated that people’s receptiveness to unconscious stimuli depended on the brain’s “spare capacity.” If participants were performing a difficult task that required full attention, their brains did not allocate resources to any subliminal activity. Only when participants executed a repetitive or boring task did their brains devote energy to registering the subliminal image they’d seen. 

People can recognize and process unconscious stimuli, but there’s no evidence that shows that the stimuli alters behavior in any way. Since the 1950s, advertisers have tried to insert subliminal stimuli into popular entertainment, with no discernible results. There’s also no evidence to back up the claims of programs that offer subliminal or unconscious smoking cessation, weight loss, or language learning. 

From Myth to Meme
Companies still sometimes try to use subliminal advertising, with little effect. During an episode of Food Network’s Iron Chef America in 2007, a McDonald’s logo flashed across the screen for a single frame. The network, for its part, claimed that it was a computer error. In 1978, police in Wichita, Kansas tried to convince a serial killer to turn himself in using subliminal messages. They created a commercial with the suggestion “Call the chief” spliced into the middle, to entice the person to come forward. It didn’t work, and he wasn’t arrested until 2005. 

The mythology of subliminal messaging has made its way into every aspect of pop culture, lampooned by TV shows like The Simpsons, X-Files, and Family Guy, and movies like Fight Club. Although the idea of subliminal messaging started off as a legitimate idea, it’s quickly become a cultural joke. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of conspiracy theorists from seeing messages in their ice cubes.

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