Are You Being Manipulated by Subliminal Messages?
Written by:Lucia Wang
As members of the consumer society, we’ve all been subject to subliminal messages.
Long considered the dark art of persuasion, subliminal messages are often connected to conspiracy theories of politicians and advertisers using them to manipulate our minds and modify our behaviors.
But do subliminal messages really work? And if so, how?
The scientific exploration of the subliminal is slowly maturing since it first came to public knowledge in the 1950s. Here we attempt to walk you through 60 years of subliminal research and experiments, so that you can use this knowledge to empower yourselves.
What Are Subliminal Messages?
Create beautiful graphs like this using Visme
The first thing we need to understand is that we cannot become consciously aware of subliminal stimuli even if we look for it. Absolute threshold is defined as the lowest level of stimulus we can detect, be it visual, auditory, or sensory, etc. When an external stimuli falls below ATL, it cannot be detected consciously.
The second thing we need to understand is that subliminal perception is believed to be a result of a deliberately designed communication technique aimed at generating a response, so that people will do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.
In short, both the perception and reaction to subliminal messages happen at the subconscious level. Why is it important to clearly define these two attributes? Because many prevailing conspiracy theories aren’t even finding the correct cases to attack; instead, many confuse subliminal with supraliminal.
Supraliminal is the opposite of subliminal. While both evoke neural responses and consequently influence our behaviour; supraliminal stimuli can be perceived by the conscious mind.
One example that illustrates how supraliminal stimuli influences our behavior through conscious perception is the German wine and French wine experiment.
In an experiment conducted in a British supermarket, a selection of German and French wines of the same price and sweetness were displayed.
The store then played German and French music on alternate days. What happened next is intriguing: Sales of German wine increased on days when German music was played, and the same occurred with French wine when French music was played.
In this example, the stimuli – in store music – is supraliminal because it can be perceived consciously. Interestingly, even though the consumers in this case could hear in-store music, very few of them reported music as a main factor in their choice of wine.
Needless to say, supraliminal messages work best when we don’t notice them.
How Subliminal Messaging Works
Our mind consists of two interacting parts: the conscious and subconscious. Our conscious mind gives us executive control of our mind. With consciousness, we can think, judge, feel and experience with awareness.
Popularized by Freud, the term “subconscious” refers to the part of our mind that operates below the level of conscious awareness. Think of it as a secret hiding place for our desires, motives and past experiences that exist outside of our conscious awareness.
What’s really fascinating is that our subconscious behavior is always on autopilot. Our subconsciousness is more powerful than consciousness when it comes to processing information: Subconsciousness is able to process 20,000 bits of information simultaneously, while consciousness can deal only with 7 ± 2 bits of information at the same time.
Throughout the day, are you aware of every time you inhale and exhale? Or of every step you take in order not to fall? That’s subconscious thinking for you. Subliminal messages appeal to our subconscious mind. They work through a process in which external sensory stimuli work to trigger reactions without us noticing the signals.
Now let’s delve deeper into these subliminal sensory stimuli. Modern science has discovered 37 known sensory inputs across seven broad categories: visual , auditory, tactile (touch), olfactory (taste), gustatory (smell), vestibular (balance and movement) and proprioception (body awareness). Among them, the visual category dominates our perception. To our knowledge, subliminal messages target two senses: visual and auditory. Under each category, there are several techniques.
Visual Subliminal Messages
There are two types of subliminal visual messages: subvisual and embeds.
Subvisual cues are flashed so quickly – usually a few milliseconds – that viewers don’t perceive them. In the classic James Vicary experiment, he flashed two frames containing “Thirsty? Drink Coca Cola” and “Hungry? Eat Popcorn” into a film. It happened so quickly that film viewers were not able to detect them.
Embeds are usually static images embedded in an unchanging visual environment, hiding in our plain sight. They can often be seen in print advertisements, such as this dollar bill in a KFC’s burger ad.
Auditory Subliminal Messages
There are two types of auditory subliminal messages: sub-audible and back-masking.
Sub-audible messages are low-volume messages inserted into louder audio files so that they cannot be heard.
Back-masking is a video message recorded backwards so that the original message is disguised when playing it forward. It is often used in pop music, such as in The Beatle’s famously backmasked song “Number 9.” The phrase “number nine” was repeated over and over in the song, and when played backwards it became “turn me on dead man.”
So how do subliminal messages influence our behavior? One theory proposes that subliminal visual and auditory priming can work to spread activation in your semantic network.
We all have semantically related webs of concepts in our brain. Every concept exists within a network of interconnected nodes of concepts. Take Apple – the iconic technology brand – as an example. When prompting Apple, we think of Steve Jobs, computers, creativity, minimalist design, etc.
Below is an example of a typical semantic network:
In a 2008 experiment, subjects were exposed to 30 milliseconds of the Apple logo, which triggered the association with creativity. As a result, the subjects were able to come up with significantly more creative solutions than those who were exposed to the IBM logo. This is a powerful example of how visual priming can activate our semantic network without our awareness.
A Timeline of Subliminal Messages
Below, we walk you through a brief history of subliminal message experiments and discoveries. Some of the events later proved to be hoaxes, such as the James Vicary “Eat Popcorn” experiment.
But the controversies sparked decades of solid academic research on the subject, such as the Lipton Ice brand choice experiment by Johan C. Karremans and Wolfgang Stroebe.
Create beautiful infographics like this using Visme
1956, James Vicary experiment. In this famous experiment conducted with 45,699 moviegoers in a New Jersey theater, James Vicary flashed “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coke” for ⅓ of a millisecond during a movie to see if sales of Coca-Cola and popcorn would increase. While Vicary claimed sale of popcorn increased by 57.5% and Coca-Cola by 18.1% due to the experiment, he later confessed that these numbers were fabricated. Some speculated that Vicary’s confession was to rid subliminal message of its bad reputation.
1957, The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard. In this best seller, Packard examined psychological techniques used by advertisers to motivate consumers and popularized the concept of subliminal tactics among the masses. The book sold over a million copies.
1958, WAAF Chicago sold “sub-audible” commercials, after testing whispered messages such as “Drink 7 Up” and “Buy Oklahoma Oil.”
1971, In-Flight Motion Pictures, Inc. announced in The New York Times that it would begin selling subliminal commercials embedded in the movies they would distribute to all the major airlines.
1973, Subliminal Seduction book by Wilson Bryan Key, in which the author claimed advertisers embed subliminal images of sex, death and bestiality to manipulate our buying behavior. Although the book was groundbreaking at the time, some of the claims in the book are conspiracy-driven and speculative.
1974, the FCC issued a public notice against the use of subliminal messaging, stating that it is deceptive and contrary to public interest.
1980, Subliminal stimuli and liking judgment by Kunst-Wilson and Zajonc found that visual priming of the subjects with octagon skewed the subsequent liking of particular octagons, when researchers presented both familiar and unfamiliar octagons to the subjects after the subconscious visual priming.
1981, Warner Brothers admitted that a two-frame, full-screen death mask was used in the motion picture “The Exorcist,” which flashed for 2/100 of a second.
1982, Background music and supermarket shopping behaviour by Ronald E. Milliman uncovered the linkage between tempo of music and pace of purchase in supermarket. The use of slow tempo music has seen an 38.2% increase in sales compared to fast tempo music used in the background.
1983, Stimutech’s Expando-Vision used subliminal messages to conduct computer assisted self-hypnosis, helping users to achieve goals without actually doing the work. In the example below, the application claims to improve your self-confidence in golf by filling your subconsciousness with relevant imagery.
1996, Subliminal semantic activation study by Greenwald, Draine and Abrams. In this experiment, subjects were subliminally primed with a word (quickly flashed) before being presented to above-threshold words. The subjects’ judgments were biased because of the priming.
2000, “RATS” in George W.Bush campaign ad. In this controversial 30-second Republican campaign video, white block letters spelling out the word “RATS” flashed for 1/30 of a second while playing criticism of Al Gore’s healthcare plan, followed by a fragmented appearance of the word “Bureaucrats”.
2006, Lipton Ice brand preference experiment by Johan C. Karremans, Wolfgang Stroebe, and Jasper Claus. Taking Vicary’s Coca Cola experiment even further by priming not just subjects’ choice between two drink brands but also their feeling of thirst, Karremans found that “priming only works when the prime is goal-relevant.”
2008, How Apple makes you “Think Different” by Grinne M. Fitzsimons, Tanya L. Chartrand, and Gavan J. Fitzsimons. In this experiment, 341 university students were asked to perform a visual acuity task, during which Apple and IBM logos were flashed very quickly. Subjects subliminally exposed to Apple logo were able to come up with more creative solutions than those who were primed with IBM logos.
After walking through the history of subliminal experiments, you can see that subliminal messaging isn’t just black magic – there is science to it. And no matter how much we want to be in control of our reactions, we are subject to external influences–with and without us being aware of it.
Vicary might have lied about selling more Coca Cola and Popcorn by simply flashing suggestive texts on a movie screen; however, advanced experiments by Karremans and Stroebe did prove that visual priming can be effective in changing the way we feel and subsequently influence us to make purchase decisions based on these emotions.
Despite all the evidence that subliminal stimuli can sway our purchase behaviors, they aren’t as powerful as we believe them to be. In all of the experiments where consumers demonstrated brand preference over another through subliminal priming, the difference was marginal.
In conclusion, subliminal messages can give consumers that “extra push” toward choosing a certain product or brand, regardless of the messaging. But brand equity is built on trust and transparency. Losing consumers’ trust is far more costly for brands than the short-term gains derived from subliminal manipulation.
What is your stance on subliminal messages? How can we use this knowledge of subliminal messaging to become a more influential communicator without crossing a fine ethical line? Share your thoughts with us in an email
About the Author
Lucia is fascinated by the intersection of communication and behavioral psychology. She studied Arts Journalism at School of the Art Institute of Chicago and History of Art at Yale before taking the plunge to pursue a career in technology marketing. When not working, she can be found advocating for remote working, digital currency and circular economy.