Subliminal advertising: myth or reality?

In 1957 a market researcher by the name of James Vicary conducted an experiment where he flashed the words ‘Drink Coke’ and ‘Eat Popcorn’ for 1 frame in a movie thetre. He reported that after doing this, the sales of Coke and Popcorn had gone up significantly. And so with that the concept of subliminal advertising was born. This was a new art that could manipulate people into doing things for reasons they aren’t aware of, advertisers will soon be able to control our every thought! Countries took action. The UK and Australia banned subliminal advertising, consumers had to be protected from this wicked, mystical craft. There was only one problem though, the study was a gimmick, a myth, to which even Mr. Vicary admitted to in Advertising Age. However by then it was too late, the momentum had taken hold and soon hundreds of research papers had been published on the topic and books written. Of course, the fact that James Vicary’s experiments could not be replicated by any independent studies did not matter. People were convinced.

Let me begin by saying that what most people believe about subliminal advertising is at best an exaggeration and at worst a complete fabrication. There is some sort of pull in the concept that people can be controlled by forces they don’t understand, people are uneasy and fearful of such things that they can’t explain.

Unconscious Threshold and Learning
There is some small nuggets of truth to subliminal advertising. It has to do with a term called ‘unconscious learning’. As an example listen to the sounds around you right now, were you aware of these sounds before you read the sentence. Just because you were not aware of them consciously does not mean your subconscious mind was not registering them. It is true that people notice more ads for food when they’re hungry then when they’re not. In other words there is a threshold at which you notice something and another threshold at which you don’t. While an ad may theoretically go slightly below this threshold and register in your mind subconsciously, the idea that it could direct your behavior without your knowledge is an overblown assumption. Even if it could, everyone’s conscious threshold is different, to create something that universally flies under everyone’s radar is next to impossible. At the end of the day advertisers have far more effective means to influence the public than subliminal advertising.

Subliminal Self Help Tapes… useful or quack science?
Take subliminal self help tapes that ‘program’ you to lose weight or increase your self esteem or wealth by delivering subliminal messages to you while you sleep. In an experiment people found that listening to these tapes did in fact help them with their self esteem and wealth… however the same percentage of people reported the same positive benefits in the group which listened to a tape with no ‘subliminal messages’.

Subliminal hypnosis tape. All you have to do is lie in bed and you’ll be programmed for wealth… the science is not very convincing unfortunately.

If It Doesn’t Work, Why Do Companies Keep Doing It?
However even though subliminal advertising has been proven ineffective, the question would remain why there are companies, even big brands that still engage in it? Well the reason has more to do with graphic design pranksters then anything of any real substance. For example on The Iron Chef in 2007 a single frame of the golden arches flashed across the screen, or in the campaign ad from George Bush attacking Al Gore the words ‘Rats’ flashed. Well the reason for this has more to do with digital graphic design pranksters then anything else. The temptation for a graphic designer or artist to slip something into a program or mass marketed advertisement without anyone knowing can be very seductive. In fact a cartoonist for the London Daily Mirror which was owned by Robert Maxwell wrote the words ‘Fuck Maxwell’ in tiny letters amongst the squiggles.

The word sex is written somewhere in the ice cubes on this ad for Absolut Vodka. If you can’t see it don’t worry, that makes two of us.

Hopefully this has convinced you about the powers (or lack thereof) of subliminal advertising. Thank you for reading. Oh and our good friend James Vicary who pioneered the original study with the ‘Drink Coke’ and ‘Eat Popcorn’ single frames on a movie screen? In 1984 he sat down with Advertising Age to discuss the evidence that was building up against his case and admitted his study had been a gimmick all along.

Examples of Subliminal Advertising:

George Bush ‘Rats’

McDonald’s single frame..

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