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What are Subliminal Messages?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Subliminal messages are words, images, or sounds that might appear in television or radio commercials, TV shows or movies, print ads or recorded music. Usually when subliminal messages are seen or heard, they’re not recognized for what they are. In fact, they may be ignored by the conscious brain and be beyond the level of conscious perception.

The theory holds, and it is getting less popular, that subliminal messages are perceived by the subconscious or unconscious mind. Since the conscious mind doesn’t have time to rationalize or analyze these messages, people might more easily accept them. For instance, the use of red in commercials for Target® is at least partly subliminal. The red itself really has nothing to do with the company, but persistence in using it for most commercials means advertisers hope that the color red, whenever seen, will remind people of Target and convince them to shop there.

There’s disagreement on the degree to which these messages are used, understood, or accessed. The idea of these messages has been around since the late 19th century, and by the mid 20th century, the use of this messaging in advertising was considered standard fare, especially visual messages where something would flash for a split second on a screen that would subliminally convince the viewer to act in a certain way. People became afraid that subliminal messages could be used to “brainwash” themselves or others. This fear became so great that by the 1970s, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) banned the use of subliminal messages in advertisements.

Yet it’s never really been proven these messages work to any great degree. The ban also only exists for advertisement and does not affect film or music recordings. Rock music, especially, came under fire as possibly containing messages of words or phrases recorded backward that people thought were intended to corrupt youth. There have been a few backward-recorded messages in rock music, but not so many as people might think. Further, they may not always have evil intent. There’s no consensus on whether a person could actually perceive such a message, and usually the big thrill is playing the music backward so a backward recording is understood.

Another type of subliminal message that has endured strong criticism is certain animations in Disney® films that spell out specific words. Perhaps the most famous of these is the word, sex, appearing as clouds, in The Lion King. You actually can see this if you pause your DVD player, but Disney did not place it there on purpose. Instead, it’s been attributed to a capricious animator, and would almost certainly have been edited if it was discovered. This also suggests these messages may not work since they may never be consciously perceived. There’s no indication the word sex, which has numerous connotations, could be read or understood by three or four year olds.

Perhaps a more obvious form of subliminal advertising is the idea of hiding things in plain sight, like the use of product placement in films. In several action scenes in the film Spider Man, the action takes place around buildings hung with ads. If you’re conscious of it, you’ll notice the backdrop of ads, but if you don’t realize they are there, they might be considered a form of subliminal advertising. It’s unclear the degree to which these ads might influence buying choice, but they are likely to be taken in by the unconscious mind, while your conscious mind is absorbed by the story action. It can be a matter of how acutely aware you are that product placement exists in many modern films and television series.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a SmartCapitalMind contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon991790 — On Jul 19, 2015

Are there subliminal cuts in Blair Witch?

By anon972640 — On Oct 05, 2014

Subliminal priming is not so strong as could be imagined. No worries.

By anon311632 — On Jan 02, 2013

Target has used a red and white target as there logo at least since the 1960's, so red is a color associated with Target.

By anon284414 — On Aug 10, 2012

The renaissance artist Albrect Durer (1471-1528) was using many subliminal messages in his art.

By Dann76 — On Apr 30, 2012

Oh really? I don't like subliminal advertising but subliminal messaging is really helpful when you use them for your self help. I tried it and it works.

By anon260390 — On Apr 10, 2012

Subliminal messages are everywhere. We can use them to program our own subconscious minds for our benefit as well.

By anon256922 — On Mar 23, 2012

Subliminal messages can be found in anything. If you work in advertising and you do not have at least a basic knowledge of this fact you will go nowhere in your field. The subconscious mind accepts whatever is presented to it as fact, especially when your conscious mind is at ease, less suspecting of what is presented to you.

By anon189968 — On Jun 25, 2011

First off: The use of the word sex in Disney's the Lion King is actually a misnomer. In the movie the initials are actually SFX, which is the company that did the animation design for the Disney films of that time period. They put SFX somewhere in all the movies they did as a sort of artistic signature. If you watch the movie, really look closely for that.

Second: You can't point that Disney is corrupting children by the use of that example, mainly because it is a wrong assumption and an isolated incident. Most children at the age of three and four don't even know what the word sex means, let alone how to accurately read. So even if their subconscious picked up the word, it would also not understand what it is seeing, primarily because it has not learned about it yet.

I notice there is a lack of real examples behind Disney's lewdness in his movies aside from the castle in the Little Mermaid. That movie is actually the only one with any lewdness and the animator was immediately fired upon review. While Disney was not a perfect man, he brought to life the wonderful Brothers Grimm tales in a fashion suited for young children to enjoy. Now people need to please lay off of the tv shows of my childhood years.

By anon178928 — On May 22, 2011

In all fairness, i think there are definitely subliminal messages in everything. Some actually mean something, some don't. The Virgin logo is becoming a little far-fetched but in Disney films, i believe every bit of the messages are evil. Walt Disney was a horrible man, and it even shows in his signature. Sorry but that is true in my eyes.

By anon163999 — On Mar 30, 2011

The info provided are totally misleading and has nothing to do with real subliminal messages.

some of my comments are:

1-Subconscious vs unconscious

2-mentioned "subliminal messages are seen or heard". It is not specified by whom! Is it the conscious or subconscious?

This takes a long time to explain and this article is based on non-scientific facts. Please refer to "subliminal researcher" in decoding subliminal audio messages from well known popular webs. 98 percnt of them are fake. It is left for you to seek the true ones. I hope this is helpful.

By anon162989 — On Mar 25, 2011

I totally disagree that a subliminal message can control a person. It depends on a huge number of factors and the relationships between them, something that differs from one person to another.

In general, if the person has developed or will develop evaluation skills and self train his mind through the ages it will be so much difficult to affect him. The less "trained" the person, the most successful the operation.

By anon142694 — On Jan 13, 2011

how can you explain subliminal messages in disney movies films for children to marketing films ? The important thing is they are focusing on sex and you know why? To make a corrupt generation and you know that!

By anon139110 — On Jan 03, 2011

Re: Subliminal messages not working and the word sex. You said this, but how can you say they can never be consciously perceived? The messages go straight to your subconscious mind, which is like your control center. All your beliefs are held there and that's how you live your life off your beliefs!

Subliminal means "below the threshold of conscious" so they are bypassing the conscious mind and going straight for the subconscious and can alter your beliefs, and 3 and 4 year olds might not be able to understand the messages their subconscious mind is receiving them!

That's crap about Disney not meaning to put the word "sex" in the movies. if he didn't mean to have them there then why are they in almost every disney movie more than once? explain that! and also explain the big penis on the cover of the little mermaid castle?

Please if you're going to make a site, don't lie to people about the things you are writing. get the truth before you make a site!

By anon133182 — On Dec 09, 2010

I think it is despicable to enter a mind in this way. I value freedom, and for someone else to try and alter my way of thinking or behaving (however well-meaning), without my fully conscious knowledge is about the lowest thing one human being can do to another!

By anon132338 — On Dec 06, 2010

subliminal messages are everywhere in every form; they are pointless and ineffective. that won't stop people from talking about them or coming up with silly ones like sex in disney movies. the point is they are there and no small child or adult will notice it until it is pointed out to them.

By anon77054 — On Apr 13, 2010

can they make subliminal messages to make you think you are an idiot or even being shy?

By anon71907 — On Mar 20, 2010

would coca cola be a subliminal message? Since it is also red.

By anon66423 — On Feb 19, 2010

R.Branson didn't have to do that, because most of the time when i see a virgin logo sex comes to mind.

And it's not because of the S.message.

By anon26192 — On Feb 10, 2009

Ohhh, Now i'm afraid of watching TV.

By anon7952 — On Feb 05, 2008

Here's an example; take the world famous Virgin logo. If you turn it slightly to the left so that where the underline and tail of the g form an X, you'll also notice the V forms a slightly hidden S and the i, r and part of the g form a broken capital E, spelling the word sex.

So you have Sex/Virgin in one word. Very clever Mr. Branson.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a SmartCapitalMind contributor, Tricia...
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