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What is Subliminal Advertising?

By Tess C. Taylor
Updated May 16, 2024
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Subliminal advertising, also known as subconscious stimuli messaging, is a form of advertising that uses subtle imagery, sounds, and content to attempt to influence the subconscious mind into making purchases or finding something to be appealing. While there has been much controversy over the years as to its actual use in advertising, subliminal marketing is something that society as a whole has gotten accustomed to due to the onslaught of television, print, publications and the Internet. Consumers have a tendency to become influenced easily by the addition of certain phrases, pictures, sounds, and stimuli that advertisers spend millions studying in trials before products even hit the shelves.

The first acknowledged use of subliminal advertising was before the turn of the 20th century when barely noticeable visual and audio stimuli were introduced into marketing practices to influence consumers. The use of low levels of barely audible music or sounds combined with appealing visual images was shown to increase the likelihood of consumers feeling more comfortable and eventually making purchases. By the early to mid 1900s, subliminal advertising was being utilized by many major advertising firms to create a generation of loyal customers.

In 1957, a Michigan-based social psychologist by the name of James Vicary announced that he had conducted a study that indicated flashing images of a popular beverage and popcorn shown during a movie had influenced the buying habits of consumers who saw them. Vicary is credited with coining the term subliminal marketing — a claim that caused the US Central Intelligence Agency to write a complete report about this practice and caused obvious subliminal ads to be banned from all advertising in the United States by 1958. Vicary later recanted his previous claim, however, which has only created more mystery.

The most common form of subliminal advertising includes the addition of quick flashes of images shown on a movie or television screen just before the show or while the film is in process. This is something that most consumers don’t notice right away, but can have an influence on their decision to purchase beverages, food, and merchandise at some point during the show. Another form of subliminal advertising is through the subtle use of low-level sounds, or music played backward, which the human ear may not hear well, but can influence the subconscious mind. This is often referred to back-masking in the music and film industries.

Whether subliminal messages are even used in advertising or other media is a controversial question. Many believe it is a myth. While some willingly admit that subliminal marketing is used to produce greater sales, others claim that it is a bad practice that is frowned upon by the advertising industry. However, market research still shows that a good number of consumers recognize that subliminal advertising is an everyday part of the advertising world and that it does influence purchasing decisions in a vast majority of consumer populations.

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Discussion Comments
By umbra21 — On Dec 19, 2013

@croydon - I wonder where the line is. I mean, the most obvious example of subliminal messages in advertising is when they flash an image too fast for you to really see. But does it count when they, for example, have a character holding a coffee from a particular chain in a film for a few minutes?

Most people wouldn't actually consciously register that the character is holding the cup, or what company it was for, but might still feel more inclined to want to buy from that company after seeing the film.

By croydon — On Dec 19, 2013

@indigomoth - I can't recall anything specific but I know there have definitely been studies that show that images flashed too quickly to see consciously can have an effect on people. I think it was something like showing people pictures of smiling faces and then asking them how they feel afterwards. The ones who saw the flashed images responded that they felt happier even if they didn't know why.

But I think mostly what people think of as subliminal messages in advertising is just ad people being clever rather than trying to indirectly influence you. Like the famous image of the naked women in the ice of a drink in one of those ads. If you aren't aware that she's there I don't think she had any influence over you. If you are aware, then it's not exactly subliminal.

By indigomoth — On Dec 18, 2013

I don't believe that subliminal advertising actually works. That study was refuted and I've never seen one that proved that flashing images would have any effect on people at all. I mean, just because I see a picture of popcorn doesn't make me want to have popcorn.

A full advertisement, where they convince me that popcorn is delicious and desirable might influence me, but just one image in subliminal advertisements wouldn't do much at all.

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