By Irene Riart, on 9 August 2023
In the marketing and advertising world, there are a variety of approaches to messaging; some messages are more direct and aggressive, while others are more subtle. Among the later, the most subtle type is subliminal messages, which tap into the public’s ability to associate concepts unconsciously.
What Are Subliminal Messages and Advertising?
A subliminal message is a resource that can be expressed in words, shapes, sounds, or colors to convey ideas to the audience without their conscious realization. The audience forms unconscious connections with certain concepts through subliminal messaging, guiding them to act as the brand desires.
The concept of subliminal advertising dates back to 1957, when market researcher James Vicary claimed increased sales by flashing images of popcorn and Coca-Cola during a movie screening. However, it was later revealed to be fraudulent. Regardless, some brands still use this technique today.
How Do Subliminal Messages Work in Advertising?
Contrary to popular belief, subliminal advertising cannot forcefully introduce an unconscious need to buy a product or service. It operates on a more complex level.
Subliminal messages use symbols that may be interpreted differently by each viewer. The same stimulus may hold diverse meanings due to individual experiences. While subliminal messages aim to influence purchasing decisions, consumer state of mind and willingness to buy also play pivotal roles. Subliminal messages are not miraculous or omnipotent, but they can increase the likelihood of success.
Despite the persuasive impact of subliminal advertising supported by certain studies, its true influence on human behavior remains uncertain. While there is some evidence that subliminal advertising can be effective, it can be considered illegal in many states in the U.S. and over 50 countries because it is considered to be manipulative and unethical.
3 Examples of Subliminal Messages in Advertising
While many countries prohibit subliminal advertising, we still see examples of this controversial technique, often carried out subtly enough to blur the line between legal and illegal.
Disney's eagerness to gobble up movie franchises is a reality. Although this might be pure speculation, Disney may want to subtly show its power with this kind of subliminal message to increase its brand awareness. What do you think?
Known for its humor and satire, The Simpsons parodies the use of subliminal advertising. In one episode, Lisa is watching a commercial for a new toy. The commercial is playing backward, and the words “buy me” are spelled out (also backwards). Lisa doesn’t consciously understand the message, but her unconscious mind does. As a result, she is subconsciously influenced to want the toy. The fact that The Simpsons has featured this topic suggests that it is a concept that is worth considering.
A study divided participants into groups, showing them different website backgrounds while choosing sofas. The result was that the first group's main criterion was the comfort of the sofas, while the second group gave more importance to price. Interestingly, the backgrounds subconsciously influenced the participants’ criteria for selecting comfort or price.
Are Subliminal Messages in Advertising Effective?
As we have mentioned, several studies suggest that subliminal advertising is persuasive. However, it is influenced by various factors that individual viewers bring with them, including mood, prejudices, and age.
It is believed that a subliminal message can be effective but works best when consumers already possess a predisposition and desire to make purchases. Ads can enhance existing desires, but the impact depends on individual needs and receptiveness to the subliminal content. Ian Zimmerman, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, says, "If we are not experiencing any kind of need that connects to the subliminal message, it probably won't be effective."
Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to use subliminal advertising is a complex one. There are both potential benefits and risks to consider.