What Are Subliminal Messages?
By definition, subliminal messages are signals or messages that pass below the normal limits of your perception.
The word Subliminal comes from the Latin word “sub,” meaning under, and “limen,” meaning threshold.
How Do Subliminal Messages Work?
Subliminal Messages bypass your conscious awareness and head straight for your subconscious mind. These messages stay in your subconscious and influence your thoughts, feelings, and actions in the future.
Despite being one entity, your mind consists of two separate parts: the conscious mind and the subconscious mind.
Your conscious mind powers the awareness of your current environment. Your emotions, everyday thoughts, and physical sensations are governed by your conscious mind.
The subconscious mind provides you with feelings, thoughts, urges, and memories outside your conscious awareness.
Neuroscientists liken the subconscious mind to a secret hiding place for your desires, motives, and past experiences.
Your subconscious behavior is always on autopilot by default. It is much more powerful at processing information than your conscious mind.
Your subconscious mind can process over 20,000 bits of data simultaneously.
In contrast, your conscious mind can handle only 7+2 bits of data at the same time.
For a more in-depth look into the subconscious mind, check out our article: The Subconscious Mind.
Subliminal messages work by appealing directly to your subconscious mind. They use a sensory stimulation process that triggers specific reactions without you noticing the signals.
As a consumer-based society, we have all experienced subliminal messages on many occasions.
Subliminal sensory stimuli have seven main categories. Visual and auditory are the most widely used types.
Visual Subliminal Stimuli
There are two different types of subliminal visual messages. They can be either subvisual or embeds.
Subvisual subliminal messages flash very quickly on the screen (usually for just a few milliseconds). So you do not perceive them consciously.
Embedded subliminal messages are usually static images with other images discreetly embedded within. Hiding in plain sight. You can occasionally see embedded subliminal messages in TV or print advertisements.
For example; If you look at this advert for KFC, you can notice they have attempted to blend in an image of a 1-dollar bill into the lettuce of the Burger:
Auditory Subliminal Stimuli
There are two different types of auditory subliminal messages. These are called subaudible and backmasking.
Subaudible messages are low-volume and inserted into louder audio files. Subaudible could also involve changing the pitch of a recorded message and embedding it into an audio file.
Backmasking is a message recorded backward so that the original message is not consciously detected when playing it forward. This type of subliminal message has occasionally appeared in pop music throughout the years. For example, The Beatle’s song “Number 9”. They repeated the phrase “number nine” constantly. When played backward, it sounded like “turn me on, dead man.”
Subliminal Messages came into mainstream public awareness in the 1950s. Social psychologist and market researcher James Vicary carried out a six-week experiment. The experiment aimed to observe the effects of subliminal suggestions on Cinema audiences.
The Coca-Cola & Popcorn Experiment
In 1957 Mr. Vicary conducted his experiment on 45,699 moviegoers in a New Jersey cinema. The experiment involved flashing .03 second visual subliminal stimuli. The messages said, ‘Hungry? Eat Popcorn’ and ‘ Thirsty? Drink Coca-Cola’ during the movie. The experiment aimed to see if confectionary sales increased during the movie’s halftime interval.
The results were astounding and increased popcorn sales by a massive 57.5% and Coca-Cola by 18.1%.
The result was so alarming that it prompted the CIA to compile a report titled “The Operational Potential of Subliminal Perception.” This report highlighted their plans to research the effects of subliminal messages further.
Enter Subliminal Messages in Advertising
After the James Vicary experiment, the use of subliminal messages in advertising increased. Advertising companies were very willing to use subliminal technology to influence the purchasing behavior of the general public.
Another famous case involving the use of subliminal messages in advertising took place in the 1990s. It involved the well-known tobacco company Marlboro.
Legislation around this time meant that tobacco companies did not have many options with where they were allowed to advertise.
Using sponsorship-based advertising on Formula 1 cars had always been a very lucrative advertising space. However, when this became no longer an option, Marlboro began to use subliminal advertising.
They used an image of an adapted bar code that very closely resembled a Marlboro cigarette packet when the car was in motion.
Do Subliminal Messages Really Work?
Scientists know that subliminal messaging works in the lab. There have been many experiments to back this up.
One experiment involved inserting 12 frames of a Coca-Cola image and the word “thirsty” into an episode of the famous TV show “The Simpsons.”
Participants in this experiment reported being an average of 27% thirstier after the viewing than beforehand; by contrast, the control group was less thirsty afterward.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2002 used a similar setup to the previously mentioned experiment.
When participants exposed to subliminal priming of the iced tea brand “Lipton Ice,” they chose the drink over any other beverage. – Karremans, Stroebe, & Claus, 2006
In November 2002, the well-known British illusionist Derren Brown ran an exciting experiment on some advertising executives. He used subliminal suggestions to entice the executives into choosing his pre-planned outcome.
Positive Use of Subliminal Messages
Can subliminal messages have a positive effect? Absolutely yes!
For example, Subliminal Tuning uses visual and auditory stimuli as a core part of its system.
Subliminal stimuli can undoubtedly influence our thoughts and behaviors. However, subliminal messages can’t make us do something we wouldn’t want to do. For example, researchers found that subliminal messages related to drinking were only influential on participants who were already thirsty.