Can advertisers really control people's behavior through subliminal messages? What a subliminal message really is: they are stimuli that lie below our threshold of conscious awareness. That means you can't perceive a subliminal message even if you’re looking for it. These messages are not to be confused with supraliminal messages which are messages that we see and hear, but don’t consciously notice.
An example of a supraliminal message was demonstrated in a 1999 which showed that in a liquor store when German music was played, German wine was the top seller. But, when French music was played, French wines were the top seller.
Subliminal messages are different and there are three types:
1. Subvisual messages – cues that are flashed so quickly that they are not perceived.
2. Subaudible messages – low volume audio messages are inserted into a louder audio source like music.
3. Backmasking – an audio message that is recorded backwards.
The claim is that subliminal messages have appeared in advertising, movies, and music.
The claim is that subliminal messages have appeared in advertising, movies, and music. But, often that is not the case because some people see meaning in anything if they’re looking hard for it and often, the message are really supraliminal.
The whole concept of subliminal advertising originated with a guy named James Vicary back in the 1950s when he made a claim that concession sales in movie theaters could be increased by flashing “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coke” on the screen during the movie. His claim was, as he later admitted, a hoax.
Movie editors like Disney have been criticized for putting subliminal messages in movies and in 1990 the band Judas Priest was accused of putting backward messages of “do it” in a song which allegedly caused the suicide of two teenagers. A judge found no evidence to support the claim.
But, do they really work? Researchers once agreed that subliminal messages were mostly ineffective. However, in recent years research has shown that subliminal messages can influence our thoughts and behavior. According to such research, subliminal messages in advertising can influence our purchasing behavior, but there are limitations.
For subliminal messages to really work people must already want whatever the message suggests. For example, researchers found that subliminal messages on thirst only work on people who were already thirsty. If they weren't the messages didn't work. So, subliminal messages can’t make you do anything, but they can help direct you decision if the message already appeals to you.
There are also claims that subliminal audio messages are helpful in self-help programs aimed at people who want to lose weight, stop smoking, be a better salesman, etc. Research shows that these subliminal messages are effective, but only because of the placebo effect. As noted above, they work to some extent because the person already wants to lose weight or stop smoking.
Short version...subliminal messages can’t make you do something you do not already want to do.
Seven Sneaky Subliminal Messages Hidden in Ads
Subliminal Messages - a pdf paper on the subject
The impact of subliminal priming and brand choice – a pdf paper from Science Direct
Subliminal Advertising – from Psychologist World