Are we influenced by subliminal advertising? (Part 1)

You have probably heard the word “subliminal” before. If you are like me, you may associate it with the use of images that are flashed so quickly in front of you that your eye cannot see them, but your brain does.

This practice was known to be used by advertisers, dramatically increasing their product sales. And this is what I wanted to talk to you about today …

Until I found out … that this was all a scam! [dramatic music]

Yes, you heard me! It turns out subliminal images have never proven to efficiently increase product sales like we thought. Nope. The guy who invented the concept literally lied to us!

But wait, let’s back up!

Subliminal stimulus, what the hell is that? And where does it come from?

A subliminal stimulus is simply an information that comes and goes so quickly (or an audio that is played so low) that our conscious mind doesn’t have time to filter and process it. Thus, the information goes straight to our subconscious mind and is processed there.

The concept was introduced in the 1950s by James Vicary, who flashed subliminal words in a movie without the audience knowing, and which resulted in double-digit sales growth (or so he said).

Here is what he did:

  • He flashed “HUNGRY? EAT POPCORN” a few times during the movie > Resulting in popcorn sales increased by 57.8%.
  • He flashed “THIRSTY? DRINK COCA-COLA” a few times during the movie > Resulting in coke sales increased by 18.1%.

Note that in this example, the sentences are flashed slower so you can see them.

This experiment made the whole planet panic about how subliminal messages could control us and how advertisers would use them! Little did we know that the sales results claimed by James Vicary were in fact not true.

But that doesn’t mean subliminal messages don’t affect us …

Subliminal stimulus, how does it work?

It’s very simple. There is our conscious mind and our subconscious mind.

Our conscious mind processes anything we see, hear, smell, taste, feel.

  • That is about 50 bits of information per second (Source: Britannica): Imagine two people talking to you at the same time. That’s pretty much the limit of what we can take in simultaneously.
  • It is above a certain threshold, i.e. visual flashed long enough and audio played loud enough.
  • This is where we think, criticize and filter the information received.

However, there is a lot of information out there and our conscious mind can only process so much at time.

Our subconscious mind takes in pretty much everything that is out there and stores it in our brain.

  • That is about 11 million bits of information per second (Source: Britannica) … yep.
  • It also captures information that is below the threshold of conscious awareness, i.e. what our conscious mind is not able to see or hear.
  • This is where our mind operates “in secret”, even to our conscious mind.

Subliminal information is meant to go straight to our subconscious mind, without being filtered by our conscious mind, thus leaving us no chance to judge or criticize the information and no opportunity to make “conscious” decisions!

We cannot see or hear subliminal information, but our brain collects the information and processes it subconsciously.

This video shows a really good example of subliminal images, although the image should have obviously been flashed much quicker for it to actually be “subliminal” (here, we can see it).
But isn’t that illegal?

You are correct.

Today, the use of subliminal messages in advertising is banned in many countries. Canada, European countries, Australia, all prohibit the use of subliminal images as it is considered “sneaky”, “manipulative” and “contrary to the public interest”.

Brands have ways to get around these limitations though!

There is no specific federal or state law addressing the use of subliminal messaging in the United States.

So, what is the effect of subliminal on us anyway?

Ok, first, let’s be realistic here. Subliminal messages cannot “make” you do something. Brainwashing requires a lot more time to take effect!

However, subliminal can persuade you to move forward with something you already had in mind and possibly intended to do.

For example, if you need to pee and I run water next to you, your need is reinforced.
If you don’t need to pee, running water won’t do anything to you.

A lot of experiments have been made since James Vicary first introduced the concept, and they have shown that subliminal plays a role of “convincing” (See experiment by the University of Utrecht, Netherlands). It reinforces your intention to complete an action you were ready to perform.

The detailed explanation, if you must know, is that the subliminal information, going straight to your subconscious, activates parts of your brain leading you to behave a certain way without being aware that it was triggered by subliminal stimuli.

Photo by Jared Erondu on Unsplash


Subliminal stimulus
     > Isn’t as bad as we thought
          > But it’s still pretty bad so it was made illegal
               > Because it is sneaky and it influences us
                    > But only if we intended to do it anyway
                         > So it’s really not that bad
                              > … But we are still talking about it!

So subliminal advertising, does it work or not?

Well, yes, it does.

If you are thirsty and exposed to subliminal advertising related to a drink brand, you are likely to purchase that brand if it is easily available, even if you would usually go for another one (Source: JCP).

The good news is that subliminal is prohibited in many countries so it shouldn’t be used nowadays (although if it were, it would be really hard to tell!). Also, Brands using this method take the risk of being discovered which would have a very negative impact on their image. Not sure it is worth the risk!

However, there are other ways today to subtly persuade consumers to buy products …

So tell me, do you think you have ever been influenced by subliminal advertising?

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