Subliminal Messages

Subliminal Messages in Advertising: The Case For
and Against Lisa Caswell Syracuse University
Running Head: Subliminal Messages Subliminal
messaging and subliminal perception are
controversial topics in the field of psychology.

Many studies have been conducted to determine if
subliminal messaging does in fact work. Many
people think that subliminal messages in the field of
advertising are much more successful than
subliminal messages for self-improvement, such as
tapes sold to help the consumer lose weight, gain
intelligence, or do something else to improve
themselves simply by listening to a tape. Subliminal
advertising can be defined as “embedding material
in print, audio, or video messages so faintly that
they are not consciously perceived.” Rogers and
Smith (1993) surveyed 400 households. When
asked if they believed advertisers deliberately
included subliminal messages, 61.5% responded
‘yes’. A 72.2% ‘yes’ answer was obtained when
asked if subliminal advertisements were effective.

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Based on these results, it can be concluded that
consumers are aware of subliminal advertising, and
believe it is effectively used by advertisers to
influence their decisions. The term “sub-threshold
effects,” first popularized by Packard in 1957,
preceded the popular notion of “subliminal
advertising,” whose originator is James Vicary.

Subliminal advertising first came to the public’s
attention in 1957 when Jim Vicary conducted a
subliminal advertising strategy of interspersing
“drink Coca-Cola” and “eat popcorn” messages
on a movie screen so quickly that they could not
be seen consciously by the audience. His research
initially reported increases in the sales of both
Coca-Cola and popcorn as a result of the
subliminal messages. Later, however, when he
was challenged and could not replicate or even
produce the results, Vicary admitted that the
results of the initial study had been fabricated
(Weir, 1984). Key (1989) has more recently
claimed that hidden or embedded messages are
widespread and effective. Key’s theories have
been widely discredited by scholars who have
examined marketing applications scientifically
(Moore, 1982). Although a few scholarly studies
have reported certain limited effects of exposure
to subliminal stimuli in laboratory settings
(Greenwald, Klinger, and Liu, 1989), most
academic researchers on the subject have
reported findings which indicate no practical or
predictable effect in an advertising setting (Dixon,
1971). The 1957 Vicary study has been largely
disregarded in the scholarly community due to lack
of scientific documentation of methodology and
failure to replicate. However, scholarly findings
and industry assertions may have had little or no
effect on the average American, who has been
exposed to popular articles and books promoting
the notion that subliminal advertising is used and is
effective. In addition, Americans have been
exposed to advertisements claiming that self-help
audio-tapes and videotapes containing subliminal
materials can help the purchaser with weight loss,
better relationships, an improved golf game,
quitting smoking, and even birth control.

Awareness of Subliminal Messaging by the Public
Many in the public are aware of the term
“subliminal advertising,” understand the basics of
the concept, and believe it not only is used by
advertisers but is also successful in influencing
brand and purchase choice. Shortly after the
Vicary study was brought to the public’s attention
(Brean, 1958), Haber (1959) sought to discern
“exactly what the public believes about subliminal
advertising when so little factual information is
available.” Results of this study determined that 41
percent of 324 respondents had heard of
subliminal advertising, and although half believed it
to be “unethical,” 67 percent stated that they
would still watch a television program even if they
believed subliminal messages were embedded in
the commercials. Two decades later, a survey of
209 adults conducted by Zanot, Pincus, and Lamp
(1983) reported double the awareness levels of
the Haber study. The Zanot survey concluded that
81 percent had heard of subliminal advertising and
that “respondents believe that subliminal
advertising is widely and frequently used and that it
is successful in selling products.” The same survey
determined that educational level is the
demographic variable most highly correlated with
awareness of subliminal advertising; the more
educated the respondent, the more likely he or she
is to be aware of the phenomenon. A study by
Rogers and Smith (1993) found that the more
education a person has (and therefore the more
opportunity to learn of the limitations of the
subliminal persuasion phenomenon), the more
likely one is to believe that subliminal advertising
“works.” A 1985 study by Block and Vanden
Bergh surveying consumers’ attitudes toward use
of subliminal techniques for self-improvement
found some consumer skepticism and reported
more favorable attitudes among those who were
less educated and younger. Three surveys
conducted in the past decade have demonstrated
that a majority of American adults are aware of
“subliminal advertising” and believe advertisers
sometimes use it to sell products. The three
surveys spanned a broad geographic spectrum
(Washington, D.C.; Honolulu, Hawaii; and
Toledo, Ohio). All three surveys opened with
questions that determined whether the respondent
was aware of subliminal advertising and
determined whether or not basic knowledge was
present and sufficient for continued discussion.

Remaining questions in all three surveys assessed
beliefs about the phenomenon, as distinguished
from knowledge. Each study covered slightly
different ground. Each was subject to different
limitations, yet all three produced similar findings.

All three surveys found similar proportions who
were aware of subliminal advertising, who
believed that it is used by advertisers, and who
thought that it “works” to help marketers sell
products. Awareness of Subliminal Messaging by
the Advertising Industry A survey of advertising
agency members, their clients and media
production professionals was conducted by
Rogers and Seiler (1994) as to whether or not
they have ever used, or been connected with a
firm that used, subliminal advertising. Based on a
response rate of 36 percent, the reaction was
nearly unanimously negative, and evidence
suggests that the few positive responses were due
to a misunderstanding of the term “subliminal
advertising.” The results revealed that the majority
denied ever using this advertising strategy, despite
the public’s fears of this method of ‘brainwashing.’
In addition, a significant part of the minority that
answered in the affirmative is shown to have
misinterpreted ‘subliminal’ as ‘subtle.’ The
advertising industry trade press has for decades
ridiculed the notion of using hidden or embedded
messages in advertisements. A significant
percentage (75 to 80 percent) of the U. S.

population believes that advertising agencies and
the companies they represent purposely use
subliminal advertising. These consumers also
believe that subliminal advertising actually “works”
even though research studies have shown that no
significant effects can be identified as a result of
using subliminal imagery in advertisements (Rosen
and Singh, 1992). Consumers spend about 50
million dollars a year on subliminal self-help
products (Krajick, 1990). Scholars have
researched advertisements with subliminal
messages embedded in them and their effects
(Beatty and Hawkins, 1989). These studies have
generally refuted the possibility of eliciting
predictable responses that could be useful to
marketers. No one has tried to determine whether
the advertising community has deliberately utilized
subliminal messages (Kelly, 1979; Dudley, 1987).

The advertising industry has repeatedly denied the
use of subliminal embeds, and spokespersons
within the industry have used such common-sense
arguments against its probable use as: “If
subliminals worked, wouldn’t there be textbooks
on how to practice it?” and “How can showing
someone a penis get him or her to switch, say,
from Kent (cigarettes) to Marlboro?” (Kanner,
1989). Wilson Bryan Key’s (1972, 1976, 1980,
1989) writings, and frequent public-speaking
presentations, may have served to promote the
concept and purported use of subliminal
persuasion by advertisers. While his theories have
been widely discredited by scholars (Moore,
1982), his writings still appeal to consumers and
keep the question current: do advertisers use
subliminal advertising purposely in order to elicit a
predictable response by consumers? Kelly (1979)
asserts that this question is extremely important but
unanswered by existing research, which focuses
on whether subliminal advertising might be
effective if it were used, and not on whether it is
used deliberately. One way of identifying whether
in agencies and the client companies they
represent consciously use subliminal advertising to
help sell their products is to survey them. It was
not until 1984 that a formal research study was
undertaken to determine if advertisers purposely
used subliminal embeds as an advertising strategy.

In his survey of 100 advertising agency art
directors, Haberstroh (1984) inquired whether any
of these art directors had ever deliberately
embedded, supervised an embedding, or had
knowledge of an embedding of a subliminal
message in advertising artwork for a client. His
findings indicated that, of the 47 usable responses,
only 2 answered “yes” to any of the questions.

When he checked open-ended explanations by
these two respondents, he determined there was
confusion on the part of the respondents to the
implied definition of “subliminal embeds” and that,
apparently, none of the 47 participants had ever
used subliminal messages (Haberstroh, 1984). The
Affects of Subliminal Messaging Vokey and Read
(1985) were unable to find any evidence to
support the claim that subliminal messages affect
behavior in their study. Key is a major figure in the
argument that subliminal messaging not only
occurs, but is also effective. Key claims that a
variety of subliminal techniques are used to
capitalize upon the public’s obsession with sex.

These include the obvious use of sexual imagery
within the verbal and pictorial content of
advertisements. Examples of Key’s research
include both the Playboy ads and the rum pictorial
ads. Key asserts that the subliminal sexual imagery
included in a Playboy magazine advertisement
depicting a naked woman effectively renders the
ad more memorable. He stated that about 95% of
college males remembered viewing this ad an
entire month later. It is also possible that the
college students would have remembered the ad
equally well without the embedded imagery. There
is ample data to demonstrate that college students
can likely recognize 95% of even relatively
extensive sets of pictures shown to them. In the
case of the rum ads, Key felt that the explanation
for an overwhelming preference for a particular
brand of rum is the embedded presence of the
phrase “u buy” in a pictorial ad depicting four
types of rum. No researcher since has been able
to find the message in the ad. Key claims that 80%
of the subjects in his studies unconsciously
perceived the backward message, resulting in a
marked preference for the rum with the message.

Key refuses to believe that the fact that the
preferred rum is the only one with the words
“extra special” written on the bottle, or that it is
much darker than the others and presented in a
high-status brandy-snifter in a larger bottle has
anything to do with the preference. A study by
Vokey and Read (1985) was conducted to test
Key’s hypothesis on the embedding of sexual
messages on images. Participants in the study
recognized the images imbedded with sexual
imagery, random imagery, and no imagery at the
same rate. Key suggested that it often takes at
least a day to see the effect of the subliminal
material. Vokey and Read waited two days and
found that the participants who waited the two
days to indicate what slides they had previously
seen remembered less than those who indicated
what slides they had seen immediately. Every
result in the study disagreed with Key and his
ideas regarding subliminal messages. It is difficult
to believe that while there has been so much
research completed proving that not only are
subliminal messages not used, but that subliminal
messages are completely ineffective in changing or
influencing behavior, the public so strongly
believes in the influence. After all the research, the
public still fears subliminal messages and the
effects they could have. Psychologists must work
to educate the public in the matter of subliminal
messages. It is as if subliminal messages are like
superstitions. Everyone knows that it is just a
superstition that if one breaks a mirror it will bring
on seven years of bad luck, yet most people will
become quite upset if they do break a mirror.

Most people realize that subliminal messages do
not have a strong effect, yet they are still
superstitious about them. The paranoia brought on
by the idea that the brain can be influenced by
subliminal messages is great. No one likes the idea
that their thoughts and beliefs are being altered
without their knowledge or consent. Education
regarding advertising practices and the
non-existent effects of subliminal messages would
help to bridge the gap between the knowledge and
beliefs of the industry, and the knowledge and
beliefs of the public. References Townsend, J. M.,
Levy, G. D. (1990). Effects of Potential Partners’
Costume and Physical Attractiveness on Sexuality
and Partner Selection. Journal of Psychology.

371-379. Block, M. P., and Vanden Bergh, B. G.

(1985). Can You Sell Subliminal Messages to
Consumers? Journal of Advertising. 59-62. Dixon,
N. F. Subliminal Advertising: The Nature of a
Controversy. London: McGraw-Hill, 1971.

Greenwald, A. G., Klinger, M. R., and Liu, T. J.

(1989). Unconscious Processing of Dichoptically
Masked Words. Memory and Cognition. 35-47
Haber, R. N. (1959). Public Attitudes Regarding
Subliminal Advertising. Public Opinion Quarterly.

291-93. Key, W. B. (1972). Subliminal
Seduction: Ad Media’s Manipulation of a
Not-So-Innocent America. New York: Signet.

Moore, T. E. (1982). Subliminal Advertising:
What You See Is What You Get. Journal of
Marketing. 38-47. Packard, V. The Hidden
Persuaders. New York: Pocket Books, 1957.

Rogers, M., and. Seiler, C. A. (1994). The
answer is no: a national survey of advertising
industry practitioners and their clients about
whether they use subliminal advertising. Journal of
Advertising Research. 36-46 Rogers, M., Smith,
K. H. (1993). Public perceptions of subliminal
advertising: why practitioners shouldn’t ignore this
issue. Journal of Advertising Research. 10-19.

Vokey, j. R., and Read, J. D., Subliminal
Messages: Between the Devil and the Media.

American Psychologist. 1231-1239. Zanot, E. J.,
Pincus, J. D., and Lamp, E. J. (1983). Public
Perceptions of Subliminal Advertising. Journal of
Advertising. 39-45.


Category: Science