Does subliminal advertising work? Part I

Evaluate the impact of subliminal advertising

What Is subliminal advertising?

Subliminal advertising uses words, images, or sounds in television, commercials, music and, more recently, in digital media–to boost sales of products and services. Subliminal messages may be embedded in an icon, image, or briefly flashed at an audience below the level of conscious awareness.

The most referenced classic example–is the 1957 experiment by James Vicary in which the messages “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” were transmitted in single screen frames before a movie began. Though Vicar’s claims if amazing results were later revealed to be a publicity stunt, 60 years of subsequent social psychological and marketing research has confirmed that subliminal influence techniques do work in specific contexts. — We’ve also learned it’s important to evaluate the impact of subliminal advertising separately from the broad array of subconscious influence triggers.

Key researcher Philip Merikle at the Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, has concluded–
“Over the years there have been literally hundreds of studies”…”these studies show that considerable information capable of informing decisions and guiding actions is perceived even when observers do not experience any awareness of perceiving”.

Examples of subconscious triggers that clearly determine outcomes

  • Studies have demonstrated that playing French or German music in a wine shop results in more people selecting, respectively, more French or German wines with customers being completely unaware that they were being manipulated.
  • We are more likely to select the first among options that are most accessible, whether it is among objects at eye level or a choice nearer to a target item.
  • On food and other menus, we are more likely to choose from the very top or very bottom. Why? Those areas are the first attract our attention/eye. We assume we’re selecting the Reuben sandwich because we are hungry for it, but, in fact, it’s the placement of the food on the menu that is most powerful determiner of the food we select.
  • Other correlations abound, e.g., handing someone a hot drink can make you seem like a “warmer” person than giving them an icy drink; smelling a bad ambient odor can cause you to judge people in that environment more harshly.
  • Sales rep performance is increased by inspirational photos (e.g., in one case a poster showing an athlete winning a race resulted in better sales performance though management had never discussed it with employees).

Part II

By the late 1950s, subliminal advertising techniques were believed to be so effective at manipulating people that the United Kingdom and Australia banned their use. In the second installment of this article, I’ll explain why they have less impact than we once believed.


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