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Does subliminal advertising work?

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).

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 post, I’ll explain why they have less impact than we once believed.

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Before conscious reflection can take place

Research demonstrates that people are influenced by different kinds of subliminal/subconscious triggers. This is why flashed subliminal screen messages have been banned by the British and Australian governments for decades, despite subsequent research indicating that their impact is generally constrained by other factors.

Flight or fight response set

Why are we potentially vulnerable to such stimuli? –In order to survive, our early ancestors needed to be in tune with subliminal, below the level of conscious awareness sensory input. We have them to thank for our hard-wired flight or fight response to such stimuli. –Have you ever suddenly awakened after hearing an unfamiliar thud or bang? Is it a burglar? A possum in the attic? Or, something completely harmless? Before conscious reflection can take place, you are already primed for action. This and similar hard wiring leaves us open to being manipulated, e.g., making a purchase or supporting a cause–that may be against our best interests.

'Subliminal advertising, Alice, what did I tell you!'

The Placebo effect and other “confounding variables”

Experiments show that subjects evaluated photographs of individuals somewhat more positively or negatively depending on whether a preceding subliminal image was positive or negative. That said, the general physical attractiveness of each individual was by far the more powerful determiner.

Subliminal negative messages in political ads seem to have an effect, echoing the more powerful, well-established finding that negative political ads are more effective than positive ones. Only limited research has been done on how to optimize the generally limited impact of flashed subliminal messages. The content of subliminals and their timing needs to be exactly right.

Nonetheless, it’s clear that the headline “Avoid These Fatal Mistakes” is more likely to get our attention than “Make Better Choices.” We see abundant examples of this negative priming in all the click bait that pops up at the bottom of news media screens.

The military has used subliminal tapes and CDs to help personnel recognize foreign ships and aircraft. Has this worked? To a limited degree, yes, though the placebo effect (the belief among subjects that it would help) is apparently the most powerful among the determining factors.

More recently, studies have revealed that anaesthetized patients recall more of what doctors and nurses say when undergoing medical procedures than previously believed possible. This is concerning because we know that subliminal negative images and words can alter a person’s mood, perhaps, in this case, even their ability to heal.

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