How subliminal perception works:
The term “subliminal” is defined as “(of a stimulus or mental process) below the threshold of sensation or consciousness; perceived by or affecting someone’s mind without their being aware of it.” A subliminal message is an “affirmation or message either auditory or visual presented below the normal limits of perception.”
Subliminal messaging in advertising and other forms of mediums has been a topic of concern for a very long time. Research of subliminal messaging can date back to the 1920′s. There is no official scientific proof that this form of messaging and persuasion is necessarily real, but it has shown some real effects. Subliminal messaging is a series of mind control techniques based on the belief that it can persuade people to do things they would not normally do. This has been around since the 5th century B.C when the early Greeks used the rhetoric as a way to influence people.
A big question is: How is subliminal messaging effective if we do not notice it?
Subliminal messaging works because our unconscious mind picks up on things that our conscious mind does not. In order for a subliminal message to be effective, it must be ambiguous. If a hidden message can be picked upon then our conscious mind will repress it. Subliminal messages are created by having two specific approaches: “The hidden message can activate maladaptive behaviors by stimulating unconscious anxieties” and “The hidden message can fulfill unconscious fantasies” (Bullock, 180).
There are a number of key emotions that are stimulated unconsciously by certain ads. Bullock states that there are unlimited possibilities which may even include more disturbing impulses but lists the following: Men’s fear of impotency and castration, women’s fear of rape or being violated, women’s hostility towards men, men’s hostility towards women, a desire to dominate and subjugate the opposite gender, repressed homosexual inclinations, resentment of children, and feelings of self-destruction such as suicide. These are some of the key reasons “sex sells”, and people are more attracted to things that contain sexual and morbid images and/or content. “In a literal sense, exposure to media is a form of reverse therapy, designed to make us emotionally disturbed and therefore a better consumer.”
For example, in 1976 the cigarette company “Benson Hedges” advertised their hard pack cigarettes in Times magazine. This ad demonstrated a man and a woman romantically hugging while the man looked away with a sly look on his face. At first glance this ad seems normal, but what we, the viewers do not notice is the airbrushed penis on the woman’s back. The message behind this ad was the male in the picture was clearly nervous about being with the woman so to influence customers that if they are feeling nervous ‘grab a hard pack’, which would be their cigarette as well as a sexual innuendo. The reason things like this get overlooked so easily is because in our subconscious mind, it doesn’t make sense. “The unconscious is also inclined to suppress awareness of discordant information” (Bullock, 29). Due to this suppression, we easily do not pay attention to it but are still influenced, “the repression of discordant information probably wasn’t real, and consciously processing it impaired survival.”
Majority of what is called “hard knowledge” is acquired by our subconscious mind, unconsciously. “Psychologists have long been aware of the distinction between explicit and implicit learning” (Bullock, 68). Explicit learning is the knowledge we acquire consciously, and implicit learning is what we acquire unconsciously, and immediately. An example of this is our language. When we are babies, we automatically pick up on the language spoken to us and around us; this is implicit learning. When we as adults now try to learn a second language, it is far more difficult; this is explicit learning. This is related to the idea of “unconscious conditioning.” Unconscious conditioning is “the assimilation of knowledge without awareness” (Bullock, 69).
In the 1920′s when BBC tried to launch on the radio people did not react well. Radio audiences felt that it was the voice of the devil speaking to them so BBC then turned to subliminal messaging in order to gain the interest of the public. BBC added “this is not a noose, no really it’s not,” in a jingle which can be heard when played backwards otherwise called “backward masking” which is a form of subliminal messaging.
After World War II ended, many of the United States’ factories were producing a surplus of goods which were going unused. People were being very frugal in spending due to the great depressions effects. The United States was now in a post-war recovery, and needed consumers to purchase the goods being produced in order to rebuild the economy. Due to this lack of consumption, advertisers and manufactures created a field of science known as “motivational research.” Scientists and psychologists were asked to develop innovative psychological techniques that would coax people to purchase products. This research led to the discovery that most of the time people bought products for reasons they were not aware of. Total, approximately 1 billion dollars was spent on this research by the end of the 1950’s.
In 1957 there was great concern about the use of subliminal messaging in movies. James Vicary conducted an experiment in a New Jersey movie theater using a device he invented called a “tachistoscope.” This device was created for the purpose of flashing words and/or images on a screen for a brief amount of time for as little time as 1/300 of a second. Though this time may seem too short for us to consciously notice them, our subconscious mind will notice and may be influenced. Vicary flashed the phrases “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat popcorn” during a movie which he claimed led to a 57% increase in the sale of popcorn and Coca-Cola. Later it was proven his claims were exaggerated, however his press conference drew a lot of attention to the ideas of subliminal messaging. Many radio stations began using “whisper ads” for marketing purposes which were played beneath the music being aired.
Disney has been said to have used subliminal messaging in their films as well for example a scene in the very popular “Lion King” when Simba lays down and the pollen blows off into the wind forming the word “sex” if you look closely. That is not the only instance in which Disney has been accused of subliminal messaging. It can also be found in movies such as “The Little Mermaid”, “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast”. Perhaps these messages were added to draw the attention of an older crowd as well as a younger crowd? It is an interesting question but one we will probably never get answered.
Once the public became more aware of subliminal messaging, they took a stance against it claiming that minds were being “broken and entered”, and stating that it threatened personal liberties. This caused ad agencies and manufacturers to stop the use of subliminal messaging and even led to the introduction of national and state bills trying to make it illegal; however these bills were never passed because the FCC assured that subliminal messaging was not being used and there was no need to ban it.
The FCC has never created any formal laws against the use of subliminal messaging, and has only addressed it twice, once in 1974 and in 1987. In 974, the FCC released a statement regarding subliminal messaging:
“We sometimes receive complaints regarding the alleged use of subliminal techniques in radio and TV programming. Subliminal programming is designed to be perceived on a subconscious level only. Regardless of whether it is effective, the use of subliminal perception is inconsistent with a station’s obligation to serve the public interest because the broadcast is intended to be deceptive.”
Because this was never a law, it is not enforceable. On November 19, 1987 the FCC admonished KMEZ(FM) radio in Dallas, Texas for its repeated use of subliminal messaging which were transmitter during an ad for the American Cancer Society against smoking.
There is no real law deeming subliminal advertising “illegal” because the FCC has no rules on what may or may not be a subliminal message. Due to this, there is no substructure to determine whether or not an ad contains a hidden message. “The ‘vagueness’ standard requires that the statue be clear enough so that people generally understand what it prohibits (Bullock, 176). The reason the FCC cannot create a law against subliminal messaging is because it really cannot be proved. “Subliminal messaging cannot be legislatively enjoined. Like pornography, it is too difficult to define to effectively regulate” (Bullock, 178). Messages that are created to subliminally manipulate you can do so solely based on the fact that you cannot see it. It is either flashed so fast that it is impossible to pick up, or it is disguised so perfectly that it could be argued as pure coincidence or simply one’s personal perception. “A statue that outlawed “ambiguous phrases or embedded images” would not only be constitutionally invalid, it would be impossible to enforce” (Bullock, 178). The Supreme Court holds strong policy against creating laws against an issue that is not solid.
Product placement has never been proven to be necessarily effective or scientifically validated, however companies still spend a whopping amount of money on it. It was in the 1930’s that product placement truly began to take on the form of becoming a marketing and advertising strategy. It started in the year 1932 when the cigar company “White Owl Cigars” provided $250,000 to advertise in the very popular movie Scarface based on one condition: Paul Muni would smoke them in the movie. After this, many companies began using this same strategy. Steven Spielberg approached Mars Company to ask if they would be willing to pay to place their product of M&M’s in his movie E.T. Mars denied the offer, but Hershey was willing to accept the offer by providing their Reese’s Pieces. Sales for Reese’s show that as little as a week after the movies premier their sales tripled, and within a couple of months over 800 cinemas nationwide began carrying Reese’s candy for the first time.
In the year 2006, PQ Media found that companies paid a total amount of $3.36 billion globally to simply have their products featured in a variety of music videos, movies, and TV show. As the years went on the price only got higher. In 2007 they spent $4.38 billion which was then predicted to rise to an estimated $7.6 billion by the year 2010 and $8.25 billion in 2012. When American Idol was the highest rated show on television, companies such as Ford Motors, Cingular (now AT&T) and Coca-Cola paid an estimated $26 million annually just to be featured on the show and/or have a commercial during the shows air time.
Due to an increase in technology, and viewers now having the power to watch television without the disruption of ads, advertisers are forced to become more innovative. Jeff Gaspin, former president of NBC Universal Television group stated that “the shift from programmer to consumer controlling program choices is the biggest change in the media business in the past 25 or 30 years.” We the consumers now have far more control of what we view, and even how we are affected by it, but advertisers will go to all lengths to ensure that they get their product message across to us. “In essence, sponsors are letting us know that it’s futile to hide, duck, dodge, fast-forward, or take an extended bathroom break: they’ll get to us somehow.”
Neuromarketing is the study of how the human brain responds to marketing stimuli.” This study is a very important aspect of marketing which provides all the answers as to why and how, we as consumers react the way we do to certain forms of marketing and advertising. Neuromarketing alone may be the answer to why marketers and advertisers turn to subliminal messaging to persuade us. Some people believe that neuromarketing is an evil tool used to persuade and subjugate us against our will and should be banned, while others believe it may be very useful. Martin Lindstrom, the author of “Buy.ology” uses the analogy of a hammer to argue the positives of neuromarketing stating “Yes—in the wrong hands a hammer can be used to bludgeon someone over the head, but that is not its purpose, and it doesn’t mean that hammers should be banned or seized, or embargoed.” (Lindstrom, 4) He argues that neuromarketing is merely just an instrument to help decode what we as consumers are already thinking. Yes, it is true that such a study may provide very valuable information that could potentially be used for harm if used by the wrong person; however this is not what it is intended for.
Neuromarketing is done in two ways: Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fmri) and electroencephalography (EEG). FMRI is done by using a very strong magnet which can track the blood flow of the brain while subjects respond to various visual and audio cues, giving access to an area of the brain known as the “pleasure center.” EEG is done by using a cap of electrodes which are attached to the subjects scalp. The electrodes measure the electrical waves which are produces by the brain and can be used to track emotions based on the fluctuation of brain activity.
In 2004, Martin Lindstrom conducted a $7 million study comprised of multiple experiments and thousands of subjects from all over the world resulting in findings that he claims will “transform the way you think about how and why you buy.” The main goal of the study was to “overturn some of the most long-held assumptions, myths and beliefs about what kinds of advertising, branding and packaging actually work to arouse our interest and encourage us to buy.”
One of his subjects named Marlene was a smoker and had been smoking 15 years prior to the study. She was asked to fill out a questionnaire, one of the questions being “Are you affected by the warnings on cigarette packs?” her response was yes. 5 weeks later results shows that warning labels on cigarette packs had little to no effect on smokers. What was even more surprising is that informing smokers of the risks of contracting deadly diseases caused by smoking stimulated the area of the smoker’s brain that causes cravings. “In other words, overt, direct, and visually explicit antismoking messages did more to encourage smoking than any deliberate campaign Marlboro or Camel could have come up with.” (Lindstrom, 82)
The commercials on television that promote living above the influence of smoking thus may have a traverse effects on the smoking habits of viewers. The surface intention of the commercial may have been to deter smoking, but instead it not only informs viewers of smoking, but it also stimulates ones craving to smoke. These commercials thus act as not only a marketing agent, but also a marketing tool. The intention of such commercials are not clear because they are often funded by companies that produce cigarettes. This scenario poses the question of whether or not these cigarette companies are aware of the subliminal messages to smoke in even commercials that may seem to have the intention of deterring smoking.
The mind of a given viewer of an advertisement with subliminal messages is often not aware of the message being communicated to their unconscious mind. The mind is separated into two halves: the conscious mind, and the unconscious mind. There is a filter mechanism that separates them, and the understood balance between both is a person’s perception of reality. The filter mechanism operates without awareness, and it only allows small parts of information to enter one’s consciousness. This means that a bulk of information enters thoughts’ mind through their unconscious mind. Bullock, the author of “The Secret Sales Pitch” states “Subliminal advertisements are fascinating because they graphically reveal how twisted our perception really is.”
We often do not realize the true power our subconscious mind has. Our subconscious mind is targeted on a daily basis by millions of objects, images, sounds and smells. A majority of our actions are done subconsciously and has far greater impact than we notice. “In reality, the unconscious is often calling the shots…It makes the conscious think it is in charge, but the conscious by distorting and withholding information the conscious has access to.”
Is Subliminal messaging a thing of the past?
The more research I came upon, I noticed that all the examples of the use of subliminal messaging in ads were dated back to the 50s-80s. The truth is, marketers and manufacturers finally figured out that the manipulation of consumers’ minds was unethical, as well as a waste of time. The key to the survival of a brand is consumer loyalty, being that 80% of a company’s profit comes from 20% of their customers. Subliminal manipulation may greaten the chances of a one-time purchase, but there is no guarantee for life long customer loyalty.
There are still many mental tricks that may be used by marketers and advertisers such as the use of particular colors and visuals; however this is simply putting public knowledge to use, and doing it on a conscious level. In fact, a lot of what advertisers believe to be effective drawing the attention of customers proves to be a complete waste of time when tested. Studies show that our visual sense is not as strong in terms of enticing our interests and persuading us to buy.
A company called Neuroco which specialized in brain scanning conducted a study for 20th Century Fox which tested how a player’s eyes and brain activity reacted to commercials placed in a video game. This study resulted in no increase of sales, only gazing eyes.
“Today we are more visually overstimulated than ever before. And in fact, studies have shown that the more stimulated we are, the harder it is to capture our attention.” (Lindstrom, 142)
There is a form of branding known as Sensory Branding™ which tests our sight and smell. This form of branding came about when scientists realized that visual images such as logos prove to be more effective when associated with another scent. Associating an image with a scent or sound allows for the image to stand our more in our minds and become more memorable thus helping us to notice it more when seen on other occasions. When an image is paired with the right fragrance, and a consumer likes it, the right medial otherwise known as the bio frontal cortex which is an area in our brain that is associated with our perception of something pleasing. This is also the reason we will remember it at a later stage. One of the most memorable and favorable labels is Johnson & Johnson’s. This is due to the association of the logo with their baby powder. Growing up, everyone has a memory of Johnson & Johnson’s baby powder which will ignite our senses and cause us to be fonder of it.
All in all, the purchasing decision is up to us, the consumers. It is the job of the advertisers to figure out what it is that we like and what will persuade us to purchase a product. After all, if we don’t spend there will be no economy. Only when it is taken past our conscious level that it then begins to be manipulation and deception. Subliminal messaging has proven to be a thing of the past, and will ultimately stay there due to how highly informed we the consumers are on the topic.