Do Subliminal Messages Work?

Posted on August 24, 2023 | Updated on August 24, 2023

Marketers use various tactics to get brands noticed and encourage people to buy certain products. However, most of them — such as billboards, online ads and television commercials — are very obvious. What if some also try to influence us in ways we don’t consciously perceive? That’s the concept behind subliminal messages. Should we worry about them? Do they even work? 

A Brief Look at Subliminal Messages

People’s fascination with subliminal messages goes back decades. In 1957, market researcher James Vicary claimed he flashed split-second messages on cinema screens to encourage people to buy more popcorn and soda. He said that approach led to substantial increases in sales for both kinds of movie treats. An earlier case involved a 1943 Daffy Duck cartoon featuring a single-frame message to encourage the purchase of war bonds. 

Some people have also raised concerns about hidden messages in music. They assert that artists ranging from The Beatles to Eminem have used a technique called backmasking to insert words or phrases into tunes. Some musicians do it intentionally, such as for comedic or artistic effects. Instances have occasionally resulted in legal battles. Those were particularly likely in the 1980s, when some people worried about Satanic influences in society.

It’s also worth pointing out that humans experience a phenomenon called pareidolia. It happens when their brains try to make sense of data that’s ultimately meaningless. Many psychologists and similar professionals have explained that pareidolia causes people to see a human face in a picture of the Moon or claim an image of Jesus has appeared to them on a slice of toast. 

Even so, people have understandably wondered if companies could influence them with content that was too brief to consciously interpret but still processed by the brain. 

Poking Fun at Subliminal Messages in Campaigns

Marketing professionals know the value of capitalizing on cultural interests to help their campaigns gain momentum and remain memorable. Subway did that during a 2018 effort. However, rather than trying to hide the messages, they made them very conspicuous. The sandwich brand got people’s attention with giant projections, chalk drawings, and sand sculptures. 

Some advertising was more traditional — such as the short-form clips clocking in at six seconds or less. All included the “Feed your subconscious” tagline. One of Subway’s goals was to show that some subliminal messages are more noticeable than people may realize. The marketing team also tapped into society’s fascination with content not consciously perceived. 

An earlier example came from Sprite in 2006. The soda brand’s team worked with a play on words when they ran these “sublymonal” ads. Some were dream-sequence styles meant to bombard the senses in more ways than one. It ran in 25,000 movie theaters and before televised basketball finals. 

In these cases, the marketing teams knew that focusing on subliminal messages in playful ways would get attention. Standing out from the other marketing campaigns and sticking in people’s memories are the goals, and these efforts did that. 

Researchers Revisit Hidden Messages in Their Work

Even though people’s interest in subliminal content began decades ago, scientists are still eager to learn more about it. They want to know if embedded content could really make individuals do specific things. 

In one 2022 study, researchers recruited people with substance use disorders associated with amphetamines. They scanned their brands while exposing the people to subliminal images linked to drug use. They wanted to see if those pictures would show a trigger response in brain activity. The team tried the same experiment with a control group. However, the results did not show that the subliminal pictures caused excited brain activity.

A 2021 effort involved researchers gauging the effects of subliminal images on body-type desirability. The outcomes showed the unconsciously perceived content did not impact how people perceived normal body weight. However, the subliminal material appears to have changed how the participants saw the ultra-thin bodies. The researchers planned additional research to see how subliminal content might affect women with eating disorders. 

Elsewhere, researchers at Case Western Reserve University have turned their attention to “nudging.” Many people consider it the modern version of subliminal messages. It involves making minor changes to encourage or discourage specific behaviors. One example used in public health includes placing graphic images on cigarette cartons to warn people of the dangers. Alternatively, a brand might put calorie counts on packages, even if regulations don’t mandate it. 

The Case Western Reserve University team recently received a four-year, $1.6-million grant to further their efforts. They’ll focus on how nudging might increase people’s willingness to take part in medical trials. The group will use their findings to inform future policy recommendations in this area. 

Social Media Returns Subliminal Messages to the Mainstream

Social scientists and brain researchers have kept studying subliminal content. But most of their work doesn’t make newspaper headlines. However, it has been social media that’s primarily responsible for getting the public interested again. 

Some TikTok videos about “subliminals” have more than a million views and claim to help people manifest their desires. Viewers merely need to listen to the content, which has imperceptible messages inside. People who believe in these videos say they can do everything from change someone’s appearance to help them get a partner.

The videos have made a splash on YouTube, too. One viewer said she listens to them up to 10 hours a day by starting them before she falls asleep and letting them play overnight.

However, experts remain skeptical. Many point out that the placebo effect could explain any positive results. Consider if someone believes a subliminal will shrink their nostril size. Their confidence in the content could make them less bothered by how their nose looks. Alternatively, someone might use a subliminal to make someone they like more interested in them. But if it works, they’ll probably overlook the things they consciously did to gain that attention. 

The Love-Hate Relationship With Hidden Messages

There’s no doubt that subliminal messages have captured the public’s attention. However, research has not conclusively proven that the content can push people to change their behaviors. Even so, places like Great Britain and Australia have banned such advertising. 

Even with the limited scientific evidence of these messages working effectively, people have had concerns through the years. They don’t like worrying that companies or the government could influence them without their knowledge. 

On the other hand, people like the idea that they could change the parts of themselves they dislike by listening to YouTube and TikTok videos. 

One thing to keep in mind is that we get exposed to messages almost everywhere we go. Advertisers already know the content we can see helps them sell products. Most understand that inserting a message into content without people knowing could easily backfire. 

Scientists will keep studying subliminal messages, and this content may stick around as a social media trend. However, beyond that, subliminal messages are nothing to fear, nor are they powerful marketing tools. 

That’s understandable, too. People can’t remember the most effective marketing campaigns if they never realized marketers were sending them messages through the content. Instead, it’s more common to have products strategically used in unforgettable movie scenes or shown on 3D billboards. Then, those items are more likely to have top-of-mind positions in consumers’ minds, which could drive sales. 

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