What Is Subliminal Advertising and Should You Use It

Posted on March 13, 2023 | Updated on March 13, 2023

Subliminal advertising is hidden messages people might not immediately notice but sense on a subconscious level. Some examples are blatant but others are as subtle as using specific shapes, colors and images to help the person make associations with a product or emotion.

The goal of subliminal advertising is to engage the user and make them feel something without them being aware of the technique. At the same time, you don’t want to be sneaky, though. Don’t hide your advertising efforts or deny them. Make it all in good fun and your audience is more likely to respond positively. 

Is Advertising With Subliminal Messages Ethical?

One issue with hidden messages is that they convey something users aren’t aware of. Many companies find this unethical at best because the consumer isn’t aware they’re making associations and forming opinions based on how things relate to one another. When used unscrupulously, it can be a form of psychological warfare.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says it is deceptive for marketers to embed ads with intentional subliminal messages meant to change the way a consumer behaves. The FTC Act states that advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive. Ads must also be fair. If your marketing efforts are upfront and transparent, then you’re probably on the right side of the regulation. 

Before you can determine if such ads are right for your brand, you need to understand exactly what subliminal messages look like. 

Examples of Subliminal Advertising

You’ve likely seen subliminal advertising numerous times. When it’s done well, you’re barely aware of it. When it’s done poorly, it’s almost laughable. 

One example might be a soft drink company paying for a sponsorship in a movie. The can might be sitting on a coffee table or the main character might hold the soda in their hand. In the 1985 movie “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” a young Shannon Doherty sits in a tree while her brother learns dance moves. When he lands a difficult flip, she cheers and she’s holding a can of Pepsi.

Marlboro cigarettes skirted around people’s concern about tobacco companies advertising on Formula 1 race cars. They used a subliminal logo that only became apparent when the car moved at high speeds around the track. People would catch a flash of it as the race car sped by, but when the car slowed the logo wasn’t there. 

Check out the video starting at the 5:19 mark.

How many of you remember the selfie Ellen Degeneres took at the 2014 Oscars with famous faces such as Bradley Cooper, Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt? It wasn’t deceptive at all, but she took the shot with a Samsung phone and the image and moment went viral, sending the unstated message that Samsung phones are desirable and able to capture amazing moments. 

Finding the balance between sending a subtle message and being authentic requires knowing who your audience is and sharing your heart and soul as a brand. 

How Can You Add Subliminal Advertising to Your Marketing Efforts?

An authentic subliminal message isn’t something people can observe. It’s perceived by the brain and associated with other things we see and hear, making us change our behavior. The only way it’s typically discovered is by journalistic sleuths and professional investigators. 

How can you tap into the power of subliminal advertising without being deceptive or breaking laws? While you should always consult with an attorney to ensure you aren’t violating FTC rules when embracing something like subliminal advertising, here are a few ideas. 

1. Send a Message With Your Logo

In one survey, 78% of consumers stated logos are works of art. They felt logos told a story about the company behind the image. Logos can have hidden meanings through the shapes, lines and colors utilized.

For example, the logo for Baskin Robbins may look like a simple B and R at first glance. However, if you take a step bag, you can see the number 31, which represents the 31 flavors they traditionally offer. 

The placement of text, the outline of the letters and other features can add some meaning to your logo. FedEx is another example. The logo makes the word look as though it is in motion, which matches what the company does perfectly.

2. Choose the Right Images

You don’t have to send a secret message and potentially violate FTC regulations. Instead, choose photos that tell a story about your brand. What pain points are your customers dealing with? How can the photos show you giving users a solution to their biggest problems?

3. Tap Into Product Placement

If your advertising budget allows, adding your product to a favorite television show set or movie can increase exposure and send the subliminal message that those actors support your brand. 

For smaller brands with shoestring budgets, seek local opportunities. For example, an alarm company might offer a free system and service to a popular event venue in exchange for placing a sign outside that the premises is protected by them. Every person who enters sees the sign and assumes they are endorsed by the business. 

You could also talk to producers of local cable shows, radio and websites and see how you might work together to get the word out about your product in an indirect way. 

4. Know the Psychology of Color

Did you know that color can boost attention span, increase appetite and create higher sales figures? The color red increases pulse rate by 0.356 points and blue bedrooms help 60% of sleepers wake up happier. 

Understanding the power of color and how it sends the human brain subliminal messages is a subtle way to enhance your audience’s mood and drive home a point. 

Does Subliminal Messaging Work?

Researchers believe outright brainwashing tactics don’t work. For example, you can flash the words “buy this product” over and over at a high rate of speed that is imperceptible to the human eye but the brain can process. The results after numerous studies show that buyers do what they want to do anyway.

Where subliminal messaging does seem to work is when people have a desire or need for your product anyway and you aren’t trying to trick them but send a cohesive message that meets their needs. 

As with most types of marketing, figure out user intent, solve their pain points and include a few subliminal hints at these things. You’ll find the most success when you combine a variety of marketing techniques, excellent design and a high-quality product your brand stands behind.

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