Do subliminal messages really work? Great question.

Everyone seems worried that advertisers can control their behavior through subliminal messages.

A scary thought? Sure.

A legitimate concern? That’s up for debate.

This post will demystify subliminal messages. You’ll learn the answers to some common questions, including:

  • What are subliminal messages
  • What are some types of subliminal messages?
  • What are real-life examples of subliminal messages?
  • Do subliminal messages work?
Want to learn more about subconscious influence? Download the first chapter of my book, Methods of Persuasion.

What Are Subliminal Messages?

Whoever came up with the definition for “subliminal” should be fired. That definition has led to some different interpretations — most of which are wrong. Hopefully this section will clear things up.

Subliminal messages are stimuli that lie below our threshold of conscious awareness. Because they fall below the absolute threshold level (ATL), we can’t perceive a subliminal message, even if we’re looking for it.

That’s important. Many people confuse subliminal influence with subconscious influence. But those two concepts are very different.

subconscious-vs-subliminal

A stimulus can influence us subconsciously without being subliminal. If we can see or hear it — even if we don’t consciously notice it — it’s not subliminal. It’s considered supraliminal.

Consider in-store music. When researchers played music in a liquor store, they found a startling result. On days when German music was played, German wine outsold French wine. However, the reverse happened when French music was played (North, Hargreaves, & McKendrick, 1999).

Subliminal Messages vs. Subconscious Influence - Wine Study

Did people know that the music was influencing their behavior? Nope — they were subconsciously influenced. Did people hear the music? Indeed, they did. Thus, the music was supraliminal, not subliminal.

When it comes to subconscious influence, there’s no doubt that we’re influenced by supraliminal factors (Fitzsimons et al., 2001). Need more evidence? Check out the video explanation behind my “mind reading.”

However, subliminal factors are a different animal. We can’t consciously perceive subliminal messages, even if we’re looking for them. Needless to say, there’s a lot more skepticism toward subliminal influence.

Types of Subliminal Messages

Generally, there are three types of subliminal messages:

1. Subvisual messages – visual cues that are flashed so quickly (generally a few milliseconds) that people don’t perceive them.

2. Subaudible messages – low volume audio cues that are inserted into a louder audio source, such as music.

3. Backmasking – an audio message that is recorded backwards, with the intention of playing it forward to disguise the reversed message.

Regardless of type, subliminal messages often involve sexual cues. The reason? People claim that associating a stimulus with sex can enhance the appeal of the overall content. A pretty bizarre claim, I know. But is there merit to it? Keep reading…

Real-Life Examples of Subliminal Messages

People claim that subliminal messages have shown up in advertising, movies, and music. It’s a fascinating concept, no question. Unfortunately, most of the examples are purely coincidental. People will see meaning in anything if they’re looking hard enough.

Not to mention, a lot of the popular examples aren’t even “subliminal” at all. The cues are just supraliminal stimuli disguised within a visual.

Nevertheless, here are a few examples — subliminal and supraliminal — that have become popular.

Subliminal Messages in Advertising

You can blame the subliminal advertising chaos on James Vicary. In the 1950s, Vicary claimed to boost concession sales at a movie theater by flashing “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coke” during a movie.

Long story short: his claim was a hoax.

Despite Vicary’s confession, the damage was done. People became scared that mind control was possible, and the hoax gave advertising a bad rap.

Since then, people have been on the lookout for suspicious ads containing subliminal messages. Here are a few examples that sparked some attention:

Subliminal Messages in Advertising - KFC
Notice the dollar bill in the lettuce?
Subliminal Messages in Advertising - Skittles
A pretty coincidental placement of the “s”…dontcha think?
Subliminal Messages in Advertising - Pepsi
…and these Pepsi cans?

Subliminal Messages in Disney

Advertisers aren’t the only people getting criticized. Movie editors from Disney — yes, Disney — have been criticized for putting subliminal messages in movies. Here are a few examples.

In this clip, does Aladdin vaguely say, “Good teenagers take off their clothes:”

…or how about this short clip from The Little Mermaid:

and don’t forget about the famous star scene from The Lion King:

Subliminal Messages in Music

One famous example of subliminal messages in music can be found in Judas Priest. In 1990, the band was accused of putting backward messages of “do it” in a song. And those messages allegedly caused the suicide of two male teenagers.

The judge found no evidence, and the band was cleared of the charges.

Do Subliminal Messages Work?

If you’re familiar with my background, then you’ll know that I used to perform as a stage “mind reader.” In my mind reading show, I claimed to use subliminal messages to accomplish some of my routines.

But here’s the truth: I never used any subliminal messages in my show. In fact, I was ( and still am) very skeptical about the influence of subliminal cues.

In my live shows, I always gave a disclaimer that my routines were based on magic and sleight of hand, rather than psychology. And my routines involving “subliminal messages”? Well, they’re based entirely on trickery and plain ol’ BS.

But it sure looks convincing:

Does that mean subliminal messages don’t work? A few decades ago, researchers would have agreed that subliminal messages were BS. They found little, if any, support that they were effective (Vokey & Read, 1985).

In recent decades, however, the outlook has been slightly changing. Emerging research has shown that subliminal messages can influence our thoughts and behavior (see Kunst-Wilson & Zajonc, 1980 for one of the first notable studies).

For instance, new research has shown that subliminal messages in advertising can, in fact, influence our purchasing behavior. For example, participants in one study were significantly more likely to choose a Lipton Ice drink when they were subliminally primed with “Lipton Ice” (Karremans, Stroebe, & Claus, 2006). Pretty cool.

There have been other findings as well. Here are a few interesting ones:

Fitzsimons, Chartrand, and Fitzsimons (2008) found that people were able to list significantly more uses for a brick when they were subliminally primed with the logo from Apple (compared to IBM’s logo). Why? The subliminal exposure to Apple’s logo temporarily enhanced people’s creativity.

Murphy and Zajonc (1993) found that people developed a more favorable opinion of ambiguous symbols after they were subliminally flashed with smiling individuals. In fact, this effect was stronger when the exposure was subliminal.

Bornstein, Leone, and Galley (1987) found that people agreed more with a person after they were subliminally flashed with a picture of him or her.

Légal, Chappé, Coiffard, and Villard-Forest (2011) subliminally primed people with the words “to trust.” The result? Those people found a message about tap water consumption to be significantly more persuasive.

With all of these findings, subliminal messages sound pretty promising, right? Well, don’t get too excited. This emerging research also has some limitations:

Limitation #1: People Must Already Have a Need

For subliminal messages to influence behavior, people must already want to do that behavior. For example, researchers found that subliminal messages relating to thirst were only effective toward participants who were already thirsty (Strahan, Spencer and Zanna, 2002). For people who weren’t thirsty, the subliminal messages made no difference.

The takeaway? Subliminal messages can’t control your behavior. They can only guide your decision (e.g., choosing Lipton Ice versus some other beverage).

Limitation #2: Subliminal Messages in Self Help Tapes

In addition to advertising, another common area of debate involves self-help audios. There are a whole slew of subliminal audio programs that are supposed to help people lose weight, stop smoking, improve their memory, and the list goes on.

Do they work? Research shows that subliminal messages in self-help tapes are effective. BUT…they’re effective because of the placebo effect (Greenwald, Spangenberg Pratkanis, & Eskanazi 1991). The subliminal cues, themselves, are essentially useless.

Conclusion

Subliminal messages have garnered a lot of skepticism (and rightly so). Nonetheless, emerging research has given this field a new outlook.

While some aspects have been debunked (e.g., subliminal self-help tapes), researchers have been finding merit to other aspects (e.g., subliminal priming).

Can subliminal messages influence your thoughts and behavior? Yes, they can. However, subliminal messages can’t make you do something you wouldn’t want to do. So everyone can finally put their fear to rest.

Want to learn more about subconscious influence? Download the first chapter of my book, Methods of Persuasion.

Research Studies on Subliminal Messages

For all the ambitious readers, here’s a helpful list of academic articles about subliminal messages. Most of the articles are in PDF form:

Bar, M., & Biederman, I. (1998). Subliminal visual primingPsychological Science9(6), 464-468.

Bornstein, R. F., Leone, D. R., & Galley, D. J. (1987). The generalizability of subliminal mere exposure effects: Influence of stimuli perceived without awareness on social behaviorJournal of Personality and Social Psychology53(6), 1070.

Dehaene, S., Changeux, J. P., Naccache, L., Sackur, J., & Sergent, C. (2006). Conscious, preconscious, and subliminal processing: A testable taxonomyTrends in Cognitive Sciences10(5), 204-211.

Dijksterhuis, A. (2004). I like myself but I don’t know why: Enhancing implicit self-esteem by subliminal evaluative conditioning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology86(2), 345.

Eimer, M., & Schlaghecken, F. (2003). Response facilitation and inhibition in subliminal primingBiological Psychology64(1), 7-26.

Gläscher, J., & Adolphs, R. (2003). Processing of the arousal of subliminal and supraliminal emotional stimuli by the human amygdalaThe Journal of Neuroscience23(32), 10274-10282.

Greenwald, A. G., Klinger, M. R., & Schuh, E. S. (1995). Activation by marginally perceptible (” subliminal”) stimuli: Dissociation of unconscious from conscious cognitionJournal of Experimental Psychology124(1), 22.

Fitzsimons, G. M., Chartrand, T. L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2008). Automatic effects of brand exposure on motivated behavior: How apple makes you “think different”Journal of Consumer Research35(1), 21-35.

Karremans, J. C., Stroebe, W., & Claus, J. (2006). Beyond Vicary’s fantasies: The impact of subliminal priming and brand choiceJournal of Experimental Social Psychology42(6), 792-798.

Krosnick, J. A., Betz, A. L., Jussim, L. J., Lynn, A. R., & Stephens, L. (1992). Subliminal conditioning of attitudesPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin18(2), 152-162.

Mogg, K., Bradley, B. P., Williams, R., & Mathews, A. (1993). Subliminal processing of emotional information in anxiety and depressionJournal of Abnormal Psychology102(2), 304.

Monahan, J. L., Murphy, S. T., & Zajonc, R. B. (2000). Subliminal mere exposure: Specific, general, and diffuse effectsPsychological Science, 11(6), 462-466.

Murphy, S. T., & Zajonc, R. B. (1993). Affect, cognition, and awareness: Affective priming with optimal and suboptimal stimulus exposuresJournal of Personality and Social Psychology64(5), 723.

Pessiglione, M., Schmidt, L., Draganski, B., Kalisch, R., Lau, H., Dolan, R. J., & Frith, C. D. (2007). How the brain translates money into force: A neuroimaging study of subliminal motivationScience316(5826), 904-906.

Seitz, A. R., & Watanabe, T. (2003). Psychophysics: Is subliminal learning really passive?Nature422(6927), 36-36.

Stapel, D. A., & Blanton, H. (2004). From seeing to being: Subliminal social comparisons affect implicit and explicit self-evaluationsJournal of Personality and Social Psychology87(4), 468.

Strahan, E. J., Spencer, S. J., & Zanna, M. P. (2002). Subliminal priming and persuasion: Striking while the iron is hotJournal of Experimental Social Psychology38(6), 556-568.

Vokey, J. R., & Read, J. D. (1985). Subliminal messages: Between the devil and the mediaAmerican Psychologist40(11), 1231.

Winkielman, P., & Zajonc & Norbert Schwarz, R. B. (1997). Subliminal affective priming resists attributional interventionsCognition & Emotion11(4), 433-465.

Zajonc, R. B. (2001). Mere exposure: A gateway to the subliminalCurrent Directions in Psychological Science10(6), 224-228.