Myth #5: "Subliminal messages can persuade people to purchase products"

Subliminal messaging

Presenting images and sounds so short that we are unable to perceive them consciously is called subliminal messaging. Some advertisers believe that subliminal messaging is effective for selling products. The idea is that these messages are not perceived consciously, but that they are processed subconsciously. Larry Brown, Annette Taylor and Patricia Kowalski sampled psychology undergraduates and found that 59 to 83% believe that this kind of advertising works.


There has been some research conducted which found that under highly controlled laboratory conditions, this kind of messaging has some effect. For example, when researchers use 'priming words' or pictures that are presented for a very short time, it has been found that these priming stimuli increase the speed or accuracy with which later stimuli are identified. Another experiment showed that when students are shown smiling or scowling faces for a very short time, this also influences the ratings that they give to research projects. Another example is when participants view subliminally flashed priming words, which increase the odds that a person will choose a related word from a list of alternatives. For example, when a participant views the word "gui..." and is asked to complete this word, he or she could choose 'guide' or 'guile'. With the use of priming experiments, the odds of choosing the word "guide" can be increased by subliminally presenting the words "direct, lead and escort", and the odds of choosing the word "guile" can be increased by presenting the words "deceit, treachery and duplicity". 


Subliminal means "under the limen", and limen refers to the "sensory threshold". This is the narrow range in which a stimulus goes from being júst detectable to undetectable. When a stimulus is a word or a phrase, the first stage it must pass is the "simple detection threshold", which refers to the point at which people are aware of that they have seen anything. They can not state what they have seen or what they have heard. Then, the stimulus is presented for a longer interval and reaches the next stage of awareness, the "recognition threshold. This is the stage in which people are able to accurately report what they heard or saw. According to the subliminal industry, our brain understands and acts on the complex meaning of phrases that are presented very shortly. They also claim that these subliminal messages are effective, because they are processed by our subconscious mind.

Popular view

Even though modern psychology acknowledges that much of our mental processing goes on in our subconscious, this does not mean that subliminal messages are seen as effective. Subliminal messages can be linked to Freud, whose ideas have been abandoned in modern psychology. 

Vance Packard popularized the view of the unconscious and subliminal messaging. He accepted the story of the marketing consultant James Vicary, who 'successfully' demonstrated the effect of subliminal advertising. He claimed that with using subliminal messages during a movie, he was able to persuade cinema patrons to buy popcorn and Coca-Cola. He stated that the sales of popcorn and Coca-Cola skyrocketed, because of this experiment. His ideas achieved widespread popular acceptance, even though Vicary never submitted his ideas to a scientific journal. Also, nobody has ever been able to replicate his experiment. Later, in 1962, Vicary admitted that the had made up the whole experiment.

Putting it to the test

In 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation performed an unprecedented nationwide test. They used a popular Sunday night TV program and informed viewers that the network would be conducting a test of subliminal messaging. They flashed the message "phone now" on the screen for 352 times. According to telephone company records, telephone usage did not increase. There was also no increase in calls. However, something remarkable happened: some viewers called in and stated that they felt hungrier and thirstier while watching the program. 

Another claim of subliminal messaging was that of that metal rock bands such as Judas Priest, used backward recordings of Satanic messages in their music. According to some listeners, these messages would encourage suicidal behavior. Vokey and Read studied the idea of subliminal backward messaging. They found no effects and concluded that the things that people hear are probably the consequence of their imagination.

No evidence for subliminal messaging 

So, to this day, there is no accurate evidence that subliminal messaging works or that it can affect consumers' behavior.  Even though there is no scientific evidence for subliminal messaging, subliminal advertisements still pop up. For example, during the U.S. presidential election in 2000, there was a Republican TV attack which was aimed at Al Gore. For a very short time, the word "RATS" was shown on Al Gore's face. The creator of the ad claimed that this was purely accidental. However, according to advertising experts, this was probably intentional, because the advanced technology that they had used would not lead to such a mistake.

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