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The Subtle Power of H
Can subliminal advertisements influence our behavior?
New research says yesbut only under certain circumstances
By Wolfgang Stroebe

he birth of subliminal advertising reads almost like a script Avenue could manipulate consumers
from a television show. In this real-life story, the spotlight like mindless puppets. The idea that ads
might be broadcast subliminally, below
falls on James M. Vicary, an independent marketing
the threshold of conscious awareness,
researcher. seemed akin to brainwashing. On Octo-
On September 12, 1957, Vicary these messages were too fast for filmgoers ber 5, 1957, some three weeks after
called a press conference to announce the to read but salient enough for the audi- Vicarys event, Norman Cousins, editor
results of an unusual experiment. Over ence to register their meaning subcon- in chief of the Saturday Review, wrote
the course of six weeks during the preced- sciously. As proof, he presented data in- an article called Smudging the Subcon-
ing summer, he had arranged to have slo- dicating that the messages had increased scious, in which he lambasted ad cam-
gans specifically, Eat popcorn and soda sales at the theater by 18 percent and paigns designed to break into the deep-
Drink Coca-Cola flashed for three popcorn sales by 58 percent. est and most private parts of the human
milliseconds, every five seconds, onto a The public reacted with fury. mind and leave all sorts of scratch
movie screen in Fort Lee, N.J., while pa- Vicarys fi ndings played directly into a marks. The Central Intelligence Agen-
trons watched Picnic. Vicary argued that popular fear at the time that Madison cy soon issued a report on the operation-


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of Hidden Messages
al potential of subliminal perception. attention than his initial publicity stunt. cause these subconscious hints streak
Vance Packards book The Hidden Per- Many in the U.S. and Europe continued through our memory almost as fleetingly
suaders which described Vicarys to believe that subliminal advertising as they flash on a screen, they hold no
claims in detail became an overnight could shape consumer choice despite all power unless they happen to relate to our
best seller. As public pressure mounted the evidence to the contrary. immediate goals or natural proclivities.
in response, the U.K., Australia and the Recently, though, psychologists have
National Association of Broadcasters in begun to discover that subliminal mes- Backlash and gniksamkcaB
America all banned subliminal advertis- sages can sometimes redirect our deci- In the decades after Vicarys experi-
ing sight unseen. sions, but not at all in the way Vicary had ment, marketers, politicians, film direc-
There was a glitch, however. Re- proposed. Subliminal messaging cannot tors and even law-enforcement agencies
searchers tried to replicate Vicarys find- override our intentions or commandeer tried to harness the powers of subliminal
ings during this time, but none succeed- our will. On the contrary, it seems that persuasion without measurable success.
ed. After five years Vicary confessed that we are susceptible to these extremely Their intimation tactics typically fol-
his so-called experiment was a gim- brief suggestions only under special, lowed Vicarys lead, embedding millisec-
mick. His admission garnered far less somewhat limited circumstances. Be- ond flashes of words or images in other

w w w. S c i e nti f i c A m e r i c an .c o m/M in d SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MIND 47

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Advertisersas well as politicians, musicians, the self-
to sway public opinion using images or slogans aired be-
film clips. For example, in 1978 a Wich- Ozzy Osbourne, claiming that back- Washington and his colleagues proved
ita, Kan., TV station received permission masked phrases in his songs had prompt- that these recordings were also ineffec-
from the police to show a glimpse of the ed their children to commit suicide. The tive. Greenwald and his team gave 237
sentence Now call the chief during a courts dismissed these cases as they did test subjects classical music cassettes that
report on the BTK serial killer, hoping similar suits brought against rock band held subliminal tips to boost either self-
he might then feel compelled to turn Judas Priest because they found insuffi- confidence or memory. Unbeknownst to
himself in. Unfortunately, the man they cient evidence that backmasking worked. the study participants, who listened to
were after, Dennis Rader, eluded capture Researchers repeatedly demonstrated the tapes daily for five weeks, half of the
until 2005. that backmasking left no measurable cassettes were deliberately mislabeled.
In 2000 subliminal messaging en-
tered the U.S. presidential race. One Re-
publican campaign spot spliced the
word rats into a segment about Dem-
ocratic candidate Al Gore. Although
rats was part of a clearly visible line,
bureaucrats decide, the less than flat-
tering four letters appeared on screen 30
milliseconds before the rest. Republican
candidate George W. Bush claimed it
GEORGE W. BUSH AND OZZY OSBOURNE : These men have both been accused of using hidden
was an accident, but television affiliates messages. Bushs 2000 presidential campaign ran ads against Al Gore that subliminally
quickly pulled the commercial from the flashed the word rats (left). Parents unsuccessfully sued Osborne (right), claiming his music
airwaves. contained secret backmasked tracks that had driven their children to commit suicide.
Other controversial campaigns have
involved backmasking, or backward traces in memory. Even so, the uproar led The researchers found that the cassettes
masking a technique in which audio en- to public record burnings, and in 1983 had no effect on self-confidence or mem-
gineers record spoken words backward California restricted the practice. ory. The participants, however, had a
onto a track. Proponents claimed that the Also during the 1980s a flourishing different experience: those who believed
reversed messages acted subliminally on trade arose around self-help cassette that their cassette would increase self-
listeners. In the 1980s religious groups in tapes that claimed to employ subliminal- confidence perceived an improvement, as
the U.S. feared that some rock bands used ly perceptible messages recorded in the did listeners who expected supercharged
backmasking to convey satanic teachings. correct direction. In 1991, though, An- memories.
Two sets of parents sued British musician thony G. Greenwald of the University of For many scientists this experiment
closed the books on subliminal messag-
ing. In 1992 Anthony R. Pratkanis, a
FAST FACTS psychologist at the University of Califor-
Conscious Consumers nia, Santa Cruz, and one of the co-au-
thors of the cassette study, wrote that

1>> For decades the public has feared subliminal advertising, viewing it
as akin to brainwashing. Scientists, however, view it as largely a myth.
belief in the efficacy of subliminal per-
suasion offered an example of what
C O R B I S (l e f t ) ; R O G E R R E S S M E Y E R C o r b i s (r i g h t )

physicist Richard Feynman called a car-

2>> Recent experiments demonstrate that subliminal messages flashed

onto a screen or computer monitor can influence our decisions only
if we are open to persuasion because of a particular need, such as thirst.
go-cult science, in reference to the phe-
nomenon in which a tribal society en-
counters cargo from a technologically
advanced culture and designs rituals

3>> Despite our fear of being manipulated, our surroundings exert an

unconscious influence on our decisions every day. For example, the
smell of grilling meats can make us feel hungry, and the music in a super-
around it. By Feynmans defi nition, giv-
en as part of a commencement speech at
the California Institute of Technology in
market can steer us toward certain purchases. 1974, cargo-cult science appears to have
all the trappings of real science seem-
ing objectivity and apparently careful


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help industry and law-enforcement agencieshave tried
low the threshold of conscious perception.
experimentation but is missing some-
thing fundamental: its practitioners lack WATCH THIS SPACE, BUY THIS BRAND: Recent studies suggest that subliminal messages
can sometimes tip our decisions one way or another, but not at all in the way people
skepticism. Throughout the 1990s sub- have long feared. These fleeting messages have short-lived windows of influence.
liminal messaging as a research field fell
silent, relegated to the realm of reflexol-
ogy, ESP and other dubious disciplines.
During the past decade, though, psy-
chologists have taken a renewed interest
in the topic, and their work has produced
some intriguing results. In 2001 Ap Dijk-
sterhuis of Radboud University Nijmegen
in the Netherlands, then working with
colleagues at the University of Amster-
dam, gave students a computerized atten-
tion test. Throughout the test he flashed
either nonsense syllables or cola and
drink on the screen. Afterward he
asked the participants if they would like
a cola or a mineral water. The subjects
who watched the subliminal messages
were more likely to ask for a drink. They
did not, however, ask for cola more often. We decided to test the theory that volunteers in the hopes of making them
A year later Joel and Grant Cooper of Coca-Cola as a brand name may be too thirsty before we showed them the sub-
Princeton University replicated the find- deeply imprinted in most peoples memo- liminal advertisement. In this scenario,
ing, planting subliminal suggestionsthe ries for subliminal stimuli to have any more than 80 percent of the thirsty sub-
word thirsty and images of cola cans effect. Working with Jasper Claus at jects and about half of those who said
in an episode of The Simpsons. Again the Utrecht University, John Karremans of they were not thirsty chose Lipton Ice.
people they subjected to the subliminal Radboud and I conducted an initial study Without subliminal messages, only 30
messages felt parched by comparison to in 2006 in which we asked volunteers to percent of the thirsty crew and 20 per-
those who watched unaltered shows. perform a computerized attention task. cent of our well-hydrated subjects took
We repeatedly bombarded half of our the iced tea. In 2011, working with our
Drinking the Kool-Aid participants with 23-millisecond flashes colleagues Thijs Verwijmeren and
To understand why the subliminally of the words Lipton Ice, a brand of iced Danil Wigboldus, Karremans and I re-
cued participants in these studies felt tea. Based on a questionnaire, we deter- fi ned these results and demonstrated
thirstier but not necessarily more in- mined that Lipton Ice was well suited to that the subliminal priming worked
clined to drink cola, consider what hap- our purposes: it is a good thirst quencher only in thirsty test subjects who liked
pens when you enter a convenience store but not most peoples fi rst choice. The Lipton iced tea but did not drink it reg-
in search of a drink. First you have to be other half of our subjects saw 23-milli- ularly. We could not influence people
able to retrieve from memory the name second flashes of nonsense syllables. Af- who said that Lipton iced tea was their
of a beverage. Chances are you will se- ter the test, participants had to choose a favorite beverage. This fi nding might
lect whatever brand comes to mind fast- beverage, either Lipton Ice or mineral wa- explain at least in part why earlier in-
est. If you drink Coca-Cola all the time, ter. As expected, the Lipton Ice group vestigations, which typically involved
you are probably impervious to any sub- chose that brand far more often than the
liminal suggestion to buy another brand. control group did. Again, as in the stud-
(The Author)
N OA H W E B B G e t t y I m a g e s

If, however, you sometimes drink Lipton ies described above, only thirsty subjects
iced tea, messaging that you experience reacted this way. Unless you are thirsty, it WOLFGANG STROEBE is a professor
below the threshold of consciousness doesnt matter which drink brand is fore- of social psychology at Utrecht Uni-
might sway your choice, making that most in your mind. versity and the University of Gronin-
brand name at least temporarily more In a second study, we used some pre- gen in the Netherlands.
accessible in your memory. tense to give salt drops to half of our

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In practice, subliminal messaging is far less potent or ter-
reason to believe it could be used successfully in limited
Coca-Cola, failed to demonstrate a sub- beled with the phony brand names. In the ton Ice. Those who watched Trainspot-
liminal effect on brand choice. For de- end, the more fatigued the participants ting, however, chose it less often. Once
cades Coke has been the favorite drink said they were, the more they gravitated again, the subliminal messaging influ-
among university students, from whom toward the brand they had seen flashed enced only thirsty test subjects.
researchers typically recruit their test subliminally on the screen.
subjects. Also, these studies did not take From these investigations it is clear Brainwashing at the Supermarket
into account different levels of thirst. that an individuals vulnerability to sub- The idea of subliminal advertising
Other researchers have observed a liminal suggestion depends on a number still terrifies many people. Research in
similar weakness to subliminal persua- of variables, including his or her physical the area remains somewhat taboo, and
sion among tired, as opposed to thirsty, needs and habits. A related effect, sublim- funding is scarce. Programming the Na-
individuals. In 2009 Christina Bermeit- inal revulsion, also can be triggered under tion, a documentary film released in Oc-
inger of the University of Hildesheim in particular conditions. We showed this ef- tober 2011, sensationally asks, Are we
Germany, then working at Saarland Uni- fect in a more recent study in which we all brainwashed? Or have we lost our
versity, with colleagues at the University subliminally projected the words Lipton minds? Such levels of fear simply are not
of Western Australia, told the subjects Ice during two fi lm clips: a funny se- justified. Certainly no one likes to feel
that she and others planned to examine quence from the animated film Madagas- manipulated, but the fact is that our sur-
the effects of dextrose pills on concentra- car and a disturbing scene from a fi lm roundings color our choices all the time,
tion. They devised two fictitious brands about heroin addicts, Trainspotting. After without us consciously realizing it. The
of these pills and designed logos, each of the screening we offered participants Lip- aroma of coffee escaping from a bakery
which they presented subliminally to half ton Ice or mineral water. Compared with can make us crave an espresso; the scent
of the participants while they played a a control group, who were not subliminal- of grilled meat from a restaurant can set
computer game. During breaks the test ly primed, those who saw the brand em- our stomach growling. Our research to
subjects were offered dextrose pills la- bedded in Madagascar wanted more Lip- date indicates that subliminal messages


subjects viewed subliminal advertising for
Lipton Ice, many more of them opted to
drink this brand of tea instead of water.
The effect was most pronounced among
thirsty participantstheir subconscious
took notice of the subliminal hint.

G E T T Y I M AG E S (b i l l b o a r d i n l a n d s c a p e)


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- rifying than it was first thought to be. But we have every
d but immediate day-to-day situations.
hold sway over our behavior in the same pear to be most potent in scenarios ment, North and his colleagues put a se-
way as these environmental cues do. The where we can act on them immediately, lection of four German or four French
thirsty test subject is more receptive to a a fact that makes them useful in certain wines, equally priced, on display in a
subliminal hint about a drink just as the commercial settings. When department British supermarket. On some days the
hungry shopper is more likely to overfill stores play Christmas music, it is meant market played German brass band
his or her cart at the supermarket. to put us in a gift-giving mood and in- tracks, on others, French accordion mu-
To test the potency of everyday hid- crease sales. In 1993 economists Charles sic. When interviewed later, very few
den persuaders, in 2005 Rob Holland Areni and David Kim of Texas Technical shoppers could say if they had heard any
and his colleagues at Radboud devised a University revealed another way in music. Those customers who heard
clever experiment. The team asked 56 which music can alter behavior. During French tunes, though, more frequently
several weeks at a wine store they played chose the French wines and vice versa.
a variety of music, alternating between We have every reason to believe that,
classical tracks, such as Antonio Vival- just like the music in these examples,
dis The Four Seasons, and popular subliminal advertising could be used suc-
tunes, including songs by Fleetwood cessfully in immediate, day-to-day situ-
Mac. They found that the musical selec- ations. To have any genuine effect, how-
tion had no bearing on the total number ever, subliminal slogans would have to
of bottles sold. Customers listening to be short, delivered near the time of a de-
classical selections, however, bought cision, and relate to a persons immediate
more expensive wine than did those lis- intentions or habits. Given such con-
tening to pop. straints, it is unlikely that subliminal
messages influence us in the same way The spending habits of restaurant television ads could ever compel consum-
environmental cues do: the smells from a patrons appear to vary in response to ers days later to buy one brand or anoth-
cafe can make us feel hungry; a citrus scent musical cues as well. Adrian North, then er on a weekly shopping trip.
can trigger thoughts about cleaning; even
at the University of Leicester in England, Our work reveals that, in practice,
music can affect what we buy in a shop.
and his colleagues spent three weeks subliminal messaging is far less potent
varying the music in a restaurant dining or terrifying than it was fi rst believed to
students to list five activities they hoped room from classical to pop to no music be. It might even be put to good use. A
to undertake during the next few days. at all. When the background track was handful of studies have shown that mil-
Half of the participants encountered the classical, guests spent an average of $45. lisecond exposures to the words angry
citrus smell of an all-purpose cleaner in By comparison they spent $40 when lis- or relax can have defi nite, if short-
the lab, whereas the other half worked in tening to pop songs and only $39 when lived, effects on a persons heart rate and
a scent-free room. The first group did not there was no music at all. blood pressure. Our subconscious regis-
report noticing any odor. Even so, 36 per- In some cases, background music can ters many different kinds of suggestions,
cent of them wrote that they planned to even influence what types of products not just the ones advertisers may be aim-
clean their apartments. By comparison customers choose. In another experi- ing for. M
only 11 percent of the subjects who
worked in the odor-free setting consid-
(Further Reading)
ered cleaning. Holland and his colleagues
concluded that the citrus scent had in- On the Psychology of Drinking: Being Thirsty and Perceptually Ready. Henk
Aarts, Ap Dijksterhuis and Peter De Vries in British Journal of Psychology, Vol. 92,
creased the cognitive accessibility of the
pages 631642; 2001.
goal of cleaning. They did not fi nd out Beyond Vicarys Fantasies: The Impact of Subliminal Priming and Brand Choice.
how many of the would-be cleaners com- Johan C. Karremans, Wolfgang Stroebe and Jasper Claus in Journal of Experimental
pleted the task, however. Those good in- Social Psychology, Vol. 42, No. 6, pages 792798; November 2006.
tentions may well have disappeared The Hidden Persuaders Break into the Tired Brain. Christina Bermeitinger, Ruben
Goelz, Nadine Johr, Manfred Neumann, Ullrich K. H. Ecker and Robert Doerr in
down the memory hole as soon as other,
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 45, No. 2, pages 320326; 2009.
more urgent matters such as studying

The Workings and Limits of Subliminal Advertising: The Role of Habits. Thijs
for exams came to the fore. Verwijmeren, Johan C. Karremans, Wolfgang Stroebe and Danil H. J. Wigboldus in
Indeed, such hints do not last long in Journal of Consumer Psychology, Vol. 21, No. 2, pages 206213; April 2011.
our memory. Environmental triggers ap-

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