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Effectiveness and Ethicality of Subliminal

Honors Project Spring Semester 2017

Kate Shannon
Professor McGovern
Consumer Psychology
Completed April 29th, 2017
How do consumers decide what to buy? Do they look at nutrition facts, price

comparisons and available coupon deals? Or is something more natural occurring? Companies

depend more so on their customers as opposed to the product itself. The search for the most

influential broadcasting technique has baffled marketers for years. Researchers have looked into

the science behind advertising, and just what influences the public the most.

Companies and brands choose to advertise their products or services in their own unique

way. They attempt to cater towards the lifestyles of their target customers, their brand image, and

other factors such as humor or fear tactics in order to catch the eye of the public. There are

several different types of advertising- all which come with their own success rate for increasing

customer sales. The most effective methods, though, seem to be the ones that involve consumer

interaction. Including the target audience first-hand is the best way to make in impact. Even

guerilla advertising has been used- which directly puts the consumer into the advertisement,

usually by an in-your-face interactive eye-opener. Some disagree with this strategy; stating that it

can become too harsh on consumers. On the other hand, the use of a more profound

psychological approach has been studied and experimented for the greater part of the 20th

century until the present. Theories have been created and questioned- and are still in question


Subliminal messaging, when broken down, spells out the exact meaning of the word. In

Latin, “limen” means threshold (Hussin Hejase, 2013). Therefore, “sub-liminal” literally means a

stimulus received below the minimum threshold that is conscious to the human mind. The

message is picked up unnoticeably by the consumer, and then embedded into the unconscious

part of the brain that, in fact, holds most long-term memories that we possess. The hope is that,

psychologically, consumers will be attracted to a product or company without knowledge of the

precise reason why. Some companies assume that this will sway consumers to purchase- if their

motives are more deep-seeded than that of conscious reasoning.

The way it works is quite simple. The public will be concentrating their attention to the

video on the screen or the music that they hear, and focusing mainly on the product or idea that is

directly being advertised. Then, without their knowledge, a quick message will flash on the

screen or a statement will be muttered just below the hearing threshold that the brain,

hypothetically, will pick up on. The consumer will not notice this message consciously- and it

will therefore be stored in their long-term memories for future use. It is theorized that this

intuitiveness to purchasing is the most effective way to sway consumer behavior. After all,

instinct has commonly outweighed logical reasoning for thousands of years. It is in our genetic

makeup to act upon our gut feelings. If marketers can instill this feeling within a hesitant

customer, the outcome can be almost immediate.

There are a few different types of subliminal messages that have been documented and

researched. Visual messaging is the use of pictures or videos with an embedded message below

the threshold of visual perception. The same goes for auditory messaging, except it uses a song

or other audible noise, coupled with an inaudible message. Dynamic visual messages are simply

words or images flashed on the screen for a brief period of time- so brief that we cannot

consciously perceive it. Static visual messages are just the opposite. They include words or

images that are somehow embedded into an unchanging visual specimen (Atrees). The overall

success of these approaches seems to differ with each study performed. The outcome of each

depends on several factors within the experiment- such as stimulus longevity and test subject

distractions. Characteristics of a successful subliminal stimulus include; simplicity, familiarity,

conciseness, frequency of exposure, exposure length, demographics of target, mood of target,

and type of subliminal message (Atrees). Males seem to have tested higher on the impact of

subliminal messages, especially when it comes to sexual innuendos. Females, on the other hand,

tend to react irrationally when given the same implications (Shakeel Ahmad Sofi, 2013). This

information can change the way a company advertises to either gender. They now may be more

likely to include sexual suggestions in their advertisements catered towards men- due to its

apparent high success rate of influence. Today, there is still no proof to which has the greater

impact on any person, regardless of age, socioeconomic status, and so on. However, in most

cases, a physiological reaction presents itself among test subjects. When the subliminal message

is included, the person may experience increased heart rate and galvanic skin responses (Hauke

Egermann, 2006). It seemed more likely to happen though, with messages containing sexual

connotations as opposed to neutral target words (Hauke Egermann, 2006). Due to this discovery,

one cannot rule out the hypothesis that there is no human reaction whatsoever to this kind of

stimulus. This can only make researchers more hopeful in finding legitimate scientific evidence

of the effects of subliminal stimulus on the human brain alone, let alone its impact on buying

behavior. This is the first and most crucial step to reaching a definitive answer.

This strategic advertising tactic has been widely used over the years- and also studied

when the questioning of its legitimacy had arisen. Utilizing subliminal messages has not only

been common in marketing, though. During World War II, generals used a specific instrument to

flash pictures on a screen of different enemy airplanes for 1/100th of a second. This was to allow

soldiers to recognize them better at a quicker speed, and therefore, have a faster reaction time

when it was necessary. Also, in 1951, an Indiana University football coach used a similar

machine to teach quarterbacks how to spot an open receiver for a pass almost instantaneously

(Takahashi, 2008). These methods are still being used today. Although they are not exactly the
same tactic to what advertisers use, it is a similar concept and uses almost the same

psychological theory. The first “documented” use of subliminal messaging for advertising

purposes was in 1957 by a man named James Vicary. He used the same instrument- later named

a tachistoscope- to project the messages “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Hungry? Eat popcorn” for

1/3000th of a second during a movie in a public movie theater. He had claimed that Coke sales

had increased almost 60% in the theater, and popcorn sales almost 19%. Unfortunately, this

experiment has never been able to be replicated- which reduces its validity in the scientific

world. Vicary had later came out to say that the whole campaign was a hoax (Wilfong, 2002).

His intention was indeed to increase sales, but not by subliminal messaging. The publicity was

the sole purpose of his prank.

Since the upbringing of this stunt, researchers and scientists have worked to crack the

code; is subliminal messaging an effective way to sway consumers? Several tests have been

conducted over the years, and the concluding gist is- no. Close to none of the tests have shown

that consumers are more likely to purchase a product due to the underlying message that it comes

with. Both auditory and visual subliminal messaging was tested in multiple scenarios, and the

results were disappointing. In 2006, a study was conducted in Germany that required the subjects

to listen to a particular song, and then choose a drink of their choice (Hauke Egermann, 2006).

The song was purely instrumental, but also included inaudible target words that were presumed

to convince the test subject to choose a particular drink over another. This experiment was tested

between two groups- one being of older subjects, and one being of children enrolled in primary

school. The thought process would be that children are more likely to be persuaded from

suggestive signals, due to their vulnerability and lack of brain development. In fact, this is said to

be true when the children are placed in an interview setting (Hauke Egermann, 2006). The
researchers made many changes during the experiment, in order to ensure all possible methods of

perception. This included changing the loudness of both the song and the target message, and so

on. The group listened to the song without the subliminal message, performed the task, and then

did it once more but after listening to the same song that included the message. The test subjects

were not aware that a subliminal message was present, and they did not know the nature of the

experiment. The results concluded that all drink choices were made at random. There was no

correlation to the choices made, if they did or did not hear the message, or the age of the subject.

Essentially, no scientific evidence was established that proves the effects on consumer choice


A huge factor that needs to be addressed is the fact that subliminal messaging cannot

inhibit need recognition. In other words, consumers must first have the conscious need for a

product- such as a drink- in order to make their choice at all. Consumers that know they are not

thirsty will be less likely to make a purchase decision for Coke, if at all (santos, 2011). This goes

the same for the customer’s mood at the time of purchase. This is referred to as the “matching

motivational state” (santos, 2011), and has a large impact on the way everyday consumers shop.

Another important scientific element that the public has failed to recognize is the impossibility of

reaching a universal threshold for every human mind (Peckover, 1983). The amount of stimulus

a person retains changes day to day, and person to person. For example, a senior citizen may not

perceptually be able to pick up on a stimulus as well as someone with better vision or hearing

(aka a younger individual). The threshold is really the point in which a human detects stimulus

50% of the time, so there can be no way to measure a definitive line in which a person can and

cannot hear a stimulus (Takahashi, 2008). Every, if not most, empirical study done on the topic

never reported a decibel level that they used on their test subjects. Exogeneous factors also come
into play; such as income, personality, experience, and so on (Shakeel Ahmad Sofi, 2013). It is

also possible that, when changing the pitch or frequency of an auditory message, the statement

can be misinterpreted by the human subject (Peckover, 1983). This could, in the long run, hurt

the brand as opposed to helping it. There is no way to tell, also, that a message is completely

available to the unconscious mind only. There could be reason to believe that some messages

may tend to “slip through the cracks” into the conscious part of the mind. How can this practice

be considered “subliminal” if it is actually swaying the minds of consumers directly?

The possibility of a placebo effect has also been researched for a period of time. Placebo

refers to “a preparation which is pharmacologically inert but which may have a therapeutic effect

based solely on the power of suggestion” (Takahashi, 2008). For many years, motivational tapes

were a popular way to change some aspect of yourself while also conveniently saving time. A

person would listen to the tape while they slept, repeat this for a few weeks, and gradually

become more financially smart, more motivated, socially comfortable, and the list goes on.

Studies have shown that these tapes do not work due to some subliminal message implanted in

the public’s brains while they sleep. Instead, the mere thought that the tape can have an effect

can psychologically produce signs of change within the person (Takahashi, 2008). Essentially, if

a person believes that it will work, then it will.

Some theorists focus mainly not on consumer buying behavior, but instead, on personal

human behavior as a whole. They believe that hidden messages may lead to the disruption of

innocence in children- leading to sexual or violent tendencies as they begin to age. For instance,

if a young boy regularly saw sexual references to women in commercials- he may believe that it

is common to associate women in this manner more strongly than others his age not exposed to

these advertisements. In the early 80’s, the phenomenon of “backmasking” had come to the
attention of the public, which stirred quite the uproar. People had found out that when playing

certain popular rock songs backwards, you can hear a distorted message from the lyrics. Artists

such as Led Zepplin and the Beatles had all been accused of this activity. In 1990, the band Judas

Priest had been brought to trial after the family of two fans who committed suicide accused them

of “backmasking” messages for people to kill themselves in one of their songs. Ultimately, they

were found not guilty (Hauke Egermann, 2006). Researchers also blame subliminal messaging

for the reason why some social discriminations exist today. One research paper done by a student

at Wesleyan University points out the many ways that classic Disney movies incorporate hidden

messages into their scenes (Seifer, 2010). Since younger children, more commonly girls, strive to

be like their favorite Disney princess- the movies and their messages are thought to have a major

impact on the ideas and morals that they grow up with. Such as; the way a man should court a

woman and the way a woman should behave in society (Seifer, 2010). Due to these findings,

many are questioning the ethicality behind such practices.

The greater portion of the public finds that subliminal advertising is the same, if not

similar to, being brainwashed. Many see it as a lack of privacy due to the fact that they believe

they are being manipulated without the knowledge, let alone consent, for such a strategy.

Worldwide recognition of subliminal messaging has almost made it a part of our culture. In

2013, an article was written in The Journal of Business and Management that explored this topic

in Lebanon- where this tactic is also being practiced (Hussin Hejase, 2013). People feel so

strongly about the unethicality of subliminal messaging that many consumers choose not to

purchase from a company that they know is using it. Ironically enough, some advertising could,

in fact, allow companies to lose customers. A few short years after the discovery of

“backmasking”, California legislation had passed a bill stating that the use of backward messages
without notifying the public was an invasion of privacy (John R. Vokey, 1985). The public had

felt threatened, and worried that their minds were being manipulated This never became a law,

though, due to the fact that there was no evidence that it was purposeful. Also, a committee in

which the monitoring of “backmasking” would be regulated, could not be funded.

What the majority of the public fails to realize, though, is that every brand uses their own

form of hidden messaging. They use their logo and slogan design to influence customers- and

these strategies have a much harder impact than one may assume. The coloring, layout, shape,

and other factors can allow consumers to relate what they see with the overall brand image. This

association can be completely unconscious, and the stimulus is close to subliminal. For example,

the Baskin Robins logo is bright pink and blue- which many associate with early childhood

(Atrees). Consumers will not look at the logo and think of this affiliation consciously, but

instead, they will feel some close connection as they relate the brand to how they felt as a young

child. What better way to get a consumer in the mood for ice cream? Even the FedEx logo

secretly hides an arrow within the word, in between letters E and X. This minor sign “symbolizes

speed and precision which are the two major selling points of the company” (Atrees). The

majority of famous international brands indeed use color messaging in their brand design. The

drawback to this, however, is that particular colors may mean different things around the world.

For example, the color white to Americans signifies purity or cleanliness; but to the Japanese,

this color means death (Solomon, 2015). The use of color in other situations other than brand

design have a major impact on consumer behavior. Most restaurants and bars will use color

psychology to influence their mood and even eating habits. The color red will usually excite

customers, and even enable them to have more of an appetite. Blues tend to make consumers

more tired, and while they may not eat as much, they might stay longer- possibly inducing them
to buy another round of drinks (Solomon, 2015). The same goes for auditory stimulus as well. If

shoppers are in an environment with slow, soft music, they are more likely to have a calm mood

and shop longer (Hauke Egermann, 2006). Similar to the use of color in brand design- the use of

music in relation to the brand or product can be just as effective. For example, if a commercial

selling taco ingredients was to play Mexican music, the consumer would feel more of an internal

connection and be more inclined to purchase (Hauke Egermann, 2006). All of these strategies

(and more) are present in every day advertising, and for almost every company or brand. While

many may not consider this subliminal messaging- not only the goal but also the concept of these

practices are essentially the same idea as embedding statements that the public will not

consciously recognize. If subliminal messaging is “an invasion of privacy”, then would the use

of color in a brand logo also be considered “brainwashing” the public? What would our

marketing world look like if this was to become illegal?

Yes, it has been proven that unconscious factors can sway people’s behaviors more

adequately than conscious ones (Hauke Egermann, 2006). Approximately fifty department stores

around the United States and Canada have claimed to incorporate subliminal auditory messages

into the background of their music to change the behavior of shoplifters. It was documented that

this approach “reduced store theft by 37%” (Takahashi, 2008). This also demonstrates that the

use of subliminal messaging can be used for the greater good- and not just a scheme to increase

sales for a company. It has also been discovered that the use of hidden messages regarding

danger are more influential than those that are generally positive. For example, signs reading

“Speeding Kills” instead of “Drive Safely” could have a much greater impact, and therefore,

safer conditions for our drivers. This may be due to humans’ instinctual attempt at “self-

preservation” in a dangerous situation (Atrees). This is just the same as comparative marketing-
negative advertisements toward a competing brand are more effective than positive ones toward

the brand trying to be sold.

Conclusively, subliminal messaging does not have a set-in-stone description. Yes, there

are certain types that have been documented and studies conducted. But what can we really

consider to be subliminal? Marketers use a variety of different methods to grab the attention of

the public. All, if not most, of these strategies are actually unnoticeable to the conscious mind

unless the person possesses some basic knowledge of advertising and the psychology of the

human brain. Even a scenario as simple as product placement within a movie or television show

can be overlooked. Would we consider this to be subliminal stimulus? Can we say that the color

a restaurant paints their walls is meant to brainwash its customers? How far can we allow this

nonsense to go? All advertising, whether we notice it or not, incorporates some psychological

strategy to persuade its target audience. According to the public’s complaints- we are being

manipulated every day. Only some choose to see it as a brilliant advancement in our business

world, and the way we rely on the consumer themselves- not the product.

In my opinion, subliminal messaging is not an invasion of privacy, let alone an influential

factor to buying behavior. There is no known scientific confirmation that this method is the

reason that customers purchase what they do. If anything, the most effective form of “subliminal

messaging” is brand design and the use of colors/auditory stimulus in the consuming

environment. This, in no way, invades the privacy of the public; but instead utilizes real,

scientific data to manage the way customers feel. Enabling someone to sense an impression on a

product or brand is not manipulation, but encouragement. Marketers are simply allowing for a

connection to be made between a product and a human being. To me, that is nothing short of
inspirational. Advertisers should be allowed to make any and all progress that they can in finding

the most efficient way to create this relation.

Works Cited
Atrees, D. F. (n.d.). The Concept of Subliminal Messages in Brand Design . Faculty of Applied Arts.
Helwan University .

Hauke Egermann, R. K. (2006). Is There an Effect of Subliminal Messages in Music on Choice Behavior?
Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis .

Hussin Hejase, B. H. (2013). Sublimnal Marketing: An Exploratory Research in Lebanon . Journal of

Business & Management .

John R. Vokey, J. D. (1985). Subliminal Messages: Between the Devil and the Media . American
Psychologist .

Peckover, B. (1983, February 21). The Value of Subliminal Advertising to the Modern Marketer. Honors
Thesis . Western Michigan University .

santos, G. L. (2011, December 19). An Essay on Subliminal Advertising .

Seifer, D. (2010). Hidden in the Open: Disney's Overt Secret Messages . The Honors College. Wesleyan
University .

Shakeel Ahmad Sofi, D. F. (2013). Impact of Subliminal Messages in TV Advertisements on Customer

Behavior . Journal of Business Management & Social Sciences Research .

Solomon, M. R. (2015). Consumer Behavior Buying, Having and Being . New Jersey: Pearson Education .
Retrieved from debt.org: https://www.debt.org/faqs/americans-in-debt/economic-

Takahashi, K. (2008). The Effect of Subliminal Messages and Suggestions on Memory: Isolating the
Placebo Effect . Electronic Theses, Treatises and Dissertations . Florida State University Library .

Wilfong, J. L. (2002, May 5). The Effects of Subliminal Messages in Print Advertisements. Undergraduate
Honors Thesis Collection . Butler University : Butler University Libraries .