Subliminal Advertising: Definition, History & Examples

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  • 0:01 Subliminal Advertising Defined
  • 1:25 History of Subliminal…
  • 2:20 Examples of Subliminal…
  • 3:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Can words flashed quickly on a screen make you want to purchase a product? Can a hidden image persuade you to spend your hard-earned cash on something you don't need? These questions surrounding subliminal advertising are discussed in this lesson.

Subliminal Advertising Defined

Hungry? Eat popcorn!

Those who believe in the power of subliminal advertising would argue that if you'd seen those words flashed at you for a fraction of a second, without your conscious awareness that you ever saw them, you'd be more likely to do as they say. The claim is that our brain has picked up the message even if we haven't.

As you read those exclamations now, you probably wondered what they were doing at the beginning of your lesson. But what if you hadn't perceived them at all, if they'd flashed on your screen as visual stimuli, where you couldn't even remember you'd seen them? Stimuli, such as images, may activate our brain even if we don't fully perceive what is happening.

The argument goes that you'd feel more compelled to consume the tasty treats as a result of these subliminal visual stimuli. And the weird part is, you wouldn't even know why you were craving them because the messages were below the threshold of your perception. Pretty deceptive, right?

Advertising can manipulate our emotions, with or without making the process hidden. To balance out the tremendous power of advertising, a person can aim to consider and question how the company is trying to position the product and then weigh whether he really needs what is being sold. This is a big part of why subliminal advertising is considered deceptive. When something is below our level of perception, we miss out on the opportunity to consider the message being communicated to us.

Is this really possible? Let's stay skeptical for a moment.

History of Subliminal Advertising

In the 1950s, a researcher named James Vicary coined the term to describe what he claimed he found in his popcorn experiment. He argued that sales of concessions had increased based on the split-second flashing of visual stimuli suggesting people make these purchases. Vicary later retracted his claim, but the thought was an intriguing one for the public. Can we be made to take actions based on information received below our conscious awareness? People thought the obvious: How scary is that?

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