Subliminal Messages: Definition, Examples & Validity

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  • 0:05 Subliminal Messages
  • 1:28 Real-World Evidence
  • 3:02 Laboratory Evidence
  • 4:53 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Long-Crowell

Erin has an M.Ed in adult education and a BS in psychology and a BS in management systems.

The use of subliminal messages - especially in advertising - has been controversial for decades. In this lesson, we define subliminal messages and discuss their validity using several examples of research conducted on the topic.

Subliminal Messages

Imagine you are in a theater, waiting for the movie to start. The previews begin, and, all of a sudden, you are extremely hungry! You rush to the concession stand to buy some popcorn and, thankfully, make it back in time to catch the start of the show. After the movie ends, someone in a lab coat with a clipboard comes up to you and asks if you happened to notice the words 'eat popcorn' on the screen during the first preview. You don't remember seeing them, but do remember that you suddenly became very hungry when the previews began. Do you think you were the victim of subliminal advertising?

The use of subliminal messages - hidden words or images that are not consciously perceived but may influence one's attitudes and behaviors - has been controversial for decades. Although the idea of using subliminal influence in an audio recording to help lose weight or stop smoking is appealing to many, the idea of it being used to make us buy something or do something we would not otherwise do is appalling. But, do subliminal messages really work? Is subliminal advertising a valid persuasion technique, capable of changing our attitudes and even our behavior? Let's look at the evidence gathered from research, both inside and outside of a laboratory.

A subliminal message is not consciously perceived but may influence attitudes or behavior
Subliminal Message

Real-World Evidence

First, the scenario I described with 'eat popcorn' flashing on the screen is a real-world example of a strategy used by James Vicary in the late 1950s. He claimed that he flashed the messages 'drink Coca-Cola' and 'eat popcorn' on the screen during the previews and that sales at the concession stand dramatically increased as a result. However, the results could never be replicated. One company that tried was the Canadian Broadcast Corporation, who subliminally flashed the message 'phone now' more than 350 times during a popular TV show. However, this subliminal message had no effect whatsoever on the number of calls received. In fact, when viewers were asked to guess the message displayed, not a single person responded correctly.

A few years after both of these experiments, Vicary's original claim was discovered to be a hoax. There is actually no evidence to support any claims of successful subliminal advertising. The numerous studies that have been conducted since the '50s confirm that the types of subliminal messages encountered in everyday life have absolutely no influence on people's behavior. Hidden commands do not make us line up at the concession stand or make calls more than we usually do, nor do they make us lose weight or quit bad habits (unfortunately).

Laboratory Evidence

At the same time, even though subliminal messages encountered in everyday life have absolutely no effect on our behavior, there is evidence that we can be influenced by subliminal messages in controlled experiments.

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