Subliminal Advertising: From Racking Their Brains To Hacking Ours

Posted in Marketing & Strategy Articles, Total Reads: 3165 , Published on 03 September 2012
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From every street you have rushed past to every face you have got a glimpse of, everything can be retrieved from your memory by hypnosis or by electrical stimulation of the brain cells in temporal lobes. Whatever was perceived by your brain won’t ever be discarded but will stay there for the rest of your life and at the right moment will trigger a right reaction. So where is it stored all this while?

In a mystifying marvel known as “Subconscious mind”


Our subconscious mind is like a massive hidden iceberg which more often than not goes unnoticed. It is able to process 20,000 bits of information simultaneously, while consciousness can deal only with 7 ± 2 bits of information at the same time. Surprising..Isn’t it ? Instead of the simplistic five senses of Aristotle—sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell there are at least thirty-seven known, differentiated sensory inputs which go into the brain. All of the information is picked by the Subconscious mind but only relevant data is passed to the conscious mind after it has been processed and reduced.

This can also be understood by the Cocktail Party Effect:  It is defined as a phenomenon of being able to focus one's attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of other stimuli. Most commonly seen when a partygoer can focus on a single conversation in a room filled with noises or when one can immediately detect words from unattended stimuli and then respond to it like hearing one's name in another conversation. It is not that the mention of your name had triggered the attention; your brain was in fact aware of the entire sentence that was said before it

In the words of the Sigmund Freud, a well known Austrian neurologist and founding father of Psychoanalysis, ‘The conscious mind may be compared to a fountain playing in the sun and falling back into the great subterranean pool of subconscious from which it rises ‘and one of the tools to invade one’s subconscious is Subliminal Advertising.

Subliminal is a term first used by A. H. Pierce of Harvard University. Literally it means beneath (sub) the sensory threshold (limen) that is below the smallest detectable sensation which can be consciously perceived.  It is used to influence mental processes or behaviour of the individual. Marketers know how to get into your subconscious – they spend millions of dollars researching colours, shapes, designs, symbols, that affect your preferences which will develop an urge in you to buy the product.

Do they influence us…..?  YES

Do they have our consent…? NO

Does this mean they manipulate us…????

The answer is an emphatic yes. Then is this not an illusion of free will? Would hypnotizing the masses to buy their products would be the next step??

Subliminal advertising has the power to influence our behaviour because of the effect of something which we cannot perceive like a message flashed on a movie screen at a speed which is way more than what a human eye can observe. When Advertisers realized that the subconscious can be controlled, they began to collaborate with the psychology researchers to design subliminal advertisements. They make use of psychological and sociological elements of fear, longing, envy, desires, ambition, and expectation deep-seated in the subconscious since birth.

They also employ linguistic and literary devices in semiotics like denotation, connotation, myth, metaphor, metonymy, paradigm and syntagm. Professor Wilson Bryan Key said in his published books that throughout the centuries humans were subliminally convinced to buy and they still are. As Ray Davis puts it- ‘our minds are information vacuums. We either fill them with thoughts of our own or someone else will’

The first experiment to be carried out with subliminal techniques was published by Jim Vicary in a London newspaper, Sunday Times, 10th June 1956. He owned a movie hall in Fort Lee, New Jersey, USA and performed a test on 45.000 people for six weeks. In his experiment, he used tachistoscope that reflects the scene at the rate of 1/3000 per second and inserted messages in the film “Picnic”. The messages inserted were “are you hungry?”, “eat corn” and “drink cola” and surprisingly the sales of popcorn went up by 57.5% and of coco-cola by 18.1%. . The audience isn't aware of it, but there's subconscious tension there. Those hidden messages can be deciphered with the reverse playing or scene retarding.

In 1962 Vicary suddenly confesses that he fabricated the results of his experiment...  Many researchers feel he was paid to negate his findings by those who wanted to use subliminal messages to manipulate the unaware masses…Reminding us of the dialogue in "Usual Suspect”: The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. While Critics are busy arguing over the existence of subliminal messages saying it is a self-contradiction because it is not possible to perceive something that is beneath one’s threshold of perception. Advertisers are busy bombarding them at you continuously throughout the day, through books, movies, magazines, television, radio and music. Public space is polluted with such subliminal messages

Robert Collier, author of the book the Secret power says:

“Any thought that is passed on to the subconscious often enough is finally accepted!”

In 1958, radio station WAAF in Chicago broadcast "sub-audible" commercials. Seattle's KOL broadcasted barely audible taped messages beneath the music played by its disc jockeys. One of the messages was "How about a cup of coffee?" In supermarkets, during the announcements at periodical intervals, the message “I am honest” is sent using a second wave. Such practices were performed in 81 supermarkets in 4 states in America, which lead to a decrease in thefts by 30%.

In another of Dr. Becker's controlled tests of subliminal perception, experimental and control groups were asked to guess a three-digit number. The experimental group was exposed to the number subliminally embedded in a hissing sound known as pink noise. ‘In three separate experiments, an average of 77% of those exposed to the subliminal numbers guessed correctly, compared to only 10% of those in the control group (who weren't exposed to the numbers).

Negative words may have more of a rapid impact,” “‘Kill your speed’ should be more noticeable than ‘Slow down’. Whispering a competitor's negative qualities may work on a subliminal level much more effectively than shouting the positive features your product from rooftops.”

A most debated issue is the usage of subliminal messages in Cartoons and movies targeted at children? Walt Disney Pictures is highly accused of hidden sexual messages in its movies and cartoons including Lion king and the little mermaid along with others

Images can be upside-down or distorted or in the same frame but somewhere in the background. Hypnotized patients can read reversed, mirrored and upside-down texts at a normal speed rate. It means that subconscious mind decodes any text, no matter how it's written. Sound can be played at a level which is below the level of conscious hearing. Back masking is a popular recording technique used in this area wherein a sound or a message is recorded backwards on to a track that is meant to be played forward. It was first used by The Beatles in 1996 for their album Revolver. It has been a controversial topic in US since 1980’s.

There are six subliminal advertising techniques. These include

(1) figure-ground reversals also known as syncretistic illusions

(2) Embedding

(3) Double entendre

(4) Tachistoscopic displays

(5) low-intensity light and low-volume sound

(6) Lighting and background sound.

On 24th January 1974 the federal Communications Commission passed an order that broadcasters that knowingly make use of subliminal messages are operating contrary to public interest and in no time 57 countries banned the use of such advertisements

In the posters of the famous Oscar winning movie- The Silence of the Lambs, starring Antony Hopkins and Jodie Foster the skull seen on the butterfly in the mouth of the main character if closely observed is a skull made from the body of seven women imitated from Salvador Dali’s work, who was a popular Spanish surrealist painter.

It is high time that we need to be aware of such marketing tactics and not let advertisers hack our minds and let ourselves be made a victim of malicious intention of mind control. Being aware of them is the best defence we have as of now. I would like to end this on with a humorous quote by Stephen Wright.

This article has been authored by Esha Gupta from TAPMI.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net


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