Do Subliminal Messages Really Work? (4 Expert Answers)

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4 experts answer the question, “do subliminal messages really work?”

Find out their answers below.

Vassilis Dalakas, PhD

Vassilis Dalakas photo

Professor of Marketing and Chair, Department of Marketing of Cal State University

Many people are convinced that:

a.) subliminal messages are especially powerful in influencing people’s behavior, including getting them to do things they don’t want to do and

b.) subliminal messages are ubiquitous.

But in reality, they are not as prevalent or as powerful as people think.

Subliminal messages, at least for marketing purposes, are often used as a way to draw attention to a brand and generate buzz.

Ironically, it is not until after people become aware of the message that the buzz occurs, which means the message technically ceases being subliminal at that point.

For example, there are often posts about hidden images in brand logos or in ads, which people like to share with others. One could argue that means the messages “worked” in the sense that they generated all that buzz for the brand.

But it still is hard to show that the subliminal message had any other effect on people’s behavior. For example, people are exposed to a hidden bear in the logo of the chocolate Toblerone but that, by itself, is hardly enough to make anyone buy the chocolate.

Even after people are aware of the hidden bear in the logo and they talk about it, it is hard to argue that there is any superpower in the message that influences people’s purchasing behavior.

In regard to people thinking subliminal messages are everywhere, a big part of the reason is what people define as subliminal.

A truly subliminal message is a message that is intentionally designed to be below the conscious level of awareness of the average person.

This means they are exposed to it without consciously knowing they are seeing it or hearing it. People sometimes claim product placement in movies is subliminal messages but it is not; the product is part of the scene and the cameras are showing it.

Even if it is part of the background, it is still there for everyone to see, not hidden. I’d say the most common misconception for subliminal messages is confusing them with priming. For example, a study found that when a store played French background music their sales of French wine went up and when they played German background music their sales of German wine went up.

It is easy to think this was subliminal, but people can actually hear the music even if they are not consciously focusing on it. Just because it is subtle, it does not mean it is subliminal. (For more on priming, the movie Focus with Will Smith illustrates the concept nicely).

Research shows that priming can be powerful in influencing people but usually it is not done subliminally.

Scott Hamula

Scott Hamula

Associate Professor of IMC and Chair, Park School of Communications, Ithaca College

Let’s start with a baseline of what a subliminal message is and isn’t.

One never knows if he or she is being exposed to a subliminal message because it cannot be detected by one’s senses.

It worse, instead, on your subconscious or subconscious. You cannot just look or listen closely to identify it. So, it’s not like the “Hidden Pictures” in Highlights magazine. Moreover, examples that are often referenced, like seeing letters that spell S-E-X in the ice in a Gilby’s gin ad, are totally unproven.

Regarding effectiveness, I’ve seen no research indicating that subliminal advertising works. It cannot make a person behave specifically to “Drink Coke” or “Eat Popcorn.”

However, I have read research that indicates it might be possible to cause a general thought or reaction, e.g., “I’m hungry.”

Subliminal advertising is tricky to create, too, because people have different perception thresholds. Setting a message level lower to capture everyone may actually capture no one. And the true bottom line is, why mess with subliminal advertising, wasting time and money, when regular advertising works so well?

James McGrath

James Mcgrath

Co-Founder, Yoreevo

Studies mentioned in the book Pre-Suasion by Robert Cialdini show subliminal advertising definitely does work. 

Maybe not in the way most people think – showing a Coke can in the middle of a movie for a split second – but by framing situations and decisions in a certain way.

Fairly similar to the Coke can situation, the book explains a study about a fake website that sells couches. After checking out the website, people were asked to rate which features of a couch are most important. There were two versions of the website. One had clouds in the background and another dollar signs. People who saw the cloud website were significantly more likely to rate comfort as most important and those who saw the dollar signs rated cost most important! That was the only difference between the sites.

You can also frame a line of questioning to get the desired answer.

An example given in the book is a grocery store survey. Not surprisingly, if you stop people while shopping and ask if they’ll participate in a survey, most will say no. However, if you stop people and ask if they’re a helpful person, almost everyone will say yes. Then when you follow up by asking them to participate in the survey, they say yes since they are helpful after all.

And while this wasn’t in the book, I’m reminded of a “magic” show I went to a few years ago. In was in a reasonably small theater. Maybe it sat 100-200 people. Shortly after the show started, the magician asked everyone to pick a number between 1-40.

He then asked how many people had chosen 37 and half the audience raised their hand (including myself). He was demonstrating how our “choice” can be influenced by our environment and pointed out the myriad of 37s that were hidden in plain sight around the theater.

Caleb BackeCaleb Backe

Health and Wellness Expert, Maple Holistics

The jury is still out on how effective subliminal messaging is or if it even works at all. However, many studies suggest that it can affect people’s behavior.

The idea has been a source of contention in everything from movie theater advertisements to presidential campaigns, with both sides of the issue claiming that they are right.

However, one thing that’s for certain, is that priming does affect individuals.

Priming is the concept that when someone is exposed to a stimulus it will affect their response to a subsequent, related stimulus.

For instance, maybe your friend told you about a new favorite song of theirs that you never heard of, but now that they mentioned it, it feels like you’re hearing the song on the radio all the time. So, essentially, having minor messages about something can make us more likely to notice further messages about it, and we are therefore more likely to act on the messages.