Subliminal Advertising: Messaging and Suggestion in Marketing

Marketing through subliminal advertising relies on communicating suggestions to a consumer’s subconscious mind that renders him more likely to buy a product.

Subliminal advertising carries negative connotations with many consumers who view it as a way big corporations can manipulate a buyer’s subconscious mind. Subliminal suggestion, however, is an acceptable and legal way for businesses to promote their products, create brand familiarity, and break into tough economic markets.

The Theory Behind Subliminal Advertising

The primary goal of any business actively marketing a product is to coerce consumers to buy that product. One widely-used marketing tool that few individuals recognize is the use of subliminal suggestions in advertising.

The theory behind subliminal advertising is that an individual’s decision-making processes can be accessed on a subconscious level without his being aware of it – leading him to make a purchase he may not have made otherwise. Proponents of this marketing method argue that by subconsciously instituting brand familiarity, more consumers will purchase the product – increasing the company’s profit margin.

The Subliminal Messages Hoax

A researcher by the name of James Vicary originally coined the term “subliminal messaging” and used it to describe an experiment he conducted in a movie theater in the late 1950s. Vicary, in an effort to prove that the human subconscious can absorb and interpret information independent of the conscious mind, flashed rapid messages to “buy popcorn” and “drink Coke” on the picture screen of a movie theater.

The messages weren’t consciously noticeable by moviegoers, but Vicary hoped that the moviegoers’ subconscious minds would perceive the message. His results – an 18% increase in food sales – sparked a public furor.

Upon repeating his experiment under the watchful eye of the Association for Psychological Science, however, moviegoers did not display any added desire for food products during the show. Vicary eventually admitted that his original experiment demonstrated similar results and the idea of somehow “reaching” the subconscious for marketing purposes was just that – an idea.

Unfortunately, Vicary’s original claim of success with subliminal messaging stuck, and numerous companies “re-tested” his theory. This caused general mistrust and apprehension among the American public as many individuals considered subliminal messages a form of brainwashing.

Examples of Subliminal Marketing

The Federal Trade Commission regards subliminal messaging a deceptive business practice and using subliminal messages in advertisements has been banned since 1974. That does not mean, however, that companies do not actively market products to each buyer’s subconscious mind. Whether you realize it or not, successful companies use many of the following to communicate with your subconscious:

  • Shapes and colors of products
  • Sounds
  • Images portrayed on products or in advertisements
  • Slow music

As tempting as it may be to scoff at the idea that such mundane concepts as shape and sound can make you purchase a product, consider this: the human mind is preconditioned to respond to upbeat music by moving more quickly. The result? Shoppers spend less time in a store. Slow music, however, encourages shoppers to slow down, browse and, not surprisingly, make more purchases.

Subliminal marketing is also present in the way products are presented to consumers. Parade magazine reports that women – the main grocery shoppers in most households – respond more favorably to mayonnaise bottles with a slender center. This is true even when comparing the bottle with the exact same product in different packaging. The subconscious is drawn to what naturally appeals to it. Because a slender waistline is a desirable physical trait, similarly shaped bottles enjoy higher sales.

Subliminal Suggestion Through Repetition

Consumers are more likely to purchase brands that are familiar to them. This presents a challenge to new businesses hoping to break into the economic market. Part of the key to a healthy profit is creating brand familiarity through advertising. Perhaps the most common way of creating brand familiarity is through repeated use of recognizable logos, jingles and slogans that make it through to the buyer’s long-term memory.

Researchers have known for years that repetition is successful. It is, in fact, one of the cornerstones of learning. Unfortunately, this form of unconscious suggestion has its dangers. For example, public and parental fear that constant, repetitious exposure to violent video games would manifest itself as violent behavior led to the 1994 establishment of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board and ratings for video games.

Is Marketing to the Unconscious Ethical ?

Many consumers consider catering to the unconscious mind an unethical marketing method, due to the fact that the company in question is actively pursuing profit through blatant psychological manipulation.

Subliminal marketing, however, has proven to be a successful enough strategy that its challenging to locate a modern advertisement that doesn’t utilize it. As a conscientious consumer, you can take comfort in the fact that, although marketers can promote a product to both your conscious and unconscious mind, they cannot force you to buy it.


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