Subliminal Messages in Advertising: The Case Forand Against Lisa Caswell Syracuse UniversityRunning Head: Subliminal Messages Subliminalmessaging and subliminal perception arecontroversial topics in the field of psychology.Many studies have been conducted to determine ifsubliminal messaging does in fact work. Manypeople think that subliminal messages in the field ofadvertising are much more successful thansubliminal messages for self-improvement, such astapes sold to help the consumer lose weight, gainintelligence, or do something else to improvethemselves simply by listening to a tape.
Subliminaladvertising can be defined as “embedding materialin print, audio, or video messages so faintly thatthey are not consciously perceived.” Rogers andSmith (1993) surveyed 400 households. Whenasked if they believed advertisers deliberatelyincluded subliminal messages, 61.5% responded’yes’. A 72.2% ‘yes’ answer was obtained whenasked if subliminal advertisements were effective.Based on these results, it can be concluded thatconsumers are aware of subliminal advertising, andbelieve it is effectively used by advertisers toinfluence their decisions. The term “sub-thresholdeffects,” first popularized by Packard in 1957,preceded the popular notion of “subliminaladvertising,” whose originator is James Vicary.
Subliminal advertising first came to the public’sattention in 1957 when Jim Vicary conducted asubliminal advertising strategy of interspersing”drink Coca-Cola” and “eat popcorn” messageson a movie screen so quickly that they could notbe seen consciously by the audience. His researchinitially reported increases in the sales of bothCoca-Cola and popcorn as a result of thesubliminal messages. Later, however, when hewas challenged and could not replicate or evenproduce the results, Vicary admitted that theresults of the initial study had been fabricated(Weir, 1984). Key (1989) has more recentlyclaimed that hidden or embedded messages arewidespread and effective. Key’s theories havebeen widely discredited by scholars who haveexamined marketing applications scientifically(Moore, 1982). Although a few scholarly studieshave reported certain limited effects of exposureto subliminal stimuli in laboratory settings(Greenwald, Klinger, and Liu, 1989), mostacademic researchers on the subject havereported findings which indicate no practical orpredictable effect in an advertising setting (Dixon,1971). The 1957 Vicary study has been largelydisregarded in the scholarly community due to lackof scientific documentation of methodology andfailure to replicate. However, scholarly findingsand industry assertions may have had little or noeffect on the average American, who has beenexposed to popular articles and books promotingthe notion that subliminal advertising is used and iseffective.
In addition, Americans have beenexposed to advertisements claiming that self-helpaudio-tapes and videotapes containing subliminalmaterials can help the purchaser with weight loss,better relationships, an improved golf game,quitting smoking, and even birth control.Awareness of Subliminal Messaging by the PublicMany in the public are aware of the term”subliminal advertising,” understand the basics ofthe concept, and believe it not only is used byadvertisers but is also successful in influencingbrand and purchase choice. Shortly after theVicary study was brought to the public’s attention(Brean, 1958), Haber (1959) sought to discern”exactly what the public believes about subliminaladvertising when so little factual information isavailable.” Results of this study determined that 41percent of 324 respondents had heard ofsubliminal advertising, and although half believed itto be “unethical,” 67 percent stated that theywould still watch a television program even if theybelieved subliminal messages were embedded inthe commercials. Two decades later, a survey of209 adults conducted by Zanot, Pincus, and Lamp(1983) reported double the awareness levels ofthe Haber study. The Zanot survey concluded that81 percent had heard of subliminal advertising andthat “respondents believe that subliminaladvertising is widely and frequently used and that itis successful in selling products.” The same surveydetermined that educational level is thedemographic variable most highly correlated withawareness of subliminal advertising; the moreeducated the respondent, the more likely he or sheis to be aware of the phenomenon.
A study byRogers and Smith (1993) found that the moreeducation a person has (and therefore the moreopportunity to learn of the limitations of thesubliminal persuasion phenomenon), the morelikely one is to believe that subliminal advertising”works.” A 1985 study by Block and VandenBergh surveying consumers’ attitudes toward useof subliminal techniques for self-improvementfound some consumer skepticism and reportedmore favorable attitudes among those who wereless educated and younger. Three surveysconducted in the past decade have demonstratedthat a majority of American adults are aware of”subliminal advertising” and believe advertiserssometimes use it to sell products. The threesurveys spanned a broad geographic spectrum(Washington, D.C.
; Honolulu, Hawaii; andToledo, Ohio). All three surveys opened withquestions that determined whether the respondentwas aware of subliminal advertising anddetermined whether or not basic knowledge