Subliminal Messages

Subliminal Messages in Advertising: The Case For
and Against Lisa Caswell Syracuse University
Running Head: Subliminal Messages Subliminal
messaging and subliminal perception are
controversial topics in the field of psychology.

Many studies have been conducted to determine if
subliminal messaging does in fact work. Many
people think that subliminal messages in the field of
advertising are much more successful than
subliminal messages for self-improvement, such as
tapes sold to help the consumer lose weight, gain
intelligence, or do something else to improve
themselves simply by listening to a tape. Subliminal
advertising can be defined as “embedding material
in print, audio, or video messages so faintly that
they are not consciously perceived.” Rogers and
Smith (1993) surveyed 400 households. When
asked if they believed advertisers deliberately
included subliminal messages, 61.5% responded
‘yes’. A 72.2% ‘yes’ answer was obtained when
asked if subliminal advertisements were effective.

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Based on these results, it can be concluded that
consumers are aware of subliminal advertising, and
believe it is effectively used by advertisers to
influence their decisions. The term “sub-threshold
effects,” first popularized by Packard in 1957,
preceded the popular notion of “subliminal
advertising,” whose originator is James Vicary.

Subliminal advertising first came to the public’s
attention in 1957 when Jim Vicary conducted a
subliminal advertising strategy of interspersing
“drink Coca-Cola” and “eat popcorn” messages
on a movie screen so quickly that they could not
be seen consciously by the audience. His research
initially reported increases in the sales of both
Coca-Cola and popcorn as a result of the
subliminal messages. Later, however, when he
was challenged and could not replicate or even
produce the results, Vicary admitted that the
results of the initial study had been fabricated
(Weir, 1984). Key (1989) has more recently
claimed that hidden or embedded messages are
widespread and effective. Key’s theories have
been widely discredited by scholars who have
examined marketing applications scientifically
(Moore, 1982). Although a few scholarly studies
have reported certain limited effects of exposure
to subliminal stimuli in laboratory settings
(Greenwald, Klinger, and Liu, 1989), most
academic researchers on the subject have
reported findings which indicate no practical or
predictable effect in an advertising setting (Dixon,
1971). The 1957 Vicary study has been largely
disregarded in the scholarly community due to lack
of scientific documentation of methodology and
failure to replicate. However, scholarly findings
and industry assertions may have had little or no
effect on the average American, who has been
exposed to popular articles and books promoting
the notion that subliminal advertising is used and is
effective. In addition, Americans have been
exposed to advertisements claiming that self-help
audio-tapes and videotapes containing subliminal
materials 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 Public
Many in the public are aware of the term
“subliminal advertising,” understand the basics of
the concept, and believe it not only is used by
advertisers but is also successful in influencing
brand and purchase choice. Shortly after the
Vicary study was brought to the public’s attention
(Brean, 1958), Haber (1959) sought to discern
“exactly what the public believes about subliminal
advertising when so little factual information is
available.” Results of this study determined that 41
percent of 324 respondents had heard of
subliminal advertising, and although half believed it
to be “unethical,” 67 percent stated that they
would still watch a television program even if they
believed subliminal messages were embedded in
the commercials. Two decades later, a survey of
209 adults conducted by Zanot, Pincus, and Lamp
(1983) reported double the awareness levels of
the Haber study. The Zanot survey concluded that
81 percent had heard of subliminal advertising and
that “respondents believe that subliminal
advertising is widely and frequently used and that it
is successful in selling products.” The same survey
determined that educational level is the
demographic variable most highly correlated with
awareness of subliminal advertising; the more
educated the respondent, the more likely he or she
is to be aware of the phenomenon. A study by
Rogers and Smith (1993) found that the more
education a person has (and therefore the more
opportunity to learn of the limitations of the
subliminal persuasion phenomenon), the more
likely one is to believe that subliminal advertising
“works.” A 1985 study by Block and Vanden
Bergh surveying consumers’ attitudes toward use
of subliminal techniques for self-improvement
found some consumer skepticism and reported
more favorable attitudes among those who were
less educated and younger. Three surveys
conducted in the past decade have demonstrated
that a majority of American adults are aware of
“subliminal advertising” and believe advertisers
sometimes use it to sell products. The three
surveys spanned a broad geographic spectrum
(Washington, D.C.; Honolulu, Hawaii; and
Toledo, Ohio). All three surveys opened with
questions that determined whether the respondent
was aware of subliminal advertising and
determined whether or not basic knowledge


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