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Subliminal advertising in modern times – does it work?

Subliminal messaging in modern times

Subliminal messaging has been around for ages but was introduced purposely into advertising in 1895 as a masking of messages meant to have a long lasting impact on consumers’ behavior.

In the 50s, Mad Men-esque companies used subliminal television (visual and audio) and radio (audio) ad strategies which implemented subliminal messaging. Some companies came clean about these methods which some say are still used today, while other companies claim they never employed these tactics.

When you say “subliminal messaging,” this Family Guy episode most likely comes to most Millenials’ and GenXers’ minds:

Messaging in modern times

University of Texas cognitive scientist Dr. Art Markman says, “If you flash something for one frame of a movie, it is presented for about 1/60th of a second. Because there is an image shown before and after it, you will notice the image consciously, but it will be processed by your visual system, and some information will get through.”

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Dr. Markman points to a recent study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology in April by Thijs Verwijmeren, Johan Karremans, Wolfgang Stroebe, and Daniel Wigboldus. The study investigated drink choices, measured respondents’ thirst levels and studied how much respondents typically buy a brand of bottled water versus a brand of ice tea.

Once these determinations were made, people were asked to do a simple task in which they saw a row of capital Bs (BBBBBBBB), but on some trials there was also a lower-case b in the row (BBBbBBBB). They had to count the number of trials where there was a lower-case b. Before each of the rows of Bs were presented, half the participants saw the brand name of the ice tea flashed on the screen subliminally.
At the end of the study, participants were allowed to select either the ice tea or the water to drink.

Subliminal results

Dr. Markman said, “The pattern of data is a bit complicated, though it ultimately makes a lot of sense.”

  • When you are not thirsty, the subliminal message has very little effect on your choices. You tend to pick the drink you generally like.
  • If you are thirsty, and you have a strong preference for the brand that was shown subliminally, it has no real effect on your choices.
  • If you are thirsty and you have no real preference for either drink, then you tend to pick the brand that was shown subliminally.
  • If you are thirsty and your less-preferred drink was shown subliminally, you tend to pick the brand that was shown subliminally (which goes against your habit).

The study shows that subliminal advertising has some impact on your choices but will not forced you to smoke or make choices you would never naturally make. Subliminal messaging has an effect if you are already motivated to pursue a goal and has the strongest effect when the subliminal messaging makes it easier for you to consider something that strays from your normal habits. Subliminal ads favor the underdog.

Subliminal messaging and you

For subliminal messaging to work, it is unlikely you would be able to do it yourself in a YouTube video or on a podcast, rather the best form (for someone who isn’t a full time ad exec specializing in subliminal messaging) is through suggestive marketing.

Asking for the sale and being direct still works best and Realtors putting a 1/60th of a second image in a YouTube video ad could backfire. Sticking to “follow me on Twitter” or “subscribe to our team newsletter” and drip marketing campaigns will win in the long run while attempting tricks will likely come across like the video above.

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Lani is the COO and News Director at The American Genius, has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH, Austin Digital Jobs, Remote Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

19 Comments

19 Comments

  1. Liz Benitez

    May 24, 2011 at 1:03 pm

    Ah darn. I was reading this article and thinking well cool all I have to do is put a little subliminal message in and all my dreams will come true. Then you go and say "attempting tricks will likely come across like the video above" 😀

  2. Brendan

    May 24, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    My new "subliminal" venture is to not blog about real estate. I am focusing more on things I like to blog about; food, wine, design, etc. many things that are common interests of myself, clients and many other people in my local community. The blog does have a small real estate tab, but it doesn't scream – "HEY – I'M A REALTOR". Still has MLS search – but no about my real estate career, the listings I've sold, testimonials, etc…. I've got other sites for that 😉

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