As someone who has spent more than 10 years in marketing and been at every level from creating social media posts to managing multimillion dollar marketing projects, I have always been intrigued and curious about The Power of Subliminal Marketing!
What is Subliminal marketing? In very simple terms and without getting too technical, Subliminal marketing is any marketing message that is created and displayed in a manner so that it is missed by the conscious brain but captured by the subconscious mind.
The term first came to light in 1957 by James Vicary, who said he could flash messages (for .03 seconds) like “drink Coca-Cola” and “eat popcorn” for very short duration and make 45,699 movie watchers more inclined to buy these products.
What was the result? This experiment actually increased the sale of popcorn by 57.5% and Coca-Cola by 18.1%
In time to come, it was revealed that Vicary had doctored the results to show the effectiveness of subliminal marketing, however, the damage was already done.
So does Subliminal marketing actually work?
Can hidden subliminal messages like “try suicide,” “do it” and “let’s be dead” actually lead to deaths?
in December 1985, the men — Raymond Belknap, then 18, and James Vance, 20 took a shotgun and shot themselves. Belknap died instantly, but Vance lived, sustaining serious injuries that left him disfigured; he died three years later.
The parents claimed that these hidden messaged in the cover of the album actually caused the deaths. After many many years of trial, the case was finally called off after it reviewed that Vance and Belknap’s had troubled childhoods and substance-abuse problems.
There are hundreds of examples of subliminals that have been used in marketing for many years post that. Typically these are divided in three areas
1 – Audio subliminals – Low volume audio inserted in a high volume audio
2 – Video subliminals – Split second screens between videos that show a particular message
3 – Backmasking – Adding an audio message in reverse in a normal track
Lots and Lots of brands started using or rather experimenting with Subliminal advertising and even used these in large scale, mass media publications.
Here are a few examples:
As you would have noticed, in all these examples, it is not really possible to see the hidden message/image at first glance and especially in today’s world, when we barely have less than a couple of seconds to look at an ad.
The advertising world has been using subliminal messaging for a long time, but it is virtually impossible for them to study the effectiveness of a subliminal Ad versus any other Ad as there are tons of reasons why an Ad can or cannot perform. However, in parallel lots of universities and professors around the world have conducted experiments under laboratory conditions.
Results have been mixed to say the least. There are experiments who state that the results were positive, there are experiments that who state that the results were non conclusive and there are experiments that state that such messages work but only for certain types, for example for messages displaying negative emotions.
Now if you look at this field from an ethical perspective, is it ok to use subliminal messaging (assuming that is works) and is it ok to influence audience in a manner which is too powerful for their brains to comprehend?
There are again two schools of thought. The first one suggesting that it is completely illegal and unethical to use and the second one suggests that marketing is full of methods and techniques which the audience anyways fails to understand or capture and is easily influenced by. For example look at the music played and how it can change the emotions. Look at the discounts and pricing and offers and how they can affect the consumer behaviour.
Look at the way organisations use your private data and make you see Ads which are created to get the maximum attention and action from your side. Psychology and Human behaviour departments are focused more and more to improve the conversions on a site, to get a user back to purchase and so on. All these methods are also pretty unknown to, and hidden from a consumer, so do these also come under the large umbrella of Subliminal Advertising.
All the influencing and persuasion methods, all the models built to make an app being used again and again, or to making you share a video are all methods that influence your mindset and they will not work if you know about them.
So, ethically it is a little difficult to justify the ban on subliminal messaging, however, the use of objectionable, hidden content is a topic that is up for debate.
Coming back to my personal experience and story. I am a firm believer in results and performance based marketing. I am also a huge fan of experimentation and A/B Testing and neither have I, nor any of the hundreds of marketers I have talked to, have seen any evidence that subliminal advertising actually works and shows results that are substantial.
To me, subliminal advertising is just a prank played by Vicary in 1957, and the effects of it are still being felt even after 60 years!