Subliminal Messaging

September 12 1957, Fort Lee, New Jersey: a market researcher by the name of James M. Vicary decides to carry out a unique and ground-breaking experiment in which an unsuspecting cinema audience is bombarded with subliminal messages: “Eat popcorn, drink Coca Cola” appears on the screen for three milliseconds. The result was that sales of Coca Cola increased by 18% and popcorn by 58%.

Just to throw a cynical spanner in the works, I am honour bound to point out that the ‘guinea pigs’ were watching a film entitled ‘Picnic’ at the time.

Nonetheless, the resulting public outcry, based on a very reasonable fear that people would henceforth be open to brainwashing, formed the foundation of the urban myth that became known as Subliminal Advertising. On October 5 1957, the Saturday Review published a scathing article, accusing advertisers of breaking “into the deepest and most private parts of the human mind…” Such was the public disquiet about subliminal advertising, the USA, along with the UK and Australia, all passed laws banning it.

They needn’t have bothered. Researchers, including law enforcement agencies, politicians and advertisers trying to replicate Vicary’s findings drew a blank – even a doubtless excited CIA became involved and issued a report. However, when confronted with the evidence, Vicary confessed that his work “was a gimmick.” But it was too late! The damage had been done and the idea that you could manipulate people’s desires with unconscious subliminal messaging became part of the collective culture.

Everything you have probably already heard of was tried: flashing messages on a screen for a few milliseconds – even embedding audio messages played backward in the soundtrack, known as backmasking.

Backmasking doesn’t work, and has been proved not to work. Yet some American church groups charged that heavy metal ‘artistes’ Ozzy Osborne and Judas Priest were using it to infiltrate satanic messages into the minds of young Americans. As if. The cases were quite rightly laughed out of court, but still served to underline the public’s distrust of anything ‘subliminal.’ Those stupid American Jesus worshippers even held record burnings. They’ll be burning books next, and we all know what happens when you start burning books…

In the meantime, psychologists have discovered audiences do consume more snacks and drinks – and even smoke more cigarettes – when they see actors eating, drinking and smoking on screen. For many movie fans, popcorn, ice cream or a fizzy drink is part of the cinema experience [in my case, falling asleep and wishing I’d saved my money is often part of the experience!] but this unconscious desire to imitate behaviour is especially powerful when the star of the film does it.

Previous studies have confirmed that on-screen performances can exert a powerful influence on snack consumption and audience behaviour, not to mention calorie intake! Researchers at Cornell University in New York State previously found that non-stop action in movies prevents viewers thinking about how much they’re putting in their mouths, but Cornell team think that the presentation of eating on screen has an important influence on viewer’s eating habits.

So do audiences copy characters by stopping eating when the character does, or carry on snacking until the actor stops?

To test this, researchers recruited 147 students and got them to watch two scenes from the 2004 film ‘Harold and Kumar go to White Castle’. The film features two marijuana-smoking friends who get involved in a series of mishaps on the way to a hamburger bar called White Castle. In one scene, the characters embark on a meal and complete it – in another, they ate constantly through the whole scene.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that viewers consumed larger quantities of food when the two main characters carried on eating. The same behaviour has been observed in smokers who are more likely to smoke when others around them are smoking, although this effect has been lessened because of the ban on smoking in public places.

Given the amount of unhealthy treats consumed by your average movie-going American, the research carries with it some importance. Some large popcorn bags reportedly contain up to 1,800 calories – more than the entire recommended daily allowance for a school-age child. In the UK last year, a YouGov poll of 5,000 adults found Brits spend an average of £7.85 per person on snacks at the cinema. £4 for an ice cream is not unusual!

So forget the subliminal messaging – the mere sight of Mr Creosote taking that last waffer thin mint is more likely to do the trick!

In the 1980s and 90s came the new craze of ‘subliminal’ self-improvement tapes, also complete and utter nonsense – and proved to be nonsense by Anthony G. Greenwald of the University of Washington and his colleagues. Greenwald tried the tapes, ostensibly designed to improve self-confidence, with a control group. Only half the tapes contained subliminal messages, though the participants were told that all the tapes did. The result? There was no difference between the two groups who took part. Surprise, surprise!

The experiment did have one unexpected consequence though; those participants who believed they really would gain more self-confidence after listening to the tapes did report an improvement. But this improvement was spread equally over the two groups, and so the cause of the improvement was nothing more than the influence of our old friends, suggestion, expectation and the placebo effect.

However… Although subliminal messaging cannot override our free will or our morals or values, or even our intentions, it might just have an effect on the way we make our decisions.

Advertisers affect the way we make decisions, even important ones and the ruses they employ to make this happen are legion – and well understood. These days, advertisers concentrate on selling the lifestyle associated with a product rather than the product itself. After all, who can resist something that not only cleans your carpet but also solves all your family’s social issues?

But back to Subliminals (a word I have just made up!)

Most of the recent experimentation has centred on increasing the subject’s desire to choose branded drinks, such as Coca Cola over plain water. This is a difficult study because in the US, most students drink Coca Cola anyway, and they are the ones most likely to volunteer for these ‘in house’ experiments. What is clear however is that in some experiments, flashing the word ‘thirsty’ can significantly increase a subject’s desire for liquid refreshment by up to 80%. The choice of drink though is generally in line with the subject’s established tastes – flashing the name of a particular brand doesn’t seem to have any significant effect on their choice of beverage.

But what about trying to sell products other than drinks? Again, we turn to the advertisers for inspiration. It is well known that the smell of freshly baked bread in supermarkets encourages customers to buy not only bread, but also a variety of other food products. Any delicious smelling food can make you feel hungry, in exactly the same way the sight of a freshly squeezed lemon can make you salivate. It’s almost irresistible in fact. If you want to ruin a trumpet player’s solo, the make sure he can see you suck on a lemon just before he raises his instrument to his lips! Apparently the smell of lemon-fresh cleaning fluid can make someone think about doing the cleaning. (This is one I must try!) However, the effect is very short-lived.

I distinctly remember that when I was doing late night hypnotism shows in various English seaside resorts during the early 1980s, I noticed that my subjects seemed more receptive, both in terms of hypnotisability and their ensuing performance, because people were more tired at 11.00 at night. Conversely, trying to do hypnotherapy at 9.00 in the morning is more difficult because people are much more likely to be wide-awake at that time. It’s not just a question of tiredness it’s also a question of how aware they are. Sure enough, the results of the subliminal researchers bear this out. Subjects are more susceptible to subliminal persuasion when tired than they are normally. Volunteers in subliminal messaging experiments seem to gravitate more toward a specific brand when they are tired. (The choice is offered to both a tired group and a more awake control group).

It is worth noting that a similar reaction occurs when the product is associated with revulsion. When images of a particular product are flashed onto the screen during a documentary about the botfly for example, subjects are less likely to choose it because of its association with something rather nasty, and we know that Associationism is not only well understood in psychology, but is one of the cornerstones of hypnotherapy and NLP.

Walk into any supermarket in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and you are very likely to find yourself listening, albeit unconsciously, to Christmas music. Christmas is a time of giving, in other words it’s a time of buying presents and spending more money that usual. Christmas music increases this impulse. I’d love to see an experiment to see if it has the same effect in the middle of July!

So, just as we are scratching our heads wondering whether or not there really is anything of real substance to subliminal messaging, along come Charles Areni and David Kim of the Texas Technical University. Over a six-week period they alternated classical music with pop music in a wine shop. No big surprise here… Customers bought more expensive wine when the classical music was playing and spent less when the pop music was playing.

This makes complete sense. Who, for instance, in their right minds, would now play records by Gary Glitter in their shop, or use images of Jimmy Savile to entice the customers in? The Texas research was replicated and confirmed by Adrian North and his team at Leicester University in the UK. He found that customers spent 10% more in a restaurant on evenings when classical music was playing in the background than they did when pop music was playing, and an overall drop of 2% when no music was playing. Well, there is no doubt that music can affect mood. That’s what great music is all about, take note!

So back to the local bottle shop. Adrian North found that when he played German Oom-pah band music, customers displayed a preference for German wine. When French music was played, they purchased more French wines, even though both were displayed in equally prominent positions. When questioned later, hardly any of the customers could recall what sort of music had been playing.

Again, association appears to be the true deciding factor here. (The scene where Malcolm McDowell is forced to watch film of an extremely violent nature backed with classical music in Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘A Clockwork Orange’ illustrates this perfectly, although the film is a futuristic fantasy.)

But is any of this really telling us anything special? Environmental cues affect our judgement all the time, and hence our behaviour, and we don’t notice that either. Environmental cues have already been harnessed to increase impulse buying, so I’m not sure that subliminals offer anything new. They are a weak force, and only effective when served up at exactly the right time, to coincide with a decision about to be made anyway, and are effective only in relation to a person’s predisposed preferences, intentions or habits. It is unlikely that (unlike post-hypnotic suggestion, which resides and takes place in the conscious mind and all actions undertaken in hypnosis are consensual) subliminal suggestion could ever compel anyone to take action much later on. As yet there is no recorded instance of this happening.

Anyway, before we get bogged down in this any more, it’s all been tried and found wanting. So that’s it. Subliminal suggestion, advertising, messaging, brainwashing, whatever you want to call it, doesn’t work, except on a very short-lived and weak scale, and that’s that. Unless of course you try religion…

Copyright Andrew Newton 2013. All rights reserved.

About Andrew Newton

andrew newton hypnotist

Andrew Newton has an international reputation as a leading authority on hypnosis. 

Scroll to Top