Every day we get bombarded with ads and stimuli, so much chaos we don’t notice most of it. But do we pick up on the subliminal messages some advertisers use? And do they influence us?
The answers might surprise you.
In the 1950’s James Vicary claimed to boost concession sales by adding subliminal messages during movie previews. Things like “Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coke.” Turns out, he confessed it was all a hoax. However, the damage was already done. People became nervous about mind-control and stopped trusting advertisers.
The reason subliminal messages work has to do with spreading activation in your semantic network. In other words, your brain is comprised of a semantic network. Basically, every concept that you know is a node in that network. And each concept shares connections with other concepts. For instance, we might connect Facebook to funny animal memes and Mark Zuckerberg.
In the above image you can see how we could connect mammal to several different things, like cat and bear or animal and whale.
When you’re exposed to stimulus it triggers that original concept (using the image above, the concept would be mammal) and it spreads to other concepts (cat, bear, fur, etc). This process is called “spreading activation.” When one concept becomes activated, the others activate as well. Once they all become activated, the subliminal messages taints your perception and behavior. That overall effect is known as “priming.” The key word to remember is “influence.” Subliminal messages can’t force you to do anything.
In preparation of this post, I found a video where a man asked everyone watching to think of a number between 1-10, but before he did, he said, “If I’m lucky…the important word is lucky.” He gave us a minute and then said, “The number you were thinking of is 7.”
Why? Because within our schema we usually associate the number 7 with luck, so when asked to think of a number in this context, we’re more likely to think of the number 7. Does it always work? No. I was thinking of the number 3.
To increase the odds, we can use subliminal priming. How? Let’s say I want you to have a specific thought. Rather than blatantly tell you, I could mention semantically related concepts. By triggering multiple associations, I’d increase the strength of that spreading activation, which would increase the chances of triggering that specific thought.
If you’ve ever been to fake psychic, you’ve seen this action.
Subliminal messages are a controversial subject, but there are also studies that show how well it works.
In one study, liquor store owners played French music in the background while customers shopped. French wine sales increased that day. In another study, they tried using German music. Can you guess what happened? German wine sales increased.
Three Types of Subliminal Messages
Subvisual Messages: visual cues that flash so quickly that we don’t notice them.
Subaudible Messages: low volume audio cues that remain in the background of louder music or other audio sources.
Backmasking: an audio message that’s recorded backward with the intention of playing it forward to disguise the reversed message.
Growing up everyone at my school was obsessed with playing Ozzy Osborne records in reverse after The Beatles used backmasking in one of their albums.
Can you guess what triggers are most often used in subliminal messages? If you said sex, you’re not wrong. By associating sex with a product it enhances the overall appeal. Don’t believe me? Check out this ad for Pepsi.
And what about money? That’s a powerful motivator. Look closely at the lettuce in this ad…
Notice the dollar bill in the right-front corner?
What about the entertainment business?
Do artists use subliminal messages to influence us? They sure do.
Matter of fact, Stanley Kubrick was a master of subliminal encoding. In this clip you’ll see exactly how he used it in a scene from The Shining. Take a minute to watch this video. It’s fascinating. What do you see in the blood?
This also bears the question: Can we use subliminal messages to help market our books or drive traffic to our blog? Perhaps. But would we want to? We use all kinds of different tactics, especially in headlines. How-To, List, headlines that ask a question. The closer I examine things going on around me, the more I see psychology at work. So is subliminal messages that far of a stretch?
What do you think? Do you find the use of subliminal messages dishonest? If not, would you use it to sell books? Keep in mind if anyone notices it, you could probably kiss your sales and perhaps your reputation goodbye. For me, it wouldn’t be worth the risk. Besides, I like to be able to lay my head on the pillow at night without regret.
Finally, what did you see in the blood?