Subliminal Messages: How Do They Work?

Subliminal MessagesEvery 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.

[tweetthis twitter_handles=”@SueColetta1″]Are we influenced by subliminal messages?[/tweetthis]

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.

subliminal messagesAnd what about money? That’s a powerful motivator. Look closely at the lettuce in this ad…

subliminal messagesNotice 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?

About Sue Coletta

Member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers, Sue Coletta is the bestselling, award-winning author of psychological thrillers and mysteries. Sue’s short stories and flash fiction have appeared in OOTG Flash Fiction Offensive magazine and numerous anthologies, and her forensic articles have appeared in InSinC Quarterly.

In 2017, Feedspot awarded her Murder Blog as one of the Top 50 Crime Blogs on the net. Sue’s the communications manager for Forensic Science and the Serial Killer Project, and co-hosts the radio show “Partners in Crime” on Writestream Radio Network. As a way to help fellow crime writers, Sue created a team of crime experts (detectives, coroners, police captains, etc.) and founded #ACrimeChat on Twitter. She’s also a proud member of the Kill Zone (see details in full bio — menu bar).


  1. Completely agreed. Even when study Public Relations, Merchandise, etc.

    There’re a list of words to used to encourage people: buy, eat, etc.

    Congrats, excellent article

  2. I’ve been known to see things that aren’t there, but I thought I saw an ax wedged into the floor in front of the left elevator. I asked my husband if he saw it, but he didn’t…then again, he couldn’t see the dollar bill in the lettuce either. When I was in college, way, way back in the early eighties, subliminal messaging was the big thing people were talking about…and mind control. I remain a skeptic to how much it actually influences us.

    • Yes!!! I saw the axe, too. Finally, someone saw the same thing. Thank you for the validation. For a minute there I was beginning to believe me and my husband were sickos or something. LOL

  3. Very interesting Sue, I don’t know if you saw it but there was an episode of Columbo where Patrick McGoohan used subliminal cuts to help him commit a murder.

  4. Interesting, Sue. Someone could use the idea in a murder mystery. Although, it’s probably already been done more than once. — Suzanne
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  5. There’s definitely something there but I kind of agree Adam that it might actually have been something to redirect the flow rather than to mean something. If you freeze it, it actually looks like some kind of curved slide, and some other thing in a flesh tone that looks like a support. I think it just got notice is all.
    I was one of those listening to “Paul is dead” too! Laughing. 🙂

    • I was beginning to believe I was seeing things until I showed it to my husband. He saw the same object I did. Of course, I play music with backmasking while he sleeps that says, “Sue is always right.” LOL

  6. I picked up something in the blood, but honestly couldn’t make heads or tails of what it was supposed to be. And I’m one of those people that has a severe attention deficit when it comes to videos and can’t last beyond the two minute mark. I scrolled ahead but guess I missed the key.

    I do, however, remember backward masking and spent many days with high school friends listening to records played backward. Subliminal messaging has always fascinated me, especially in the topic of movies and books. I would never, however, use it in selling any of my own merchandise. I’m someone who won’t even have their palm read, play with tarot cards or consult a psychic. Weird, because I love folklore and myth, but there are some things I think just shouldn’t be messed with. 🙂
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  7. I didn’t get that the elevator door “opened” so much as the blood came down in front of the left sliding door. I can’t help but wonder if the object was there to vector the blood flow in various directions. I’d bet Kubrick wanted to get the splashing to occur more violently.

    My favorite subliminal advertising is the FedEx logo.

  8. I didn’t get that the elevator door “opened” so much as the blood came down in front of the left sliding door. I can’t help but wonder if the object was there to vector the blood flow in various directions. I’d bet Kubrick wanted to get the splashing to occur more violently.

    My favorite subliminal advertising is the FedEx logo.

  9. An excellent and informative post. It’s fascinating how these messages get into our brains!
    Book Club Mom recently posted…Friday Fiction is back – Meet Emily Kingston from Twelve!My Profile

  10. What was it? I’ve no idea. It just doesn’t look like anything except a blur. Jury’s out still.
    Would I use subliminal advertising? Absolutely not. It smacks of coercion and dishonesty.
    mick recently posted…Desert Island BooksMy Profile

  11. So sex sells? I wonder if I could use a kind of bombshell character to market my books in a subtle attempt to get readers?

    This stuff is nothing new, it’s just largely ignored. There was a huge court case years ago. It was every day news in Nevada. It happened in Reno and involved allegations against Judas Priest.

    • Really? Can you expand on the allegations against Judas Priest?

      You? Use a bombshell character to sell books? Never. LOL

      • I believe it was the 80s. A couple of teenagers locked themselves in a room, put a towel under the door and smoked pot. They played Judas Priest full blast for several days. The mom never thought to check on them, call them for supper, etc. she finally went to check after days had passed and they’d committed suicide. Mother of the year sued the band because of subliminal messages that must have been hidden in the music. I’m sure there is data online.

  12. I’m sure I could see something in there but have no idea what it is or what purpose it could have. However if you hadn’t suggested there was a foreign object I would never have noticed.

    Hey – did you ever notice how often the TV and radio commercials raise the volume. It’s actually quite irritating and wears out the remote 🙂
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    • Yes, I have. It IS frustrating! Makes me wonder what they’re saying underneath all the racket. I’ll be posting the river of blood in the Crime Lover’s Lounge. After everyone has a chance to guess, I’ll tell you what I saw plain as day.

  13. First of all, on that furred little glutton on the picture: I am certain it was self-defense or another totally legitimate impulse of dorkness!

    Dorkness explained in the following motion picture roleplay-made-transparent which is totally not a movie…

    Beyond that I am getting afraid of Sue being right. The subliminal impulses are considered legitimate in a world within which even product placement must be warned about? That treats all of us like a cattle-herd of salary slaves…


    Thanks for the article.

  14. Wow! It’s really hard to say exactly what that is, Sue, but I would be willing to bet that Kubrick did it deliberately. Lots to think about, just with that one shot!

    And I’m with you about subliminal marketing. I would’t use it, even if I were really skilled at it. It seems too manipulative. I’d rather manipulate with my characters and words… 😉
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    • I’m with you on that, Margot. I’m dying to know if anyone saw the same object I did in the river of blood. But I agree with you. It was definitely intentional.

  15. Wow! It’s really hard to say exactly what that is, Sue, but I would be willing to bet that Kubrick did it deliberately. Lots to think about, just with that one shot!

    And I’m with you about subliminal marketing. I would’t use it, even if I were really skilled at it. It seems to manipulative. I’d rather manipulate with my characters and words… 😉

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