Subliminal Advertising

Take a moment to think about the term, “subliminal messaging.” What comes to mind?

Most likely, it’s not a pleasant concept. We often think of subliminal messaging as a way for advertisers, brands, or even governments to control the minds of viewers. So let’s talk about subliminal messaging, how it may work, how it doesn’t work, and how our minds process information that may or may not be subliminal.

What Is Subliminal Advertising?

The word subliminal refers to anything that happens below our threshold of consciousness. Subliminal advertising attempts to reach the unconscious mind. Messages in these advertisements influence thoughts, emotions, and buying decisions without consumers knowing. Often misleading, subliminal advertising is banned in many countries.

a man watching TV

Subliminal vs. Supraliminal

Subliminal stimuli is stimuli that is not recognized by your conscious mind. When stimuli is recognized by your conscious mind, it is called supraliminal stimuli. If you turn on a rock song at a karaoke bar and sing along, the song is supraliminal stimuli. If that song comes on at the grocery store and you realize you’re singing it before you realize it’s playing, the stimuli is recognized subliminally. If the song comes on as your alarm, it is recognized subliminally. If you wake up while the song is still playing, the stimuli is supraliminal.

Attention Plays a Part in Subliminal vs. Supraliminal

Our minds have a lot of stimuli to process. A lot. Think about all the conversations that happen in a crowd or all of the sights you can take in at a museum. Sometimes, the stimuli that becomes supraliminal is simply the stimuli that we intentionally pay attention to.

Examples of Subliminal Advertising

Let’s say the viewers are watching a movie. The movie flashes the word “Drink Coca-Cola” so fast that viewers don’t recognize the change onscreen. These flashes last less than half a second.

Nonetheless, the viewers are more likely to buy Coca-Cola.

A marketing researcher actually claimed that this happened. Back in 1957, James Vicary claimed that he was able to increase Coca-Cola sales by 18% from this little experiment. He claimed that using the same process with popcorn, he was able to increase sales by over 57%. 

That’s a lot of popcorn and Coca-Cola for very little cost and a whole lot of manipulation.

Since then, many people have learned about (and believed in) the power of subliminal advertising. Companies have also attempted to use some form of subliminal messaging in their logos, commercials, and other types of media.

Does Subliminal Advertising Really Work?

But here’s the thing. James Vicary’s experiment was a fraud. He was also never able to repeat his results after he got famous for the 1957 experiment. And while other experiments have been able to show varying effects of subliminal messaging, the results have never mimicked the ones that Vicary claimed to record.

Creativity and Subliminal Advertising

In 2008, a group of participants were given the task of coming up with uses for a brick. Before completing the task, they were “subliminally primed.” Rather than receiving direct orders from the researchers that told them to buy the brick or eat the brick, the participants saw company logos. They were exposed to logos like Apple’s, back when the logo was rainbow and included the words “Think Different.” Other participants were exposed to Disney’s logo, Intel’s logo, or E!’s logo.

Researchers then observed how the participants completed the task. As it turns out, the participants who were “primed” with Apple’s logo were more likely to come up with creative and “different” responses.

George W. Bush’s Subliminal Advertising

Take this classic example of “subliminal” messaging. In 2000, George W. Bush’s campaign ran an attack ad that discussed Al Gore’s healthcare policies. Text on screen appears that says, “The Gore Prescription Plan: Bureaucrats decide.”

The campaign was accused of subliminal messaging. Before the full word of “Bureaucrats” appears on screen, “RATS” appears. It took a while for viewers to notice it – after all, the word “rats” only appears for 1/30th of a second. But I can guarantee you that if you watch the ad now, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

subliminal advertising

When we focus our attention on something or wait for something to appear on screen, we are more likely to see it. (Of course, if you’ve watched my videos on Change Blindness or Inattentional Blindness, you know that this can be manipulated and our brains can always miss things.)

Of course, when Bush’s ads were first running, people weren’t looking out for the word “rats.” It’s possible to recognize stimuli without focusing on it or paying attention. But what does that say for our behavior? Can we fail to see the word “thirsty” but still reach for a glass of water?

Conditions In Which Subliminal Messages Work

I chose the word “thirsty” for a reason. A few studies have been done on subliminal advertising and drink choices. The words flashed on a screen have either prompted participants to choose a certain drink or just to drink more.

In some of these studies subliminal advertising did work – but only when the participants were already thirsty.

Similar Behavior Goals

There are two conditions in which subliminal advertising may work. The first condition is that the viewer, participant, etc. must already be aligned with the goals of the researchers. If someone is already thinking about choosing a number, then subliminal messaging may prompt them to pick a certain number. If someone is thirsty, then subliminal messages about hydration, drinking, or specific soda brands may be effective. But if the subliminal messaging is completely “random,” it won’t work.

Vicary’s experiment could have worked – if the viewers were already thinking about what snacks they wanted to buy after the movie. But most likely, it wouldn’t have worked anyway. There is a second condition that makes subliminal messaging effective. This condition has to do with timing.


Subliminal messaging experiments have only been successful when the behavior, or response, quickly follows the messaging. Some studies have tracked whether a person’s behavior was influenced up to 10 days after they were exposed to subliminal messaging. They weren’t.

Unless you are prompted to make a decision immediately after seeing subliminal messaging that would influence your decision, you’re pretty much safe from any mind control.

There is a lot of time and a lot of stimuli that happens during a movie. Unless Vicary’s messages popped up during the final credits and the viewers were already hungry or thirsty, they wouldn’t have worked.

Is Subliminal Advertising Illegal?

Because subliminal advertising can work and can be intentionally misleading, it is banned in many countries around the world. Not all of these countries have explicit laws on subliminal advertising, but “misleading” or “unfair” advertising may be banned or discouraged by governing bodies.

Even though subliminal messaging sounds like something out of a dystopian novel, it is controlled, and it is not as powerful or gloomy as we might think!

Practical Psychology

Practical Psychology began as a collection of study material for psychology students in 2016, created by a student in the field. It has since evolved into an online blog and YouTube channel providing mental health advice, tools, and academic support to individuals from all backgrounds. With over 2 million YouTube subscribers, over 500 articles, and an annual reach of almost 12 million students, it has become one of the most popular sources of psychological information.

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