How Subliminal Advertising Makes You Buy

The Sly Practice of Communicating on a Subconscious Level

Derren Brown Mind Reader: An Evening of Wonders

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When people talk about subliminal advertising, they are referring to a specific type of messaging—namely, communication that is too quick to be perceived by the conscious mind, something that will be absorbed by your subconscious.

Think of it as a kind of hypnotic suggestion, with the messaging being hidden in a movie, TV commercial, or even a logo, but which will only be registered on a deeper level in your mind. It has the effect of making you want to do something, be it buy a car, drink a soda, or eat a cheeseburger. You don’t really know why, but you want these items…badly.

The History of Subliminal Advertising

Historians have evidence that subliminal persuasion was used as far back as 5th century B.C., when Greek thinkers and philosophers employed subconscious suggestion to influence the masses.

However, subliminal advertising as we know it today reared its head in the 1940s. One famous example is the Daffy Duck short “The Wise Quacking Duck” that flashed the words “BUY BONDS” on a statue in the cartoon. It was barely perceptible unless you were looking for it.  

In the 1950s, an infamous experiment by market researcher James Vicary claimed that by flashing the words “EAT POPCORN” and “DRINK COCA-COLA” for a split second during a movie, the sales of these snacks increased significantly. The results turned out to be fake, and over the years, various studies proved that subliminal advertising of this kind did not work.

Modern Day Subliminal Advertising

Fast-forward to the 2000s, and present day, and subliminal advertising has changed. The practice of inserting specific selling messages into any kind of advertising or broadcasting is illegal in some countries (Britain, Australia), and can cause a network in the US to lose it’s broadcast license if the FCC is made aware of these practices.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not used. It has simply evolved into something else. Now, you will find imagery subtly planted into movies, commercials, TV series, logos, and well, anything and everything that people are watching or interacting with.

Perhaps the most common subliminal advertising in use today comes in the form of product placement. In laymen’s terms, this is simply products and brands inserting themselves into the fabric of a TV series or motion picture. How skillfully, and subliminally, this is done depends on the brand and the movie.

For example, if you found yourself craving Popeye’s Chicken during the movie Little Nicky, it’s because it was front and center. He even takes a bite and says it’s “f*cking awesome.” That can hardly count as subliminal in the true sense of the word. However, a movie like Transformers didn’t call out the GM brand of cars, but they were everywhere. Plus, Mountain Dew was the go-to drink in that movie. The hope is that by seeing it often, you will go and buy a Mountain Dew after the movie. Your subconscious has been reprogrammed.

If you want to go even deeper, and more subtle, there are still plenty of examples of this. The new Wendy’s logo, for instance, looks like a simple update of a familiar face, right?

Well, look again.

The frill around Wendy’s neck has a pattern on it; one that is not accidental. If you really think about what it looks like, it spells out the word MOM. The idea here is that your brain makes subconscious connections between the food served at Wendy’s and mom’s home cooking. Does it work? It’s hard to say, but it certainly doesn’t hurt sales.

KFC did something similar back in 2008 when part of the lettuce in a KFC Snacker was actually a small $1 bill. The 99 cents sandwich was a big hit, and it’s feasible that the subconscious took the subliminal message of $1 = KFC Snacker.

So, Is Subliminal Advertising Still Viable?

In a word, yes.

While the original quick flashes of blatant hard-sell messages is outlawed (or at the very least, seriously frowned upon), brands can still play with the consumers’ subconscious mind using subliminal messaging.

If you wonder about its effectiveness, consider the incredible “trick” performed by Darren Brown on his popular British TV series. He challenged a creative advertising team to come up with a poster, logo, and tagline for a fictitious company. He gave them 30 minutes and told them he had some ideas of his own.

When it came time to reveal the work, Darren had predicted the work that the team came up with. How could he have done that? Well, earlier that day he had planted subliminal messages on the route the team took to the studio. He literally planted the idea in their head, and they received the message loud and clear.

If a team of advertising professionals can be manipulated so easily, what chance does the general public stand?