Subliminal Messages in Advertising and Their Widespread Use

Of late, there has been an upsurge of subliminal messages in advertising, which were a few decades back, considered to be immoral or inappropriate as per social ethics. Nevertheless, these still are, indirectly, an integral part of this vast industry.
Ever thought about why companies spend millions of dollars in advertising campaigns? Why are products launched in such a grandeur style? Well, you are correct; the main reason for doing so is to persuade and influence our buying habits, i.e., they affect our views and almost magically, even without us being aware of it, advertisements indirectly or directly persuade us to buy products. And we do get carried away by them, don't we? While advertising and marketing have progressed by leaps and bounds, the trend of subliminal messages in this industry too has become a popular tool for garnering maximum profits.

The Concept

The father of psychology, Sigmund Freud, stated the unconscious mind to be "primal, hedonistic, and impulsive." And this definition of the unconscious mind is so aptly understood when we analyze advertisements in today's era, or rather those in history that indirectly contained subliminal messages. The word subliminal means "below the threshold of consciousness." Put simply, our minds have conscious and unconscious parts. Every day, hundreds of advertisements bombard thousands of information on our minds.

While the aware or conscious part stores some information, rest other is passed without being processed to the unconscious part of the brain. Now, this unconscious part of our mind is a pool of innumerable nonessential thoughts, just existing in the realm of our unconsciousness. Although, these thoughts are non-essential, they, in their very essence, influence our thoughts, actions, and habits. In advertisements, hidden subliminal messages are used to arouse, excite, trigger, and appeal the unconscious parts of our brain. That inevitably influences our psychology and hence, buying habits. When suggestions make an entry into the subconscious mind, they are stored there for future reference, and whenever something related to that information comes in front of the eyes, the consumer is reminded of that particular product or item. This aspect automatically, almost without any awareness about it, influences our purchasing habits.


The use of subliminal messages dates back to the year 1957, when James Vicary, a market researcher, came up with this concept in advertising. In a movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey, he conducted an experiment in which he had the movie flash, "Drink Coca Cola" and "Eat Popcorn", just for few milliseconds, repeated for every five minutes. Obviously, people watching the movie could not perceive the messages as it was for a very short time to get noticed. However, the results in the later months were astonishing; the sales of Coca Cola shot up by 18% and that of popcorn by 58%. There were no strong official evidences about their effectiveness in advertising given by Vicary, so there is a general controversy that the story was fabricated. Nevertheless, this experiment led to a detailed study and analysis of this concept by advertising agencies. Later in the coming years, bans were imposed on them; however, that trend subsided very soon because any advertisement containing such subtle messages can be interpreted in two ways. This weakened the argument that such messages are "contrary to the societal structure and values." Hence, since then, they have been an integral part of every high-budget advertising campaign. The messages in ads that were banned in various cases were done so, because they tended towards obscenity or had very obvious double meanings.

It is a fact that subliminal messages are used extensively in media, and they are a part of today's consumerism-based society. Whether or not these are understood by a majority of the population, they cast an impression on the subconscious minds, and that too, very effectively. Issues about advertising ethics, and the message such advertisements send to the society have been an ongoing debate for years. And since we all agree to disagree, this debate continues. So, next time you watch one, give yourself a thought and check out how easily you are able to relate to things shown in it.