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Is subliminal advertising real?

Can Subliminal Messages control me? Myth, magic or just plain mumbo-jumbo?

Some wonder if behind the scenes, big corporate brands, political campaigns and powers in Ivory Towers are in control of the planet. They twist the dials, flick switches and use psychology to get whatever they want...

Could this be done without our knowledge? Could advertisers use subliminal messages, against which the masses are but powerless followers?

What about a political campaign? Could they implant a subtle idea which we might react to? Yes of course, they try it all the time; it’s called "advertising".  A perusal of the internet will land you with many examples where this will be the case.

There is some confusion though. James Vicary's "Coca Cola" experiment attempted to prove subliminal advertising works, but cooked the statistics and later had to recant. It had created such a stir that the US Congress had already enacted legislation to ban their use. Many were left thinking that this meant that there was subliminal messaging didn't exist. But they were stone cold wrong. Since then research has proven they are real and are extremely powerful. You'll find most of the work in the US National Library of Medicine.

Subliminal manipulation in advertising

Advertisers will try to manipulate us in many ways. The most common you know already:

  • They will show you a sexy person driving a car. You think it's a good idea to buy the car merely through association. They will show you a puppy romping around in a sea of toilet paper to make the toilet paper somehow seem less like toilet paper but more cute and fun. Make no mistake though association, no matter how subtle is extremely influential. Our entire worldview is framed by the associations we make.
  • They will use words, sounds and imagery to illicit an emotional response and make you feel things that might or might not have something to do with the product or service they're selling.
Advertisers will go to any lengths to influence us emotionally and form associations in our mind with their brand, product or service. If not, every advert would be a very dull announcement: "Here's this thing. You can buy it here and it costs you this." Rather you'll find that advertising will play on your fears, pity, unconscious prejudices and insecurities. They will tap into your aspirations, hopes, success, love, sense of excitement... all of which are emotional therefore routed deeply in your subconscious brain. In this sense, the sole job of a marketing campaign is to trigger subconscious responses, and yes, advertisers will layer in as much associations they possible can without you noticing.

We realise why we're constantly barraged by puppies, monkeys and babies.

We are at least on some level aware of this manipulation. Our conscious mind is given an opportunity to filter through the information, especially when we are exposed to information meant to manipulate us or are contrary to our beliefs.

BUT: Often we're not. When the message passes us by but still influences us nonetheless. This is by its very definition nothing else but subliminal advertising!

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When you are exposed to advertising, you are rather complicit in the influence - you realise you're looking at an advert where you know it's the job of the advert to influence you. You are also aware that you didn't choose the message or the message, whatever it is may be out of alignment with what believe.

There is a limit to subliminal messaging in advertising

Fortunately, a subliminal message is not a once off magical symbol or whisper. It cannot control the conscious mind directly or flick a switch or command you to do anything. When you think of subliminal messaging as a discrete set of messages which one might find in a self-improvement programme - then in this regard, subliminal messaging in advertising does not exist.

There are three very practical reasons for this:

  • Subliminal messaging only works if you're actively involved in the process, and respond to the priming.
  • Subliminal messaging requires repeated and exhaustive exposure. Repetition over weeks and months for hours each day. There is no advertising budget on the planet which could achieve the level of media domination required for this.
  • You don't like being manipulated against your will. In fact you react very poorly to it. You would not follow along if you knew a brand was trying to influence you without you being complicit. In fact, you'd get very angry and probably do the opposite. e.g. Have you ever been caught out by an advertorial? (You know, where an advert is disguised as a news article. You felt negative feelings toward the brand, right?). Well, your subconscious is you! Your subconscious mind is just hidden from you because of the structure and evolution of your brain. It still is you - in fact, it is the very place from which this emotional reaction comes from. Should the above ever happen (which it can't and won't) it would take your subconscious quite some time to 'cotton on' to the additional stimuli hidden in the advertising - but soon you would find yourself naturally just doing the opposite, most likely disliking the brand and not knowing why.

So what can subliminal messages do?

Your subconscious mind is a pervasive influence in your life, and it fuels your thoughts, behaviours and decisions. It is the most powerful part of you. Subliminal messages can speak directly to your subconscious mind to raise your awareness and prime your consideration set. (A consideration set refers to all the things that occur to you, which are spontaneously a part of your awareness, and from which you choose).  Subliminal messages can also alter your emotional reaction. But this is where the power of subliminal messaging stops. It is still the role of your conscious mind to select behaviours and make decisions.

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This is where most self-development programmes which use subliminal messaging fall down. You may want to choose A over B – but without your conscious effort to reinforce this behaviour or decision from within you, your results are minimal.

Rather, subliminal messaging works by installing the components of a formulated idea into your subconscious, but it cannot manifest this idea without the help of your conscious mind; your conscious effort, awareness and intent. They can prepare you to act or feel, but does not cause or drive the real change. It is only when the conscious mind works toward congruence both emotionally and intellectually with the deeper self that true and dramatic change happens.

This means advertisers can't do anything little more than raise your awareness, make buying their brand feel good (for no real reason sometimes), and keep their brand within your consideration set - they cannot force you subliminally to buy. But this means that sadly that one cannot outsource often difficult journeys of self-development. There is no magical switch. No matter how self-improvement experts might market themselves - you know it's not true. There are no words which can magically control you. Only you can decide.

Deep down you know this to be true.

Advertisers know this too.

Subliminal influence is a pretty nuanced idea to grasp. Think of your dreams. They are nothing more or less than your subconscious thoughts left to go haywire while your conscious mind rests. Your dreams can sometimes enlighten and influence you; they do not control you.

Subliminal messages: Priming emotion and consideration

In truth, subliminal messaging primes the feelings and behaviours you desire. In other words, they make you open to the possibility of real change. The messages suggest to you at a very deep level that there is a new way of being, alternative attitudes and different ways of perceiving your environment. So while subliminal messaging is a powerful motivator, it can only plant an idea in your head. It is you who interprets this idea further and puts it into action. It’s just a lot easier to get to this point when the deepest recesses of your mind are on your side. The final decision and action is yours. In this sense, subliminal messaging cannot control you.

There is a flip side. I told you why subliminal messaging won't work in advertising. But this is still exciting because if you actively engaged with the subliminal messages; if you are willing to change and give your subconscious mind enough repetition, then there is nothing you can't achieve in your life. Tony Robbins was a pioneer of the use of subliminal messaging for the purposes of self-help, and is often heard speaking about firing up one’s emotions, “getting pumped up” and doing everything you can to put yourself in a position where the ideas (which are installed by subliminal messaging) can become embedded into your psyche.

Let's break this down by way of the classic example:

When following a subliminal programme aimed at overcoming shyness, it might seem that you are magically becoming less shy and magically confident. What is actually happening is that the programme suggests to you that it’s okay not to be shy or that others may enjoy your company. Subliminal messages temporarily prime new options and things to consider. They have to be realistic and ordinarily achievable. They also suggest new emotional responses, and those responses surface as they would your own thoughts. By this time, they are your own. (In an fMRI exam they even behave and appear the same). The option to walk across the room is now an option. The option is also less scary than before. It's a real option. It is the individual who acts upon this desire to come out of his/her shell; the when and how, are conscious decisions.

In short, subliminal messaging sets the scene for change. It breaks down barriers in your mind and makes associations and triggers emotional responses. This is true of both advertising and self-help subliminals. But it is you, your conscious mind, which remains in full control.

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