What Is Subliminal Advertising?

Some consumers are concerned about businesses using covert methods to influence purchasing decisions. They fear that some of the methods used by the advertising media can have such an effect on the human psyche that a person might find themselves doing something they wouldn’t have done otherwise, like buying a product. In fact, so great was this fear that the Federal Trade Commission issued a complete ban on subliminal advertising in 1974. The method is general illegal today, but that doesn’t mean major brands might not skirt around the issue, finding ways to influence the public covertly.

What Is Subliminal Advertising?

Subliminal advertising involves what your senses can perceive consciously or subconsciously. To understand the subliminal definition, you should know that there are two kinds of stimuli: supraliminal stimuli, which are above the threshold of what the average human’s senses can consciously perceive, and subliminal stimuli, which are below the threshold of what the average human’s senses can consciously perceive. Subliminal stimuli register just beyond the limits of your conscious perception, which isn’t to say that you won’t perceive them at all. You can see, hear, feel, taste and smell subliminal stimuli, but they will be so subtle that you won’t be aware of them, unless you’re looking, of course. The idea is that, by passing messages right by your conscious awareness and straight to your subconscious, it is possible to directly influence you to do what the message wants you to do. It is understandable that, given this sensational idea, advertisers would want to try it out on potential customers.
The most well known example of subliminal advertising occurred in the 1950s. The psychologist James Vicary tried out an experiment in which he flashed certain images in front of moviegoers at a rapid rate. These images were meant to influence them to do things. One of them was the phrase, “Hungry? Buy popcorn!” which was flashed for barely three-thousandths of a second. At that rate, people wouldn’t consciously notice the phrase. However, they would register the message in their subconscious. The psychologist made the claim that popcorn sales went up by 50 percent after that message was shown to viewers – which would have been a great demonstration of the power of this kind of advertising if he hadn’t later admitted that his study was fraudulent.
So no one knows whether subliminal advertising works or not. It’s very difficult to perform a study of its effectiveness on, say, consumers and their buying decisions. Part of the reason is that it has been banned by the FTC. There are studies here and there that have drawn varying conclusions on the subject, but nothing is conclusive and the psychological community does not agree on the subject. The FTC itself didn’t ban subliminal advertising because it thought hidden messages in advertising were effective; rather, it considered this type of ad to be a highly deceptive kind of advertising and against the principles of the Bureau of Consumer Protection.
One thing the psychological community does agree on is the fact that these flashing images and other kinds of subliminal messages can easily be picked up by your subconscious and stick there for a long time. What no one agrees on is whether the information that sticks in your brain can influence your buying decisions in any way.

Different Types of Subliminal Messages

Subliminal stimuli can come in various forms, as long as they cannot be consciously perceived. However, when it comes to popular media, and especially advertising, there are three kinds of subliminal messages:
Subvisual Messages
Subvisual messages involve the quick flashing of visual cues. Usually, these cues are flashed for just a few milliseconds at a time so they cannot be consciously perceived. The only way you would be able to perceive them is if you could pause the video at that exact moment when the message flashes on the screen.
Subaudible Messages
These are audio cues inserted in audio messages. For example, you could put a low volume audio message within a much louder audio message, such as a song. The low volume audio message will not be consciously heard unless the louder source is removed, but it will definitely register in the subconscious.
Backmasked Messages
Backmasking is the practice of recording an audio message backward to play it forward and disguise the message within. Since the message is reversed when it is played, it will sound like meaningless garble when heard by the listener and they won’t be consciously aware of it. The only way they can hear the message is if they reverse the audio recording.

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