Q: Until this morning, I’d thought subliminal messages were prohibited by international and federal law. I’m sending this to all my friends in the United States and abroad. This is not a political issue; it’s a human rights issue. We’re all in danger. Please contact your representatives and tell them to enact legislation that prohibits subliminal messages. The Facebook and opioid scandals are nothing compared to this! When I Googled “subliminal messages in advertising,” I was shocked—it’s bragged about. Thank you and please pass on this warning.
A: I received the above email (with many others cc’d) in late 2018. Around the same time, I was informed by an acquaintance that she, too, was concerned about this threat. Not only had she heard of Donald Trump using subliminal ads to manipulate the public, but she claimed to have personally seen one. Several months earlier while casually watching television, she saw the single word Trump flash, quickly but noticeably, on her television screen. She said she called her cable company to complain, and she understood the representative to have admitted knowing about the subliminal ads and to have offered to have them turned off upon her request.
I was unable to verify any of this information, though I diplomatically noted two things: first, the fact that she noticed and recognized the word Trump meant that it was not in fact subliminal, since it was (apparently) clearly seen, read, and processed; and second, that merely seeing the single word Trump would not necessarily be a persuasive or positive “message” from an advertising or mass communications point of view. Trump’s name appears countless times each day in print, online, and elsewhere—sometimes positively, but more often negatively.1
To address this question, let’s look at the truths and myths surrounding subliminal advertising. Fear of the influence of advertising dates back over half a century and is tied specifically to fears about modern mass media. As psychologists Sergio Della Sala and Barry Beyerstein noted, the first fears about subliminal ads came from
a well-publicized case reported in 1957 by James Vicary, an advertising consultant, popularized the notion that visual or auditory messages, played while we are aware—but too weakly or rapidly to be consciously perceived—could still affect consumer or voter preferences and produce therapeutic changes in people’s behavior. The technique is called “subliminal messaging.” Vicary claimed that by flashing the message “eat popcorn” or “drink Coke” on a cinema screen, too briefly for it to be noticed by the theater patrons, he had dramatically increased subsequent sales at the snack bar. (Della Sala and Beyerstein 2007, xxiii)
Vicary claimed that for six weeks during the summer of 1957 he showed subliminal ads to more than 45,000 people in a Fort Lee, New Jersey, theater. Popcorn sales at the concession stand popped an additional 57 percent after people subliminally saw the words “eat popcorn,” and soda sales increased about 18 percent. Vicary made the announcement in a September 12, 1957, press release. Vicary, notably, offered no proof whatsoever of his dubious achievement, but it didn’t matter. The public was alarmed by this sneaky Svengali act, and Congress opened up inquiries into this powerful—and possibly illegal—technique. Five years later, in 1962, Vicary admitted in an interview for Advertising Age magazine that his experiment had been bogus; it was all part of a marketing stunt, a gimmick to gain him national notoriety and clients. Indeed, “Vicary had in fact collected little or no evidence of this kind, and later attempts to replicate his alleged effect failed conclusively” (Della Sala and Beyerstein 2007, xxiii).
Vicary’s subliminal hoax was widely promoted, including in the book The Hidden Persuaders by anti-consumerist critic Vance Packard, cementing the fear that seemingly ordinary images contained hidden messages. Two decades later Wilson Bryan Key, in his influential and best-selling 1973 book Subliminal Seduction, picked up the alarmist theme and claimed that advertisers secretly embedded images of sex and death in their ads to manipulate people into buying their products.
Our own Martin Gardner noted:
This tendency of chaotic shapes to form patterns vaguely resembling familiar things is responsible for one of the most absurd books ever written about advertising: Subliminal Seduction, by journalist Wilson Bryan Key. The Signet paperback had on its cover a photograph of an ice-filled cocktail with the caption “Are you sexually aroused by this picture?” It was the author’s contention that hundreds of advertising photographs are carefully retouched to “embed” concealed pictures designed to shock your unconscious and thereby help you remember the product. The hidden pictures include words ranging from sex to the most taboo of four-letter words, but there are also phallic symbols and all sorts of other eroticisms. In the ice-cube in an ad for Sprite, the author professed to see a nude woman cohabiting with a shaggy dog. It’s hard to imagine anyone taking this nonsense seriously, especially since the author’s many references to “recent studies” never disclosed where they took place or who the experimenter was. (Gardner 1985)
In the 1980s, concern over subliminal messages spread to bands such as Styx and Judas Priest, with the latter band even being sued in 1990 for allegedly causing a teen’s suicide with subliminal messages (the case was dismissed).
To be clear, from a psychological point of view subliminal mental processing does exist and can be tested. But just because a person perceives something (an advertisement or the word Trump, for example) subconsciously means very little by itself. There is no inherent benefit of subliminal advertising over regular advertising, any more than there would be in seeing a flashed glimpse of a Coke commercial instead of the full twenty seconds. Getting a person to see something for a split-second is easy; filmmakers do it all the time. Getting a person to buy or do or support something based on that split-second is another matter entirely. (The conspiracy was parodied in the 1980s television show Max Headroom, in which viewers were exploding after seeing subliminal messages called “blipverts.”) Veteran ad man Bob Garfield summed up the matter in a column for Advertising Age: “Subliminal advertising does not exist except in the public’s consciousness, at least not in consumer advertising. Nobody bothers with it because it’s hard enough to impress people by hitting them upside the head” with clear, loud, and blatant messages and images (quoted in Della Sala and Beyerstein 2007).
Subliminal advertising was based on a marketing hoax, but fear sows conspiracy and distrust. Using Google to search for information on “subliminal advertising” does not, of course, constitute research into its validity; confirmation bias will guide those predisposed to conspiracy and alarmism to all they need to confirm its truth. And the last thing lawmakers need are an alarmed public demanding they enact laws over phantom fears; there are enough real problems in the world. Trump can be credibly accused of many things, but persuading people to like him through subliminal advertising is not among them.
- If merely seeing or reading the word Trump caused people to admire or support him, it would have had an effect years ago. Seeing the name of a person with little name recognition repeated (subliminally or otherwise) during a campaign might help that person in polls—compared to another political rival no one’s heard of—but in 2019 after decades of branding everything from steaks to resorts to scandal-shuttered universities, Trump’s name is well known.
- Della Sala, Sergio, and Barry Beyerstein. 2007. Introduction: The myth of 10% and other tall tales about the mind and brain. In Sergio Della Sala (ed.), Tall Tales about the Mind and Brain, New York: Oxford University Press.
- Gardner, Martin. 1985. The great stone face and other nonmysteries. Skeptical Inquirer 10(1)(Fall).