Subliminal Messaging Moves Beyond Sex
After my last blog two people asked me the same question. “Just curious,” they said, “but how effective is subliminal advertising?” Good question. It’s an ongoing debate. Some camps debunk it totally, but recent research is keeping the discussion alive.
The Skeptic’s Dictionary and Snopes say that there is no evidence subliminal messaging works. Early “evidence” turned out to be a hoax and has never been verifiable, most notably a 50s study that said subliminal messaging increased popcorn and Coke sales.
But for decades the discussion about subliminal advertising has not been about junk food; it has centered on the twin obsessions of sex and selling. The unproven assumption has been that hidden sexual messages trick us into buying. Culture sleuths point out that sex riddles advertising. It is represented in titillating photos (check out any New York Times Magazine). Supposedly, the word “sex” is even hidden in an ad for the (gasp!) United Methodist Church.
Still I have to ask, why even bother with the subliminal in this way? Many ads are so explicit that they hardly need a subliminal sexual reference. And I see the hidden word “sex” as a Rorschach inkblot test. You will find what you want to find. It says more about who is looking at the ad than the Mad Men (and women) of Madison Avenue.
Recent studies are finally moving beyond sex and selling. There is growing evidence that subliminal messaging does influence people. It is just subtler than we thought. And this is where I think it gets more interesting (okay, sex and selling is still kind of interesting).
In a recent experiment, Duke University wanted to see if subliminal exposure to well-known logos influenced future behavior. They found the people exposed to the Apple logo were more creative on a future test than people exposed to the IBM logo. The idea here is that subliminal exposure to a brand’s identity influenced behavior associated with that brand identity. Apparently, you are what you are exposed to.
Subliminal messaging does have advantages. Faced with an ever-growing number of messages, we are developing defense mechanisms to marketing. But subliminal messages don’t trigger these defense mechanisms. Furthermore, we usually think our own thoughts are the best. The subliminal can trick us into thinking a thought is actually ours (as the bumper sticker I saw last week warned: you don’t have to believe everything you think).
But one thing is needed for subliminal messaging to work on any level, as a University College London study found. You must be paying attention. The subliminal doesn’t stand a chance of influencing you unless you are tuned in to what is hiding the subliminal. This is why product placement is popular. You pay attention to movies and TV shows. You follow the story, and you don’t tune out the background as products glide by.
Is subliminal advertising effective? You better believe marketers are experimenting. Be careful what you are paying attention to. You may be seeing more than you know.