Subliminal advertising – myth or chance?

The idea to influence consumers without their awareness about it is not new. The tactic of targeted subliminal advertising has been controversial for many years.


Fraud and myth

Special attention was paid to the issue in 1957, when James M. Vicary was able to somehow demonstrate significant success in an experiment with a very short and therefore almost imperceptible implementation of the slogans “Drink Coca Cola” and “Eat popcorn” in a movie (Karremans, Stroebe, and Claus 2006). He reported an increase in sales of Coca Cola by 18.1%, while sales of popcorn increased by 57.7% (Brand 1978). However, some time after the publication of the results, it turned out that the experiment had never taken place and was only a public relations coup for Vicary’s marketing company (Bermeitinger et al. 2009; Pratkanis 1992). But even if a fraud was revealed at this point, most people still believe that subliminal manipulation is possible (Block and Vanden Bergh 1985; Merikle 1988; Synodinos 1988).

The current importance of the topic could have been observed, when there was some anger about a seemingly subliminal advertising attempt at the German TV show “The Voice of Germany” at the channel ProSieben ( 2012; Sieke 2012).

A more obvious subliminal advertising attempt happened at the ARIA Awards 2007, as can be seen in the given screenshot and the following video.



 It all depends on the right definition

Even amongst experts, there’s a big controversy. While it is more and more understood what a significant role subconscious effects play in the everyday life of consumers (Berger and Fitzsimons 2008; Dijksterhuis et al. 2005; Maimaran and Wheeler 2008; Sela and Shiv 2009), subliminal advertising is sometimes seen very critical or even classified as per se not possible (Broyles 2006; Moore 1982). The main controversy at the scientific side is about the correct definition of the research object and the associated different research methods (Pratkanis and Greenwald 1988). While some authors interpret “subliminal” very tight, so that the respective stimulus may not be noticeable even with great effort and knowledge about it (Broyles 2006), others define the term in a way, that the stimulus is theoretically quite noticeable, but on the subjective level not perceived (Schorn 2010) and not processed consciously (Bermeitinger et al. 2009; Chartrand and Bargh 1996). In the end, the question is whether the threshold for subliminal perception is the general possible perception or the subjectively conscious perception. However, a very strict definition, as in the first case, should be viewed critically from a practical point of view, as under this definition, a subliminal stimulus can never be recognized by consumers – either intentionally or unintentionally. Except this very narrow view, it is now accepted that a subliminal manipulation of individuals is possible – questionable is only the extent (Brintazzoli et al. 2012).


The subliminal manipulation of consumers is theoretically possible

Marketing and advertising in particular are based on the idea of influencing consumers (Homburg 2012). If the consumer recognizes the manipulation attempt, he usually will mentally protect himself against it and not react positively to the respective marketing tactics (Friestad and Wright 1994; van Reijmersdal 2009). With subliminal advertising, marketeers hope to circumvent this problem by concealing the influence attempt in a way that the consumer can not recognize and take precautions against it (Florack and Ineichen 2008). One would therefore specifically target only the subconscious mind, as at this state of mind, people are not aware of advertising stimuli and their effects (Krishnan and Chakravarti 1999).

The possible reactions are very versatile and promising. For example, via priming you can not only transfer feelings subconsciously from one stimulus to another object (Klauer and Musch 2001), but also activate goals, which are then automatically pursued by the consumer afterwards (Chartrand and Bargh 1996). A subconsciously induced change in the attitude towards a product (Janiszewski and Meyvis 2001; Krishnan and Shapiro 1996; Lee and Faber 2007) or even the actual product choice (Chartrand et al. 2008; Ferraro, Bettman, and Chartrand 2009) are other possible positive effects of a marketing tactic that bypasses the consciousness of the consumer.

Product placement can be categorized as subliminal advertising, if “subliminal” is defined in a way, it is at least theoretically possible.

In general, marketing tactics almost always lead to effects which can not be perceived and controlled by the consumers (Janiszewski 1988; Laran, Dalton, and Andrade 2011; Shapiro 1999). This raises the question of how and through which channels you can run targeted subliminal advertising (under the right definition). In everyday life consumers perceive countless advertising stimuli only subconsciously, because they are mostly focused on things other than advertising (MacInnis, Moorman, and Jaworski 1991). This usually happens regardless of the intent of each advertising company and is certainly also due to the fact that not all marketing techniques are perceived as influencing tactics (Laran et al. 2011). While some advertising like slogans are valued as a classic promotional tool, the mark itself is usually not per se classified as influencing attempt (Dimofte and Yalch 2007; Laran et al. 2011). The same applies to product placement in movies and television. Even product placement is clearly classified as a marketing tactic, it is often not consciously recognized or processed (Auty and Lewis 2004; Matthes, Schemer, and Wirth 2007). One reason is the fact that the actual content is the primary focus of the consumer (Lee and Faber 2007). Product placement is therefore almost on the same level with subliminal advertising (Balasubramanian 1994; D’Astous and Chartier 2000) – apart from very narrow definitions, as done by Broyles (2006). This is also consistent with the evaluation of consumers who classify product placement as a technique of subliminal advertising (Gupta and Balasubramanian 2000; Morton and Friedman 2002; Tiwsakul, Hackley, and Szmigin 2005). The fact that product placement is not perceived as an aggressive advertising campaign (given the right configuration), it tends to lead to less defensive reactions of consumers (Babin and Carder 1996; Brée 1996; D’Astous and Chartier 2000; Grigorovici and Constantin 2004), which also is the main objective of subliminal advertising.

However, you should bear in mind that consumers evaluate stimuli even on a subconscious state of mind and may show defensive reactions! Therefore, even the fact that one has tried to hide the advertising can lead to negative effects, if the consumer (unconsciously) evaluates this as an insidious influence attempt.



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Jens Kürschner

Author: Jens Kürschner

Jens Kürschner is founder and managing director of Placedise. As an expert in the field of consumer behavior and media enthusiast, he is especially responsible for the product know-how. In our blog, this knowledge and the experience of many years of research and study will be shared with you.

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