Consumers have been nervous about subliminal advertising ever since market researcher James Vicary inserted the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” into a movie back in 1957. The subliminal ads, he bragged, created a 18.1 increase in Coke sales and a 57.8 rise in popcorn sales.
Vicary’s subliminal advertising experiment turned out to be a hoax with made-up results, but new studies show that subliminal messaging actually does affect behavior.
Proof of Subliminal Advertising's Power
Take the 1999 Harvard study where subjects playing a computer game were exposed to a series of words shown for a few thousandths of a second at a time.
Even though the words flashed by too quickly to be noticed, subjects’ brains still registered the effect.
People who were shown words such as “wise,” “astute” and “accomplished” walked from the study room significantly faster than those who saw the words “senile,” “dependent” and “diseased.”
What’s so scary about this subliminal advertising, says Martin Lindstrom in his book Buyology, is that we can’t anticipate their effect. Say you’re driving down the highway and you see a billboard for Coca-Cola. It may set off a soft drink craving, but if you’re a smart consumer, you’ll know you’re being influenced by external forces and you can base your buying behavior on that knowledge.
Subliminal ads slip by our self-awareness undetected, so our decisions are less informed and our guards are often down. For this reason, subliminal advertising is more powerful than traditional advertising methods.
How Subliminal Advertising Works
In a different study, researchers showed smokers two sets of images. One set was associated with imagery from old cigarette commercials—attractive cowboys, the American west, and racing paraphernalia from NASCAR (long sponsored by Marlboro.)
The other set of images included obvious cigarette advertisements with logos and product photos.
The surprising results showed that the first, unbranded set of images actually showed more activity in brain’s craving centers—even though it was never explicitly tied to cigarettes.
The Final Word on Subliminal Advertising
Lindstrom calls the results chilling.
“It’s a little scary to find out that what we thought had the least to do with smoking is actually the most effective in making us want to smoke,” he says in Buyology, “and that the logo—what advertisers and companies have long endowed with almost mythic powers—in fact works the least well.”
Illustration courtesy of Ky and used under a Creative Commons license.