We’ve probably all seen a television sitcom or cartoon in which a company uses subliminal messages to entice unwitting viewers into buying their product. After all, who can forget the hilarious Simpsons episode where Bart joins a boy band, only for Lisa to realise that his hit song “Yvan eht nioj” is actually “Join the Navy” sung backwards? This episode plays on the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s obsession with ‘satanic’ rock bands embedding subliminal messages into backwards music lyrics. Remember – wasn’t Paul supposed to be dead?
Since subliminal advertising often makes an appearance in pop culture and moral panics, it’s easy to write them off as pure fiction – but not so fast! Many companies do in fact use subliminal messaging in their branding and adverts, but in much less nefarious ways.
What is a subliminal message and how does it work?
Simply put, a subliminal message is a message that is meant to sort of ‘slip past your mental radar’ and embed itself deep into your subconscious mind. The word itself refers to the fact that this message should pass below (that is, sub) your normal perception, underneath its limits – therefore being liminal.
The most classic examples of subliminal advertising and messaging include:
- Embedding a message in a song, either in the higher or lower frequencies or by singing something backwards
- Words and images briefly flashing in between frames of film, usually at one tenth of a second
- Drawings or photos that contain hidden or subtle images, such as words spelled out in clouds in the background
The way a subliminal message works is to embed a message into the reader or viewer's mind without it being immediately noticeable and gradually works over a period of time. A big example of this is in the 1988 John Carpenter film They Live, where the protagonist finds a pair of glasses that allows him to see the real intent behind advertising messages, such as money, billboards and magazines, and that a secret society of aliens is planning on brainwashing the population after impersonating high authority figures.
Are subliminal messages actually effective?
Psychologists and scientists have not yet come to a full consensus about whether subliminal messages are actually effective at convincing people to do or want things that they would otherwise not want. While some people are convinced that subliminal messages do indeed work wonders, it seems that when they do make a change; it is down to the placebo effect.
However, some double-blind studies show that embedded images do affect actions and behaviours. The effect lasts a very short time, and even then, only marginally. While the jury is still out on their efficacy, that hasn’t stopped advertisers and corporations from trying to harness their potential power.
1. FedEx’s legendary arrow
Federal Express (usually shortened to FedEx) is a worldwide delivery company based in Atlanta, Georgia. Their iconic logo is more than just a clear and legible spelling of their name – it includes a subtle arrow between the E and the X, indicating that they are raring to go!
2. Amazon’s smile
At first glance, the Amazon logo looks like it is underlined by a smile, but look closer – the smile is actually a kind of arrow! The smile at the bottom of the ‘AMAZ’ includes an arrowhead, starting at the A and ending with the Z. This shows you that they sell everything you need, from A to Z.
3. Joe Camel’s ‘Manly’ Face
This is by far the most legendary example of subliminal advertising and one that is brought up again and again. Joe Camel, the former mascot for Camel cigarettes, has a very bulbous nose that clearly resembles male anatomy. This was meant to make these cigarettes seem macho and strong.
4. Coca Cola’s shapely bottle
The shape of the glass Coca Cola bottle is one of the most recognisable shapes on the planet, but many people believe that it is designed to look like a shapely woman. It certainly is curvy!
5. Disney and Pirates of the Caribbean
Despite its beginnings as a ride at Disneyland, some people forget that Pirates of the Caribbean is a Disney franchise. The posters for these films want to help you remember! The skull of Captain Jack Sparrow has 2 torches behind it, reminiscent of the head of Mickey Mouse. This image was hugely popular, and was featured on posters and t-shirts – a clear example of how subliminal advertising can even end up being used for fabric printing!
6. Toyota mixes up their letters
Looking at the Toyota logo, you can see that it is made up of different letters that make up the word itself. This helps to reinforce and remind viewers of their brand.
7. Gilbey’s Gin
Some of you might remember when naughty British gin brand Gilbey’s tried to take subliminal advertising to a very literal level in the 1970s. They got in trouble for positioning ice cubes so that they clearly read “Sex.”
8. SFX Magazine does, too
SFX Magazine is dedicated to the world of visual effects in film, but they can definitely be a bit cheeky when positioning subject matter on their cover. By obscuring the bottom of the F, the magazine appears to be titled “Sex.”
9. Baskin Robbins’ 31 Flavours
This logo design is actually quite brilliant – the number 31 is slyly included in the initials B and R. Seeing as Baskin Robbins is famous for their 31 flavours of ice cream, this is a great way to get customers to crave their product!
10. Tostitos wants you to share with friends
This brand of tortilla chips may be relatively new to the UK, but they sure know how to make their brand seem fun and friendly. Look at the letters T, I and T in the centre of their logo – they form a pair of friends, bonding over a bowl of chips and salsa.
Commonly Asked Questions
What is subliminal in simple words?
Limen in Latin means threshold - below the threshold of the consciousness, and if you ever go to the cinema for example, and the slogan "Eat Popcorn" appears on screen, the viewer may feel tempted to order and eat popcorn. Half the time, subliminal messages are simple but effective, and other times it requires a second glance, such as what is mentioned above with popular company logos.
What are the three types of subliminal messages?
- Subliminally presented stimuli - stimuli that lie below the subconscious mindset. We are not initially aware of this.
- Subliminal perception - what subliminally presented stimuli target, to infiltrate through our five senses, and defy our initial perception.
- Subliminal processing - the end goal of subliminal messaging, is to get the individual to invest in their product e.g. drink a bottle of coke, buy a magazine for an interview with this celebrity, etc.
What is a subliminal message in social media?
A way of effective marketing without drawing too much attention to yourself. This can be used through the effectiveness of a company's logo, and the more a user sees the logo, the easier it will be to be embedded within their consciousness, and another effective technique is an "easter egg," where viewers who are interested in a particular brand are going to notice a particular, repeated feature in a product the more they become invested in it.
How do subliminal messages affect the brain?
Although it is not brainwashing, subliminal messaging affects behavioural changes, and entirely depends on the audience's attention to detail. The primary visual cortex of the brain, eyes, for example, will absorb particular images that are seen in everyday life, and then the subliminal messaging absorbed from particular images will slowly integrate themselves within the brain, and the next time an individual sees a certain image or brand, will gradually recognise it more and will be more likely to invest in it. The behavioural change here is recognisability, and gradually choosing whether to accept or reject this.