Subliminal Messages

Hazel McCallion Senior Public School
Mississauga, Ontario

By Romtin H. (Grade 7)

How many times have you been sitting in a movie theatre when suddenly you get a tremendous craving for popcorn? You get up, run to the popcorn booth and buy a jumbo popcorn and a medium Coke. As you are sitting in your seat shovelling the popcorn into your mouth and ferociously licking your fingers which are dripping with butter, you suddenly stop and ask yourself "Why did I buy this?"

Subliminal messages are hidden messages that are made to act on your subconscious mind. They are an attempt to make you think or want something without you even realizing it. These hidden messages can be transmitted by images flashing extremely fast on a screen, in pictures within pictures, in themes, or even in slogans.

In the mid 1950's, a market researcher named James Vicary used the first subliminal message. Vicary's goal was to make people want popcorn and coke by flashing "eat popcorn" and "drink Coke" very briefly on a screen during a movie. Vicary claimed that the sales of popcorn went up by 57.5% and the sales of Coke rose by 18.1%.

Many advertisers at the time were interested in Vicary's claims. However, scientific researchers, government officials, and consumers in general, felt that the use of subliminal messages was immoral and unacceptable. Since experts were never able to prove that subliminal messages worked, the controversy that Vicary's report created soon died down.

It was not until the 1970's that people started talking about subliminal messages again. Wilson Bryan Key, a professor at the University of Western Ontario, conducted a great deal of research on subliminal perception and discovered that subliminal messages were used in almost all advertisements. The most common types of hidden messages were either sex images, or images of violence and self destruction.

For example, Key found that the ice cubes in the Johnny Walker Scotch ads had images of screaming faces, skulls, and other horrific images. These types of images were in dreams experienced by alcoholics. After seeing these ads in Key's presentations, alcoholics who hadn't drunk for years suddenly had an urge to have a drink.

According to Key, sex was something that interested everyone and therefore sexual images would have a subconscious influence on the consumers choice.

The explanation of the use of self-destructive images was more complicated. Key claims that all humans have an inherent idea of self-destruction. Therefore, images of self-destruction would subconsciously influence the individual.

The types of hidden messages being used in the 90's are very different from Vicary's words flashing briefly on a screen or Key's pictures within a picture. Advertising is now full of images, symbols, colours, words and body language that send out hidden messages related to the consumers cultural background and personal experiences. For example, advertisers are not allowed to portray doctors advertising over-the-counter medicines. To create an image of credibility they use actors in white smocks because in many societies consumers associate white smocks with doctors. Also, the beer companies that aim their advertising mainly at poor members of minority groups use the cobra, bull, dragon, tiger, stallion and pit bull to convey their messages. "The idea is to sell wildness and power to the powerless". (U. S. News & World Report, "Hostility among the icecubes", July 15, 1991.)

Some products in which subliminal messages have been used are beer products, like Labatt’s, beverages, like Coke, tobacco products, alcohol products, food products (especially popcorn), pharmaceutical products and sports equipment. A good example of a subliminal slogan is the slogan known world-wide for Nike, "Just do it". This is an example of subliminal advertising in slogans. The phrase "Just do it" could have many meanings, depending on the personal experience or cultural background of the individual who reads it. To a crazy man, it could mean just go out and kill everyone you see. On the other hand, to a teenager, it could mean just do whatever you want to do, even drop out of school, there are no rules.

Many studies have been conducted to determine the effect of subliminal messages on people's behaviour. In 1970, a scientist named D. Hawkins discovered that after showing the word "Coke" subliminally to a group of people, their thirst craving was not greater than that of a group who had been shown a word that meant nothing.

In a 1976 study, psychologist, Lloyd Silverman came to the conclusion that subliminal perception does in fact exist. However, there was no valid evidence to prove that subliminal advertising can influence consumers.

In a London study conducted in the 1970's, psychologists asked a group of people to choose one of three brands of beer, X, Y, or Z. These people were then divided into three groups to compare the effects of direct and subliminal advertising. The first group was shown the words "DRINK BRAND X" on a screen above the television they were watching. A second group saw the same message flashed subliminally on the T.V screen, while a third group saw no message at all. A week later, the members of all three groups were asked again to choose from the three brands of beer, X, Y, and Z. In the group who had not seen any advertising, the preferences did not change. For those who saw the message directly, brand X became somewhat more popular. While in the group who saw the message subliminally, the popularity of brand X dropped slightly. The results were obvious, there is no proof that subliminal advertising can, without a doubt, influence consumers.

Other studies done by a group of scientists showed that the mood of the individual also determined the effect of the subliminal message on that person. For example, a thirsty person was more likely to be influenced by a beer message than a person who had just had a drink.

Consumers seem to have become more aware of subliminal advertising in the last two decades. A 1983 survey in the Journal of Advertising showed that people believe that subliminal advertising is often used and that it does sell products. They also believe that subliminal advertising is harmful and should not be used as an advertising technique.

Presently, there are no rules regulating the use of subliminal messages in advertising in Canada. The only time a subliminal message was ever found was in a 1973 television ad, and because of this incident, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission decided to ban the use of hidden messages. The regulations were scrapped in the early 80's because there was no scientific proof that subliminal messages actually worked. Since then, there have been no regulations at all in the use of hidden messages.

People should be aware of the way hidden messages can be used in advertising. This way they will not be manipulated by the sneaky advertisements that may be out there, because, although there have been many studies conducted, the question still remains unanswered, "Do subliminal messages exist in advertising or do they not?"


Adams, V; "Return of a hidden persuader", Psychology Today. May, 1982.

Key, Bryan; The clam-plate orgy. Signet. New York. 1981

Leo, John; "Hostility among the ice cubes", U.S. News & World Report. July 15, 1991.

Marney, Jo; "Consumers see what they want to in ads"Marketing. March 19, 1984

Stevens, Dave; "the secret of the lamp", Alberta Report. May 22, 1995.

Wright, Colin; "Dristan Ads are blatantly subliminal" Marketing. December 9, 1985

"Advertising: Devilish?". Newsweek. October 14, 1957.

"The invisible sell". Science America. August 1958.

"The blatant persuaders". The Economist. June 29, 1991.

"Secret Voices. Messages that manipulate". Time. September 10, 1979.

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