Think Twice. Look Again.
My best friend was reading this book entitled Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy by Martin Lindstrom. I scanned the book and asked if I could borrow it. I was really excited about this book because it basically involves psychology and advertising, plus shopping. One chapter of the book talked about subliminal messaging presented in different advertisements today. Lindstrom defined subliminal messages as “visual, auditory, or any other sensory messages that register just below out level of conscious perception and can be detected only by the subconscious mind.”
The controversy about subliminal messaging began in the year 1957 when James Vicary, a market researcher, had projected the words ‘Eat Popcorn’ and ‘Drink Coca-Cola’ for a duration of 1/3000 of a second for every five seconds during the span of the movie. It turns out that the popcorn and Coca-Cola sales increased by a huge percent. Five years later, Vicary admitted that none of this was true. So many people asked, does subliminal advertising work, or not? Today, there are still no official regulations and guidelines as to the existence of subliminal advertising.
Many of the subliminal messages presented to us today speak of sex. Two examples presented by the book is the advertisement by an English flooring company, D.J. Flooring and Pepsi.
The image on the right is an advertisement by D.J. Flooring in the Yellow Pages in the year 1995. The photo on the left side is an image of a woman holding a champagne glass. Turn this photo over (picture on the right), and you’ll see an image of woman masturbating.
In 1990, Pepsi’s specially designed Cool Cans were out in the market. These cans were said to have been stacked in a particular manner, and spelled out ‘SEX’.
One effect of subliminal messaging is one’s behavior on purchasing products and how much the person is actually willing to pay for it. There were two studies that presented that a brief exposure to either an image of a smiling face of a frowning face for sixteen milliseconds affected the amount of money the participants were willing to pay for a beverage. When the participants saw flashes of smiling faces, they were willing to pay twice as much for the drink compared to when they were flashed with frowning faces. The researchers coined this as the ‘unconscious emotion’, meaning that “a minute emotional change had taken place without the subjects being aware of either the stimulus that caused it or any shift in their emotional states.” In conclusion, smiling faces can indeed subconsciously get us to spend more.
Many other advertisements contain subliminal messages, and one question Lindstrom asks is “does this actually exert any influence on our behavior, or does it, like most product placements, get essentially ignored by our brains?” To answer this question, he and his colleagues conducted an experiment.
Lindstrom tested twenty smokers from the United Kingdom to find out if the subconsciously captured information necessarily affects our behavior. The main question in this study was to see if smokers were affected by images tied to a brand of cigarette but not explicitly linked to smoking.
During the two-month period of the experiment, the participants were asked to abstain from smoking at least two hours before the test. The purpose of this is to ensure that the nicotine levels of each participant were equal. The participants were first presented with subliminal messages, which had no overt connection to cigarette brands. Marlboro and Camel were specifically used for this study. Some of the images were a desert, a bright red Ferrari, cowboys, and sunsets.
For the second trial, the participants were shown explicit cigarette advertisements, such as Marlboro Man and Joe Camel on his motorbike, including their logos.
The results of the experiment showed that in the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the participants, both the explicit advertisements and subliminal images showed a pronounced response in the participants’ nucleus accumbens. This part of the brain is said to be related with reward, craving, and addiction. Moreover, when the brain scans were compared, it was found that there was actually more activity in the nucleus accumbens when the participants viewed the subliminal messages rather than the overt images. This suggests that subliminal advertising has a greater effect as compared to non-subliminal advertising.
Based on the study, subliminal advertising does work! One reason to explain this is that subliminal messages, which didn’t show any explicit logos, allowed the participants to let their guard down since they weren’t consciously aware of what they were actually viewing.
Our environment presents so much overt visual stimuli that these have to compete for our attention. But in my opinion, I guess we should be more careful about subliminal messaging since we are not fully aware (yet) of its capabilities and possible effects on our behavior. So remember to think twice before you buy something.
Written by: Justine Ng
- Lindstrom, M. (2008). I can’t see clearly now: Subliminal Messaging, Alive and Well. In M. Lindstrom, Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (pp. 68-87). New York: Broadway Books.