Subliminal Influence

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Subliminal Influence
Fact or Fiction?
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Public belief in subliminal
influence


75% of Americans believe that subliminal
messages are omnipresent in advertising,
and that they work (Rogers & Seiler,
1994).
Why?
◦ James Vicary’s alleged movie theater experiment
in 1957
◦ Wilson Brian Keys claims of planted images in
advertising
◦ Subliminals in Disney movies and other media
◦ Media spoofs of subliminals
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Allegations of subliminal influence

In the 2000 presidential
campaign, Republicans
ran a campaign ad that
included the
highlighted the word
“RATS” in the larger
word “DEMOCRATS.”
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Types of subliminal messages
1.
Embedded images: pictures or
words that are hidden or flashed
quickly (in 100ths of a second)
2.
Sub-audible messages: sounds or
words that are too faint to be heard,
or are played at extremely high
frequencies
3.
Electronically altered signals:
backward masking and other voice
alterations
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Definitions and
conceptualizations

Subliminal message

Supraliminal message

Below (sub) the
threshold (limen) of
human perception

A message that is
consciously recognized
and processed

◦ Example: a message
flashed so quickly that it
can’t be recognized.
◦ Example: an image so
faint that it is difficult to
see.
◦ Example: a sound played
so faintly that it can’t be
heard.
◦ Example: a sound that
is played quietly, yet is
still audible.
Embedding is a form of
subliminal influence.

Product placement is a
form of supraliminal
influence.
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supraliminal, not subliminal
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The early years: An urban
myth is born

James Vicary claimed to have
flashed the words “eat popcorn” and
“Drink Coca-Cola” on a movie
screen.

He claimed popcorn sales increased
58% and Coke sales increased 18%.

Vicary’s experiment was never
successfully replicated.

He later acknowledged the study
was a hoax (Advertising Age, 1962).
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Why the fascination?

The prospect of “mind
control” is frightening.

It’s fun to entertain
conspiracy theories.

The popular press
sensationalizes the
issue.

There are just enough
isolated cases to keep
the myth alive.
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Embedded text and images

Wilson Brian Keys
claimed to have found
phallic symbols in ads
for:
◦ Tanqueray gin

The mere existence of
subliminal images, does
not demonstrate their
effectiveness.
◦ Chivas Regal
◦ Ritz crackers
◦ Betty Crocker cake mix
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Embedding in a liquor ad

Can you find the
embedded text in this
Gilbey’s Gin ad?
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More embedding in liquor ads
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Disney embedding
Jessica (sans
underwear?) in
Who Framed
Roger Rabbit
 It is much more
likely that this was
a prank by a “cell
painter” than a
corporate
conspiracy

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More Disney embedding

The Little Mermaid
◦ A circumsized
sandcastle?
◦ The artist who painted
this scene claimed the
resemblance to a phallic
symbol was
unintentional
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And more…
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Methodological
shortcomings

lack of control groups

lack of double-blind
procedures

possibility of bias or cueing

lack of replication

lack of rigorous “blind”
review
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Product placement (a.k.a.
product planting)
Product placement is commonplace.
 Product placement is a form of
supraliminal persuasion.
 Product placement may be subtle, but
it is not subliminal.
 The brand’s sponsors want viewers to
recognize their brands.

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Product placement in action
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Subliminal priming

Subliminal priming has
been well documented in
controlled laboratory
settings.
◦ Stimuli can be perceived
or processed without
conscious awareness.


Commercial applications of
subliminal priming have not
been demonstrated.
◦ Flashing “Starbucks” will
not make a consumer buy
that brand of coffee.
Priming can produce
changes in beliefs,
attitudes, and behavior.
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Subliminal priming
Priming occurs when a
word is flashed quickly,
then masked or covered
up.
 The primed word is
shown too quickly to be
consciously recognized.
 The mask is removed
and subjects see how
quickly they recognize
the word.
 Subjects who are
primed recognize the
word faster than
subjects who are not
primed.

####
SALT
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A sample subliminal
priming study

Patton (1992) exposed “normal” and
“bulimia prone” females to one of three
subliminal messages:
◦ A. “Mama is leaving me” (Separation anxiety
message)
◦ B. “Mona is loaning it”
◦ C. “Mama is loaning it”

Afterward, the females were invited to
participate in a taste-test involving
crackers.

The “bulimia prone” females who were
exposed to message A ate twice as many
crackers as the females in the other two
groups.
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Cautions regarding subliminal
priming effects



The effects of priming are short-lived.
The subliminal prime must still be
perceived, even if perception is without
awareness.
There is no proof of commercial
viability.
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Final thoughts

If you stare at clouds long enough,
you will “see” something.

Beware of the fallacy that “presence”
implies “effectiveness.”

Even in controlled laboratory
settings, subliminal effects tend to
be weak and transitory.

Difficulty of proving a negative (e.g.
that there aren’t subliminals
everywhere)
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