Does Subliminal Advertising Really Work?

The term “subliminal advertising” was coined by market researcher James Vicary. It is the technique of exposing a person to products without the person being consciously aware of it. In theory, once exposed to the subliminal (subconscious) message, the person decodes the message and acts upon it while never knowing anything happened.

In 1957, a bestselling book, The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard, warned of advertising camouflaging psychological “subthreshold effect” to stimulate us to buy things against our conscious will. Vicary conducted an experiment to test the extent of this effect: Over a 6-week period, more than 45,000 people were exposed to a subliminal message flashed on a screen of a suburban New Jersey theatre that lasted for 3/1000 of a second. The message read “Eat Popcorn and Drink Coca-Cola.:” Vicary claimed that popcorn sales rose 57% and Coca-Cola sales rose 18%, though he never published his results. Nevertheless, a more than 50-year controversy was launched that continues today.

In books such as Subliminal Seduction (1974) and The Age of Manipulation (1992), Wilson Bryan Key has argued that subliminal messages permeate advertisements, especially sexually suggestive messages. All sorts of examples are presented.

While some experts agree, most researchers have denied that subliminal advertising works. Deniers such as market psychologist T.E. Moore offer two chief reasons. First, subliminal messages are weak and are usually not even perceived. Second, even if perceived, people don’t do what they consciously don’t want to do. There is no such thing as a Manchurian Candidate Consumer.

Controversy continues. A fascinating recent experiment found that people who claim to have so-called ESP (extra-sensory perception) may also be more susceptible to subliminal messages. In 2002, a team of researchers led by Susan Crawley reported on their results of tests of people using Zener cards, which for years have been used to test for ESP. Each Zener card displays 1 of 5 symbols: A circle, a cross, a square, a star or 3 wavy lines. The subjects sat in front of a computer monitor displaying the back of a Zener card. They pressed a key to choose which symbol they thought was on the face of the card. Then they got to see the card’s face. What subjects didn’t know was that they were also exposed to the correct answer flashed on the screen subliminally at 14.3 milliseconds before they made their choice. This is supposedly too fast for most people to perceive. However, it was found that people who claimed ESP abilities were able to subconsciously pick up on the clue, and as a result they scored better than chance at predicting which symbol would appear. This study lends support to both the existence of ESP and the power of subliminal messages to change behavior.

Why Do So Many People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?

In our global village, we respond to shocking news events in many ways including trying to make sense of them in emotional, moral, spiritual, political and scientific terms. When such an event happens such as President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Princess Diana’s death or 9/11, we look for its explanation and meaning. When the explanation is not clear, the meaning is not clear, so confusion arises to compound the emotional upset. Conspiracy theories are satisfying since they place events in an understandable context and help us deal with events intellectually and emotionally.

Conspiracy theories emerge when flawed logic combines with evidence that is lacking, disputed or contradictory. This can be exploited by mythmakers, mischief makers and attention-seekers. But genuine researchers, investigators and truth-seekers may offer explanations for the event. The situation is not helped when governments withhold or fabricate information for “reasons of state.” All governments keep secrets. Often a government’s explanation for an event in itself can become a conspiracy theory, such as 9/11.

Once a conspiracy theory is formulated, it can continue through the momentum of a confirmation bias. This occurs when the believer accepts all evidence that confirms the theory while rejecting all that does not.

Conspiracy thinking is embraced by a surprisingly large proportion of the population. Some 69% of Americans believe President John F. Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy. Sixty per cent of UK adults believe that Princess Diana was murdered. Sixty per cent of US adults believe that the US government is withholding information about 9/11. According to Scripps News/Ohio University poll, 36% of respondents suspected that the US government played a role in 9/11.


Which types of conspiracy theories are more likely to be believed?

In general, with all of the ingredients necessary for a conspiracy theory present, the more tragic the outcome of an event the more likely people are to believe it was the result of a conspiracy. This is what researchers found in a paper presented to the British Psychological Society in 2003. The researchers also found that if people become distanced from institutions of power and state, they are more likely to distrust official accounts.


Are conspiracy theories ever good for you?

According to some in the field of evolutionary psychology, conspiracy theories can be good for you. It is argued that paranoid tendencies are associated with an animal’s ability to recognize danger. Higher animals attempt to construct mental models of the thought processes of both rivals and predators in order to read their hidden intentions and predict future behavior. This ability is valuable in sensing and avoiding danger in the animal community. But so far there has been no gene found for such “alertness.”

Why are People So Often in Denial?

In the psychological sense, denial is a defense mechanism in which a person, faced with a painful fact, rejects the reality of that fact. They will insist that the fact is not true despite what may be overwhelming and irrefutable evidence.

There are three forms of denial:

  1. Simple denial is when the painful fact is denied altogether.
  2. Minimization denial is when the painful fact is admitted but its seriousness is downplayed.
  3. Transference denial is when the painful fact is admitted, the seriousness also admitted, but one’s moral responsibility in the situation involving the painful fact is downplayed.

When a person is in denial, they engage in distractive or escapist strategies to reduce stress and help them cope. The effect on their psychological well-being is unclear.

The concept of denial was formulated by Sigmund Freud and greatly elaborated on by his daughter Anna Freud in the second volume of her eight-volume Writings of Anna Freud. The concept has been around for many decades.

Denial is an important factor in public health. Based on a study of cancer patients, researchers report that up to 47% of patients deny the fact that they have been diagnosed with cancer; up to 70% deny the impact of the diagnosis upon their lives; and up to 42% deny that it has any effect upon their feelings. The researchers noted that from a psychoanalytical viewpoint, denial is a pathological, ineffective defense mechanism. On the other hand, according to the stress and coping model, denial can be seen as an adaptive strategy to protect against overwhelming events and feelings. Therein lies the appeal of denial to humans.‌

Denial allows someone to keep going unchanged despite reality. Denial is the path of psychological and moral least resistance. In such a psychological state, people are not at their reasoning best – easily confused, manipulated and fooled.

Are There People Who Cannot Experience Pleasure?

Apart from some people who are just plain grumpy, there is also a psychiatric condition known as anhedonia. With anhedonia there is the total absence of experiencing pleasure in the things that are normally pleasurable to everyone else. No matter what a person says, does or thinks, they do not receive any pleasure from it at all! Anhedonia literally means “without pleasure.”

Anhedonia is sometimes seen in schizophrenics and epileptics, and is one of the earliest signs of a variety of neuroses. According to one theory of anhedonia, it occurs when the person’s own psychological reward-value system is somehow blocked. They become emotionally numb to any pleasurable feelings at all. They are in for a pretty miserable life. It seems that all sorts of things can block the reward-value system.

One of these is witnessing trauma, violence and the suffering of others. In a study of US combat veterans now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), researchers report that many with PTSD also suffer emotional numbing and (you guessed it) anhedonia. Woody Allen’s 1977 film Annie Hall was originally entitled “Anhedonia.” In the film, Allen’s character remarks that his belief is that life can be described as moving between the terrible and the horrible. Sure sounds like anhedonia alright!