Subliminal Persuasion 101: Is it everything it’s cracked up to be?

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subliminal persuasion 101
Is subliminal persuasion powerful?

Do you wonder if subliminal persuasion is everything it’s cracked up to be? Do you want to know if subliminal messages work?

When you start to investigate how effective subliminal persuasion is, you discover that the results vary from study to study – at times wildly different.

This is in spite of the potential for subliminal persuasion to be a “game-changer” in the fields of advertising, politics and world domination.

This article aims to answer many of the questions and myths surrounding subliminal messaging. Perhaps the most important question that we want to answer is if any of these psychological techniques can be applied to your website or marketing campaigns.

What is subliminal persuasion?

Subliminal persuasion uses hidden messages to influence a person’s thoughts and behaviours. Subliminal messages use visuals, such as pictures and words to evoke emotions.

You’ll find that subliminal persuasion has been used in both advertising and propaganda. However, studies researching this field are inconclusive about how effective the techniques of subliminal persuasion are.

Originating in the 1950s, subliminal persuasion has evolved into subliminal priming and behavioural economics.

Influenced by the work of Richard Thaler, a behavioural economist at the University of Chicago (and Nobel Prize winner), behavioural economics focuses on the motivations for our decisions. Namely loss aversion and addiction.

Are subliminal messages legal?

is subliminal persuasion legal
In some countries subliminal persuasion is legal

If you happen to live in the United Kingdom or Australia, then you won’t be able to use subliminal messaging. This is because it was banned in the late 1950s and this is still in effect.

I would like to point out that the following laws still exist in the United Kingdom:

  • You can’t walk a cow down the street during the hours of 10am to 7pm
  • It’s treason to misplace a postage stamp
  • The Salmon Act of 1986, it is an offence to receive or dispose of salmon under suspicious circumstances
  • King Henry VIII imposed a beard tax that every man must pay to wear facial hair. This resulted in beards being a symbol of status and wealth
  • It is legal for you to shoot a Welsh person with a crossbow, as long as it is within the city walls and is done after midnight
  • If you happen to be in York, then you might be pleased to know that it’s legal to shoot a Scotsman with a crossbow upon seeing one… Except for on Sundays (remind me to skip visiting York!)

So, no subliminal persuasion is not legal in certain countries. This is despite there being very little evidence to suggest that subliminal messages have an effect on an audience.

Considering the strange and somewhat wonderful laws still in effect in the United Kingdom, I don’t suppose it’s that strange.

Subliminal persuasion is legal in the USA

Subliminal persuasion is legal in the United States. This is because there are no specific federal or state laws addressing subliminal messages in advertising.

The USA’s regulatory agencies are responsible for dealing with the effects of subliminal messages and how they impact consumers.

In the 1989 case Vance v. Judas Priest, a Nevada judge ruled that subliminal messages aren’t protected by the First Amendment and do not constitute an invasion of privacy. He also ruled that subliminal messaging did not apply to this case, as there is no evidence to prove that someone can be influenced against his or her will.

Subliminal Results

Subliminal persuasion techniques to influence anyone to buy

Would you trust James Vicary?
The first subliminal messages used in advertising.

In the summer of 1957, James Vicary and subliminal messages were red hot buzz words in marketing circles.

A mass of marketers, copywriters and business owners descended from all over the United States of America to listen to his presentations on how to influence the public to buy stuff they don’t consciously want.

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Their arrival at gas stations causes panic among attendants. There is simply no way to cope with a caravan of nationally known big-wigs rolling in, each demanding a gallon or two of gas.

Outlaw copywriters on motorcycles gunning their engines, yelling, and darting back and forth between the attendants. The smell of violence and gasoline clung to the air with the feeling that something terrible could happen at any moment.

Before anything kicked off, the motorbikes screamed towards the auditorium as a greasy black thunder.

The owner of the auditorium was visibly shaken and had hired a few private gunmen to protect the lobby against theft and vandalism.

The hairy city boys filed in with chains wrapped around their knuckles and stank of human grease. The occasional CEO brandished a pistol and most expected a brawl to burst out at any moment. The scene was surprisingly peaceful as the men took their seats.

Vicary was in complete command from the moment he stepped onto the stage. The hoodlum caravan fell silent with the only sound being the last few beer cans to drop on the auditorium’s floor.

One of the rabbles spoke out of turn causing a marketer in the second row to turn and yell “shut yer mouth or you’ll have a bloody fight on your hands!”.

Needless to say, Vicary had the floor.

Vicary explained that he had sketched out a plan to use mind control on audiences in movie theatres.

The first subliminal message

first subliminal message in film
Hungry? Eat popcorn

Vicary explained how he got his hands on the film reels used during intermissions that he used to splice Coca-Cola and popcorn promotions into a few frames of the film. These were shown at 1/3000th of a second.

The flash of subliminal images passed so quickly that it was difficult (if not impossible) for the audience’s mind to conciously identify.

Vicary explained that the subliminal messages had taken their effect on the audience which then developed an unnatural taste for popcorn and Coca-Cola.

Popcorn stands were overrun with impatient people craving fresh buttery popcorn. Others stuffed their pockets with glittering glass bottles of Coke.

He concluded that his study was a success and had proven that consumers can be subconsciously marketed to with hidden images like “Eat Popcorn” or “Drink Coca-Cola“.

The mob in the auditorium dispersed, unsure what to make of it all. Some believed he was a “pioneer” and a “visionary“. Others blurted out words like “fraud” and “wanker“. Those unsure what to make of it all stayed silent as they straddled their motorcycles and kicked them into life.

Vicary was under pressure to replicate his experiment. People started to accuse him of making a quick buck and regardless of what the marketer tried, he couldn’t produce the same result.

Does subliminal persuasion work?

It had been many years since Vicary’s catastrophe. Subliminal persuasion was mostly forgotten except for the occasional reference in pop culture. However, a group of researchers were fascinated with Vicary’s work and they set out to answer the question: does subliminal persuasion work?

They found that a few of his methods do work… Providing that the audience already likes the product hidden within subliminal messages.

Other studies found that external stimuli impact the effectiveness of subliminal persuasion techniques.

For example, the audience passes popcorn stands and Coca-Cola advertisements. In their seats, they are surrounded by people who consume both products.

Therefore, if Vicary’s experiment was a success, and subliminal messages work, then it was most likely due to the audience’s positive opinions of a product and the effects of External Stimuli.

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Text and language comprehension

Subliminal results of why we get confused when reading text
Subliminal messages can trigger emotions.

Humans are strange and complex creatures.

We aren’t particularly fast.

We’re not overly strong.

And our eyesight has a lot to be desired.

And while some critters on planet Earth have the teachings of their ancestors baked into their DNA…

We developed our intelligence.

Discovered neat stuff like fire.

And we huddled around campfires telling stories.

It’s through our use of language and our ability to share life experiences that we’re able to learn important lessons about the world and how to survive it.

And in time, stories were passed from one generation to the next.

Some were lost in the mists of time, while others survived, passing from myth to legend.

Then some clever clogs came along and invented something as influential as languages…

At approximately 3,400BC the Mesopotmas created wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets. Later known as cuneiform, it is the first known full writing system to be created by mankind.

Language and writing have developed to be integral to society. (and an important part of what makes us human)

So you may be wondering what any of this has to do with conversion rate optimization, websites or badass copywriting…

Well, in 2017 researchers in neurology wanted to discover if your language comprehension can be manipulated by subliminal messages and external stimuli.

In their paper entitled Subliminal Emotional Words Impact Syntactic Processing: Evidence from Performance and Event-Related Brain Potentials they published the subliminal results of their experiments:

  • You find it difficult to understand text when it begins with something that seems to be unrelated to it
  • Being exposed to positive adjectives results in you being able to quickly identify other positive adjectives
  • Both positive and negative adjectives change the speed of neurons sending information to different parts of your brain
  • You feel positive emotions when a positive word appears in a sentence
  • Positive words in a sentence cause you to have more brain activity than when you read negative words
  • You can feel both positive and negative emotions through the use of subliminal messages
  • Emotions and cognition networks are deeply intertwined
  • Your early automatic processing of language comprehension is affected by subconscious emotional information
  • Emotional information that you are unaware of has an effect on the early stages of language comprehension

How do these subliminal results have an effect on web design, copywriting and marketing?

  1. Message matching is critical because if the text or branding of a landing page does not match the message and branding of an advertisement, then the visitor will think it is unrelated. This means that they will then struggle to comprehend the information that follows (aka a terrible conversion rate!)
  2. Using positive adjectives helps people to quickly understand the text used in your marketing campaigns, landing pages and web pages
  3. Priming a person with positive adjectives evokes strong positive emotions. As demonstrated in other studies, if someone has positive feelings about a brand then they are more likely to make a purchase
  4. Words matter greatly. There are clear ties between language and emotions meaning that you have the power to subtly influence the emotions and actions of others
  5. Visuals have an effect on how quickly people understand your text and the emotions that they feel

Subliminal messaging conclusion.

In conclusion, subliminal messaging and subliminal persuasion techniques aren’t very effective without a customer already liking the product or external stimuli.

Without either of these, the subliminal message is unlikely to have the desired effect and any positive outcome is probably due to the roll of the dice.

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