The phenomenon of subliminal advertising has long been a contentious issue in consumer psychology. Nice play on words here from Subway to illustrate the point.
Around 75% of the population believe we are regularly exposed to hidden messages, some 50% going so far as to insist they have been “coerced” into buying a product as a result of such influences. But is this a real effect and, if so, are we perhaps being tricked into purchasing products we don’t want against our will?
A recent Psychology Today post from Ian Zimmerman succinctly sums up the current state of research in this area. First and foremost, while a general consensus has developed in the literature that certain words loaded with evolutionary significance will subconsciously raise our attention levels (can you spot two in this post’s headline?), the degree to which such factors might then trigger an involuntary behaviour remains is a much more contested issue. So what do we actually know for sure about all this?
Experiments show that we can be influenced by subliminal stimuli, at least up to a point. Exposing thirsty people to the hidden word “cola”, for instance, will trigger an increase in subsequent volume consumed compared to those not exposed to the stimulus. In a similar vein, playing German background music in a liqueur store will encourage an increase in sales of German wine, while the word “sex” hidden on the packaging of a well-known brand of candy has reputedly worked wonders for sales of a well-known confectionary product (clue: think ten-pin bowling).
Does all this mean we have been subject to cynical manipulation by advertisers since the 1940s after all? Well, not quite… although such effects certainly exist, their magnitude is far less than most of us believe. Exposing thirsty drinkers to the subliminally-presented word “cola” may well increase subsequent consumption, but it will have no effect whatsoever on people who aren’t thirsty. Similarly, if we tell liqueur store customers that the German music playing is designed to boost sales of Liebfraumilch, they will actually buy less simply because they’ve been made consciously aware of it.
In other words, as Zimmerman rightly concludes, subliminal messages can increase or decrease a behaviour that is likely to happen anyway (e.g. prompting a hungry person to eat more chocolate), but it can’t trigger a totally unwanted behaviour, and simply paying more attention to our environment can eliminate such effects anyway.
So what of my headline for this post? The word “indecent” is, of course, a very significant word in Darwinian terms, associated as it is with sex, and the initials of the three words also spell out the equally important trigger word “die”. Oh…and for those of you who think I may be being unfair to Disney here, check out this image over on the slightlywarped.com site to see why the DVD release of The Rescuers was delayed due to the subliminal sabotage of three frames of footage. Other strange-but-true examples also on show there – but be warned, some are a little naughty in more ways than one!