Types of Subliminal Messages

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Types of Subliminal Messages
Did rock bands plant subliminal messages in their recordings? (Thinkstock/Comstock/Getty Images)

Subliminal means below the threshold of consciousness and a subliminal message is a directive, hidden within an image or audio recording, that allegedly influences the consumer without their knowledge. Subliminal messages have been found (or alleged to be found) in print advertisements, music recordings, films and television, among other mediums.

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History of Subliminal Messages

Although there are stories of soldiers being conditioned using subliminal brainwashing techniques as early as 1898, the first time subliminal messages caused mass concern was in 1957, when market researcher James Vicary announced that he'd developed a technique to subconsciously influence moviegoers. Vicary placed a device called a trachiscope in the movie's projection room, where the machine flashed the words "drink Coke" and "eat popcorn" across the screen, allegedly influencing concession consumption. Vicary later refuted the efficacy of his device, but the genie was out of the bottle and consumers wondered if subliminal messages might cause us to act against our own better interests.

Audio Messages

Subliminal audio messages have been perceived both as a force for good and for evil. Subliminal self-help recordings are a multimillion dollar industry with titles that promise users assistance for issues ranging from losing weight to overcoming negative thoughts. At the other end of the spectrum, a high-profile court case accused the heavy metal rock band Judas Priest of encoding negative messages in their albums. A parent whose child had committed suicide sued the band, claiming the words "do it, do it' had been subliminally implanted in the song, encouraging the teen to end his own life. The band won the trial.

Visual Messages

James Vicary's "Drink Coke" movie experiment is a famous early effort to influence behaviour using a visual medium, words flashing across a screen. Other types of images also have been used to subconsciously influence behaviour. In the 1970s, communications professor Wilson Bryan Key claimed to have spotted sexual images and words in cigarette and liquor ads. A recent Duke University study showed that test participants performed more creatively when subliminally exposed to the Apple logo. More recently, President George Bush's reelection team was accused of using the word "rats" associated with the word "Democrats" to draw an association between the two.

Do Subliminal Messages Work?

Using subliminal messages in advertising is illegal in the U.S. and the United Kingdom. New York University professor John Bargh thinks subliminal messages are effective, but doesn't see the messages as a subversive mind control technique, rather just one among many types of images used to sell product. A University of Washington study failed to prove the effectiveness of subliminal self-help tapes, however.

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