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Subliminal Persuasion: Getting the Story a Little Less Wrong

michelle's picture

Have you ever heard of the rumors regarding the hidden sexual imagery in Disney films? Some of the rumors include a phallic castle on the cover of the original The Little Mermaid, Aladdin saying “good teenagers take off their clothes” in a scene in Aladdin, along with many others in films ranging from The Lion King to The Rescuers. I actually looked into a couple of the scenes referenced in an online forum regarding the topic (7), and lo and behold, they are true. I must have watched the films over a million times as a child and again with my nieces and nephews, and have never noticed any of this before. Why would the producers want to include such inappropriate imagery in such a widely cherished children’s film? Can these images have an affect on our everyday lives or more importantly the behavior of our children?

Questions like the ones above have raised serious public concern over and over again in the past couple decades and fostered a number of studies regarding subconscious or subliminal perception and more importantly subliminal influence. Issues concerning subliminal techniques used in advertising and entertainment have gone as far as Supreme Court cases and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) banning the use of subliminal messages on public airways (5, 10). Thus, it is evident that there is an exigency to investigate subliminal influence. Such techniques could potentially provide a way in which others could influence our behaviors without our permission, or ways in which we could influence our own behavior should we have difficulty doing so consciously.

Meaning and Uses of Subliminal

The term “subliminal” means “limen of consciousness” and is used to describe the threshold between the conscious and unconscious (2). Although the term is over two-hundred years old, the debate over subliminal influence began with James Vicary’s invention, the tachistocope, in the mid-1950’s (2,5,9,10). The device was able to flash the words “Eat Popcorn, Drink Coke” for 1/3000th of a second, every five seconds throughout the screening of a movie. He claimed that popcorn sales increased 58% and coke sales increased 18% (5, 10). Although Vicary’s experiment could not be reproduced, and he openly admitted it being fabricated (2, 4, 5, 10), the studies were widely publicized and are still believed to be true by many. Many scientists and advertising firms sought out the learn more about how one may be able to influence people subconsciously- where audiences would not be able ponder over and question the information presented to them.

Over the years, subliminal messages have become disguised in other ways and now are used to describe anything that is not perceivable to an audience but is still registered by the brain. Dr. Bernard McGrane proposes in The Ad and the Id: Sex, Death, and Subliminal Advertising that advertising companies embed sex and death related images into magazine ads in order to further encapsulate our unconscious. However, these images are detectable if one looks closely at the images. They are somewhat like “Where’s Waldo” images except the hunt is for a sexual or death-related allusion. According to Freudian theories, humans are constantly suppressing their unconscious obsession with sex and death, and McGrane believes advertisers are attempting to tap into our unconscious by targeting these natural, suppressed-in-the-unconscious thoughts(1). These ideas were initially popularized and are more commonly associated with the writings and lectures of Wilson Bryan Key (5,10).

Other forms of subliminal messages are auditory and are played quietly (undetectable by the ears) in the background of music, or disguised as the lyrics played backwards which is called “backward masking” (10). Auditory self-help, subliminal messages have been marketed to help improve one’s memory, self-esteem, and generally modify one’s behavior for the better, and is is reported that consumers spend more than $50 million annually on such products (2). However, a number of Supreme Court cases have arisen as a result of accusations that auditory subliminal messages hidden in rock music influence destructive behavior in youths, such as drug abuse, promiscuity and even suicide. In all cases, the court ruled in favor of the defendant either because the judge felt that the messages were not inserted intentionally, or the messages were not truly subliminal in the first place and therefore protected by the free speech amendment. In one case, the judge felt the meaning of the subliminal message was misinterpreted by the plaintiff and did not correspond to the intent of the artist (10).

The Debate

One general misconception regarding subliminal messages is the confusion between subliminal perception and subliminal persuasion/influence. Many publications have reported empirical evidence supporting subliminal perception, and it is a widely accepted theory among the scientific community. Subliminal perception is known to be the mechanism behind blindsight, how propagnosia patients can differentiate people, and how some people can remember events that took place while they were under anesthesia (6). Our proprioceptors are known to constantly take in input from our surroundings without us being able to consciously detect it. However, the debate over whether subliminal messages can influence our behavior is still strongly disputed. The general public would like to know if we should be wary of subliminal advertisements, if the technique can be used to better ourselves as in self-help tapes, and know whether to take legislative action over those who promote destructive behavior using subliminal messages.

Scientist who critique subliminal influence believe that a lot of the popular beliefs regarding subliminal messages have been proliferated by scientists seeking a shocking story to draw in audiences and gain scientific acclaim. Anthony Pratkanis calls the well-popularized studies of subliminal influence “cargo-cult science” and discredits such studies due to poorly designed scientific experiments. He claims a lot of the studies supporting subliminal influence lack proper controls and are not reproducible (5). Vokey discredits a lot of claims regarding auditory subliminal influence because he states that “reversed speech retains many of its speech-like qualities” and the phrase “Jesus loves you” will sound like “we smell sausage” backwards. He claims “backward masking” is usually a coincidence and unintentionally by the artists (10). Furthermore, nine independent studies on subliminal self-help audio tapes showed no empirical evidence supporting the manufacturer’s claim. Some studies discovered that the self-help audio tapes contain no messages at all. Another study illustrated a placebo effect where customers were given audio-tapes with no subliminal messages at all, but told that the tapes were supposed to improve their memory or self-esteem, and although the customers showed no improvements on their memory and self-esteem tests, the customers in both groups claimed they felt that their memory or self-esteem had improved over the course of the experiment (5, 10). Based on the mechanism for hearing, Vokey suggests that reducing the volume of a message and covering it with a louder sound makes the message completely inaudible to the ears and therefore unable to be perceived even subliminally (10).

Although a number scientific journals have exposed some of the misconstrued ideas about subliminal messages, recent studies are providing evidence to the mechanism behind subliminal perception and subliminal influence when dealing with visual messages. A study at the University College London showed fMRI data that indicated that a subjects’ brain did respond to a stimulus even when the subject was not conscious of having seen it (8). This showed support of subliminal perception, but little information regarding subliminal influence. However, an older study in Scientific Daily showed how subliminal stimuli could have a “priming” effect on subjects performing a nonsense task such as pronouncing a word shown to them on a screen. If the subliminal message flashed was the same as the word given to them, their response time speed up (3). Lastly, a study last month reported in the online newspaper,, showed that a subliminally flashed message with the words “Lipton Ice” made thirsty volunteers four times more likely to choose Lipton ice tea over mineral water. However, the effect was only significant if the volunteers were thirsty so the researchers concluded that “priming only works when the prime is goal-relevant” (4).

The debate over whether subliminal messages influence behavior has sprouted up four different times in the last century and is still not concluded (5). The research supporting subliminal perception and influence tend to be more focused on visual messages while those discrediting the technique focus primarily on auditory messages. Therefore, both sides may have non-contradicting evidence because they deal with different sensory inputs. Therefore there may be two answers to the same question.

My Opinion and Conclusion

The debate regarding subliminal influence has misguided a large number of people including myself. Originally, I thought subliminal influence was a highly accepted theory because the FCC made such a big deal about banning it on public airways. I was only familiar with flashing images and the subliminal messages supposedly embedded into rock music and had no idea that subliminal self-help audio tapes made such a huge profit. Taking into account all the ways subliminal messages may be masked, I think that we may come across subliminal information on a daily basis. For example, if the television is on while we are studying, our brain is likely to be taking in the noise, even if we are not concentrating on it. However, I’m not convinced that the information subconsciously absorbed will influence our decision making in the long run because although it is absorbed unconsciously, we are always conscious of our actions (for the most part). I do, however, think that the fact that our brain has the ability to absorb information unconsciously is highly beneficial in our daily functioning because it allows for self-regulation and multi-tasking.

Secondly, by studying the history of subliminal influence, I came to the conclusion that people tend to accept new scientific studies a lot more if the information is shocking and affect them personally. Taking this into account, science can be abused and used for financial gain. Therefore, one must always be skeptical because no information can ever be proven right. As Dr. Grobstein says, “It’s just a process of getting it less wrong.”

Lastly, I do not think we will come up with a definite answer as to the effects of subliminal messages any time soon because in order to prove subliminal persuasion, one must first prove that the subject registered the information subliminally and secondly prove that it altered his/her behavior. This is a lot harder than it seems and there are a lot of ways in which scientists may go about discrediting subliminal studies. First of all, because the subliminal perception is unconscious input, we are never quite sure how that input is processed or what information the brain deciphered from it. Because we have different experiences, we may interpret (unconsciously) the same information differently. Therefore, how can we be sure that the resulting actions are influenced by the brain’s final translation of the subliminal input? For example, I could subliminally embed the message “A paper” somewhere in this essay however although I may subconsciously interpret it as A = 4.0, another person, perhaps my professor, may interpret the A simply as the indefinite article ‘a’. J


(1) The Ad and the Id: Sex, Death, and Subliminal Advertising. University of California Extension Center for Media and Independent Learning. 1992

(2) Carroll, Robert. The Skeptic’s Dictionary. May 2006.

(3) Evidence that Subliminal is Not So Sub. Cell Press. Science Daily. November 2006.

(4) Motluk, Alison. April 2006.

(5) Pratkanis, Anthony R. “The Cargo-Cult Science of Subliminal Persuasion”. Skeptical Inquirer. 1992.

(6) Shrestha, Mridula. Serendip Web Paper. 2000. /bb/neuro/neuro00/web2/Shrestha.html

(7) The Straight Dope. “Do Disney movies contain subliminal erotica? June 2000.

(8) Subliminal Advertising Leaves Its Mark On The Brain. University College London. Science Daily. March 2007.

(9) Subliminal Messages.

(10)Vokey, John R. Subliminal Messages.


Anonymous's picture

Here's an example;take the

Here's an example;take the world famous Virgin logo.If you turn it slighty to the left so that where the underline and tail of the g form an X,you'll also notice the V forms a slightly hidden S and the i,r and part of the g form a broken capital E,spelling the word SEX.
So you have Sex/Virgin in one word.Very clever Mr.Branson.