Subliminal Messages are Typical Advertising Propaganda!

Millennia Chakraborty

14th October, 2020

We often remember a certain situation or an incident that happened amidst a lot of other events quite vaguely. Something like the way you feel when you are anesthetized by a doctor. The deeper part of our mind perceives only the simpler parts of the incident and filters out the rest eventually. Thus, you often remember only one voice out of many in a crowded room. 

The deeper part of our mind here is what we denote as the unconscious mind. Therefore, when we are anesthetized and still feel like an incident took place but unsure for real, that tells that our mind registered it without any sort of awareness. Since we weren’t aware, we tend to remember it as vaguely as possible. We are simply unable to make sense while narrating exactly the things we visualize in our minds. This is termed as the subliminal perception by psychologists. 

Subliminal perception is a phenomenon where we perceive a stimulus in the form of a message or an image that is below our normal threshold of perception. 

It’s more like a message is not recognized by our conscious mind but it is strong enough to be recognized by our unconscious or in other words, an image is unperceived and perceived by our conscious and unconscious mind respectively. It’s more like one will only perceive a certain message in the advertisement when they are said about it, or they slow down the video stream or else they analyze the audio. This phenomenon allows us to clearly distinguish the conscious and the unconscious mind. The subset of unconscious cognition is considered to be subliminal perception. The forms of unconscious cognition include distinguishing one single sound from the noisy background while unconsciously being aware of other signals or tasks that are done automatically. History has witnessed the use of subliminal messages in various advertisements. Quite several researchers have suggested that this phenomenon is mainly used by the advertising agencies as propaganda. Bernstein (1978) suggests that subliminal advertising research "attracts weirdos" (p. 16), while Dixon (1981) asserts that those who remain convinced of subliminal effects are "closed-minded" and "rigid" (p. 200) (Robert F. Bornstein’s Subliminal Techniques as Propaganda Tools: Review and Critique published in The Journal of Mind and Behavior, Summer 1989, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Summer 1989), pp. 231-262, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/24859884)

The term subliminal message gained its popularity when Vance Packard mentioned it in his book “The Hidden Persuaders” published in 1957. The book gave a detailed account of a study conducted of movie theatres that conveyed a subliminal message to increase their sales of popcorn and Coca-cola. Later, the author of the study, James Vicary, confirmed it to be fabricated. The term subliminal message gained its popularity when Vance Packard mentioned it in his book “The Hidden Persuaders” published in 1957. The book gave a detailed account of a study conducted of movie theatres that conveyed a subliminal message to increase their sales of popcorn and Coca-cola. Later, the author of the study, James Vicary, confirmed it to be fabricated. 

A general definition of subliminal advertising is the use of images and sounds by advertisers to influence the responses of the consumers without them being consciously aware. The first reported subliminal ad was from 1947, spotted on a twirling sign urging viewers to buy war bonds in a Daffy Duck cartoon (Alex Player’s How Marlboro, Coke, and KFC used subliminal advertising published on February 19, 2020, from https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/marlboro-coke-kfc-used-subliminal-advertising/1383489). The effectiveness of such advertisements is still a huge arena for debate and an illegal act in the UK, America, and Australia ever since 1958. 

Alex Player in his article, How Marlboro, Coke, and KFC used subliminal advertising, published in 2016, mentioned some interesting notable advertisements which had a subliminal message. 

We love the zinger box meal in KFC and the burgers. Did you know that there was a subliminal message conveyed by them in the year 2008 just to add on to the popularity of late US President George W. Bush? A dollar bill was reportedly found to be placed within the lettuce of a chicken burger. KFC justified this claim to be a contest that was conducted offering $1 coupons to the first 1000 people who were able to spot it. But do you really think that you would ever be able to distinguish a US dollar bill from a lettuce leaf? None of the viewers were able to spot that unless they were shown. So, I hope now you get the answer to the question just asked!

Another example that was spot on is during the election campaign of George W. Bush. When the word BUREAUCRATS flashed on the screen where the TV commercial was telecasted, one frame only showed the last part RATS. The entire Bush campaign was accused of embedding the word  RATS in the last 26 seconds of their campaign video.The impact on the campaign it had is still unknown but the matter was brought under the notice by the Democrats to the FCC. 

Thus, I feel that advertising agencies use this technique of subliminal perception to sarcastically target a particular individual or a group of people publicly. But, we the viewers have the right to know what we are shown and be able to interpret them accordingly. The advertising agencies instead of focusing on the promotion and publicity should focus on the viewers and the content shown in the first place. That’s probably one of the foremost policies that every agency has but none of them follow it. I am sure this is not only restricted in the US or Australia but in India too.  The nagging anxiety about the supposed power of subliminal messages will probably never go away especially in countries like the UK and the US. So the readers, are these all anything more than a hangover from a sci-fi-style Cold War concerned with mass brainwashing? Well, you should be knowing the answer by now!

About the Author

Millennia Chakraborty, a student who is majorly into the field of psychology. Apart from reading the various theories of mind and behaviour, she has a huge fascination towards stars and galaxies.