One of the most exciting ways of advertising was introduced in 1957 when a market researcher conducted an experiment in which he flashed the words “eat popcorn” and “drink Coca-Cola” for fractions of a second during a movie in a theatre. He claimed that the sales of popcorn and Coca-Cola shot up as a result. This form of advertising was called “subliminal advertising”. However, when researchers tried to replicate the results of this study, they failed. The researcher, James Vicary, later confessed that he had tampered with the results to gain attraction and revive his collapsing market firm. Even so, the results matched widespread paranoia about media influence, prompting a public uproar against the psychological manipulation of consumers. Since then, the efficacy of subliminal advertising has remained a topic of public debate.
What is Subliminal Advertising?
Subliminal advertising is a marketing strategy that involves exposing consumers to subliminal messages: messages hidden within other things. The message could be in the form of a picture, a passage of text, or perhaps even audio/video. The objective is to influence the target audience without them realizing it. They won't even be aware that these messages had any impact on them at all. Simply put, subliminal advertising imparts viewers a message that they were unaware of when they first saw an advertisement.
For instance, a company promoting weight reduction products might use a commercial featuring a young, skinny girl eating a grape. Although the audience might not realize it, the purpose is to entice them into subconsciously associating a healthier lifestyle with consuming this product. This has a straightforward explanation- the subconscious mind is more potent than the conscious mind. Advertisements are designed after considering how our brain associates images with products. We may not consciously pay attention to the fact that the model is slim, but the subconscious mind catches it, and we fall into the trap.
(Attempting to) Manipulate Consumers
Does subliminal advertising really shape consumer behavior? Research has shown that subliminal advertising isn’t as effective as it is perceived to be. One of the most famous experiments on this subject conducted in 1975 was the “Hershey’s Chocolate” experiment. Participants were divided into two groups. Both the groups were allocated different theatres and were simultaneously shown a movie. In the first theatre, the words “Hershey’s Chocolate” were flashed on the screen for 1/50th of a second during the ongoing movie. Whereas in the other theatre, no words were flashed Unlike Vicary’s hypotheses, this did not cause any change. The flashing of words led to no purchases of Hershey’s chocolate made by members of either of the groups. This undermined the efficacy of subliminal advertising and raised the question- Why do companies spend so much money on these advertisements if research doesn’t corroborate their effectiveness?
The answer to this question came from a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2002. Researchers inserted some frames of a Coca-Cola can and some frames of the word “thirsty” in an episode of the popular TV show “The Simpsons”. Participants reported that they were 27% more thirsty after watching the whole clip. On the other hand, the control group, or the group that did not view the clip, was “slightly less thirsty” afterward. Similarly, in another study, participants were shown flashes of the ice-tea brand Lipton during a computer task. As a result, people chose iced tea more than other beverage options, given that they were thirsty.
These experiments show that subliminal messages work only when they tap into a pre-existing desire. In other words, it is unlikely that subliminal advertisements would be able to get someone off their couch and into a store. They are not that effective.
The purpose of this article is to establish that consumers need not worry about being psychologically manipulated by subliminal advertisements. The advertisers may spend large sums of money on these advertisements, but the returns are not that high. Subliminal messages are not powerful enough. Therefore, reading too much into an ad should not be a worry for consumers, they should trust their conscience. As a closing remark, it feels appropriate to highlight one of Freud’s most famous quotes, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.
(Written by Raghav Bansal and Edited by Prakhar Singhania)