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Touching on Subliminal Advertising

Marketing Messages that Fly Under the Radar


secret message

secret message

Image via Getty Images

You have no doubt heard the terms "subliminal advertising" or "subliminal messaging" before. And chances are, they have probably affected you on more than one occasion.

Advertising has used its fair share of these "tricks of the trade" over the decades, and some forms of it are outlawed. But others are still being used today, and believe it or not, it can be quite an effective way to stimulate the senses and influence your buying decision.

What is Subliminal Advertising?

Subliminal literally means "below threshold" and as such is supposed to be something that your subconscious registers, not your conscious mind. There's a now infamous story regarding sales of popcorn and soda at a movie theater that, although proven to be false, demonstrates the supposed effect of subliminal advertising.

James Vicary, who actually coined the term, conducted studies in movie theatres in 1957. He flashed different messages on the screen for just 1/3000 th of a second, every 5-6 seconds for the duration of the movie. These were suggestions like "Hungry? Eat Popcorn" or "Drink Coca-Cola." The results were staggering with a 57.8% jump in popcorn sales, and an 18.1% jump in sales of Coca-Cola. Figures so staggering that it caused the FCC to ban this form of advertising.

But it seems that this particular form of subliminal advertising was actually not all that effective. Mr. Vicary lied about the results of his experiment. And when asked to repeat it, there was no significant increase in popcorn and soda sales. But by then the damage was done, and the subliminal cuts (also the subject of a great Columbo episode) where outlawed. However, the subliminal story does not end there.

Examples of Legal Subliminal Advertising

Although the practice of inserting images into films has been banned, there are ways to get your hidden message across without breaking any laws. Here are 10 examples from advertising and design that pushed the boundaries to get a different message out.

SFX Magazine and Jennifer Garner

Back in March of 2003, Jennifer Garner and her show Alias were hot property. She was a sex symbol, and appeared in a quite revealing shoot. They put her on the front cover in one such pose, and then had her head cover, only slightly, the F in the SFX logo. Of course, the brain being what it is, it wants to create patterns and words whenever it can. So the word SEX was the takeaway. Very clever. And totally legit.

Bush Vs. Gore. And Rats.

This one is skirting very close to the edge, but still above board. In the ad that has Bush attacking Gore's healthcare proposals, the word RATS can clearly be seen on screen before it turns into the word bureaucrats. This was clearly intentional. Did it work? Well, we'll never know for sure if it was down to one ad, but it didn't hurt. (For more on political advertising, read this article).

Sex In The Seychelles

Did the bank note engraver spell out the word SEX in the leaves of the palm trees on purpose? Or was it just a bizarre accident? Well, one look at a banknote should reveal the answer…this was no mistake. It's blatant. But did it make more people come to the Seychelles on vacation? Who knows?

The Naked Guy on the Camel

What does a guy getting his "happy place" out have to do with cigarettes? No idea. But for some reason the designers at Camel decided to hide him on the side of the beast. Maybe it was purely accidental. After all, a naked man, and an old one at that, wouldn't do much to make many guys or girls smoke Camels.

Laid By The Best - DJ Flooring

Perhaps the greatest example of subliminal advertising ever done, the ad at first glance looks innocent enough. A woman holding champagne. But turn the ad around, and it's more than a little sexual. Which ties in perfectly with the tagline "laid by the best." It ran in Yellow Pages.

Coca-Cola's Icy Naked Lady

This one is a stretch for some people, but it's deliberate. Ice just doesn't work this way, or if it does, it's rare. And for it to appear on top of your Coke can, well that's too much of a coincidence.

Dickies Are For Moving Men

Big, big Dickies. In another ad that seemed harmless enough, two men carrying a horseshoe are revealed to be two guys holding some very big, steel phallic objects. This one couldn't get more blatant if it tried.

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