Have you experimented with subliminal advertising?
If you have, you’ll know it’s a hard thing to get right.
In this article, I’ll explain what subliminal advertising is and how it can be used effectively.
What is Subliminal Advertising?
Before we dive into the actual advertising, let’s take a little psychology side trip.
A subliminal message is one that’s designed to pass below the normal limits of perception.
They’re inaudible to the conscious mind, but audible to the unconscious, or deeper, mind.
One of the most popular examples of subliminal messaging are messages played during sleep.
For example, anyone seen the Friends episode where Chandler tries to stop smoking by listening to hypnosis tapes at night, but ends up thinking he’s a “strong, confident woman?”
Yeah, that’s subliminal messaging.
Subliminal advertising relies on that concept, and is the practice of using words or images (stimuli) that consumers don’t consciously detect.
It often involves words being flashed on a screen so briefly, we don’t detect them. We’re talking .003 seconds brief.
Subliminal messaging in advertising was first introduced as a concept by James Vickery, and later reiterated by Vance Packard in his 1952 book The Hidden Persuaders.
In it, he claimed that moviegoers had been subjected to subliminal commands to increase the sales of Coca-Cola and popcorn at the movie concession stands.
Turns out, the whole thing was totally false.
But, despite it being made up, people weren’t too happy with the concept of this subliminal advertising.
After all, no one likes feeling manipulated.
Which is what lead the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to declare subliminal advertising “contrary to the public interest.”
To be clear, there’s really no supporting evidence that says subliminal advertising actually works.
What there is is plenty of stigma around the subject, so it’s best to tread carefully.
Let’s take a further look at the do’s and don’ts of subliminal advertising.
Subliminal Advertising Done Wrong
Here’s what you don’t want subliminal advertising to be: obvious.
I’ll reiterate: people don’t like feeling manipulated.
Yet still, ever since Vicary presented his study, there’s been a fascination with the art of subliminal messaging, and some advertisers still try to recreate what the study promised.
But the thing is, being caught purposely trying to insert “hidden” messages can lead to controversy. Here are a few of the most infamous examples of not-so-subtle subliminal advertising.
The Food Network and McDonalds
The Food Network made major headlines in 2007 when it was caught inserting a flash of the McDonalds logo during the popular show Iron Chef.
Why it Doesn’t Work: Here’s a perfect example of being entirely too obvious.
There was no attempt to hide this one, and the fact that the flash was completely unrelated to what was being aired didn’t help matters.
Was it really a play at subliminal advertising? Sure seems like it, but McDonald’s and The Food Network both claimed the message was an error.
KFC’s Dollar Snacker
You had to slow this commercial way down to see it, but once you do it, it can’t be unseen.
KFC also drew negative attention in 2008 when it aired a commercial for it’s Dollar Snacker featuring a green dollar bill in the lettuce.
Why it Doesn’t Work: First of all, it’s sloppy.
Secondly, it’s a dollar bill. No one needs to be reminded that KFC’s end goal is to make us spend money.
You probably don’t remember the board game Husker Du. That could have something to do with their subliminal advertising scandal.
In 1973, the company aired ads that featured a series of frames reading “Get It.” The manufacturer admitting to inserting the messaging, and the ad is ultimately what lead to the FCC’s condemnation of such tactics.
Why it doesn’t work: Again, it’s sneaky. It’s manipulative.
And just like the McDonald’s ad, it was far too obvious.
Subliminal Advertising Done Right
Here’s how people should feel from subliminal advertising: clever.
When it’s done right, viewers should feel like they’ve discovered the hidden meaning. They should feel a little proud of themselves, and even get a little chuckle out of the cleverness of the ad.
It should never feel like an attempt to brainwash or hypnotize. People don’t want to be fooled, but they do want to be in on the joke.
Which means you have to walk a fine line when attempting to pull off this advertising technique.
Here’s what you don’t do: flash brief images or words, as seen above. For one, it doesn’t really work. And beyond that, people have proven they don’t really like it.
What you do do is this: play with images and optical illusions. Blur the line a little.
The great thing about these hidden messages is that, when done well, they can pay off big time and lead to some of the most memorable ads to date.
Here are a few of examples who got subliminal advertising right.
Subliminal Advertising Example #1: Pepsi Vs. Coke
It’s subtle, but effective.
Pepsi was the first to unveil the ad, playing up the “horror” of receiving a Coke when you really want a Pepsi.
Coke’s response was perhaps even better, capitalizing on the caped Coke as the real hero of the story.
Why it Works: It works so well because the two classic competitors each manage to make consumers see their product in the positive light – while casting a clear shadow on the competition.
It’s designed to make you feel something without explaining why, and it manages to do just that.
Subliminal Advertising Example #2: Tostitos
I’ll be honest, it took me years to notice this one.
The Tostitos logo is something almost all of us are familiar with, but unless you’ve taken the time to really inspect it, you probably missed the hidden scene in the middle.
The two T’s also form two friends sharing chips and salsa. Pretty cool, eh?
Why it Works: It works because it isn’t in your face, and it promotes a benefit of the brand. Enjoy a tasty snack with people you like.
It isn’t pushing sales necessarily; instead, it’s pushing an experience.
Subliminal Advertising Example #3: Amazon
Amazon has arguably one of the most recognized logos around.
But no matter how many times you’ve seen it, you may not have really taken it in.
Take a look at the strategically placed arrow to see what I mean.
Why it works: The hidden message here is simple: Amazon sells everything, from A to Z.
It helps, of course, that Amazon actually does sell everything. It’s not pushy or salesy, it’s just a reinforces the channels all-in-one model.
The fact the arrow also forms a smile doesn’t hurt, either.
Subliminal Advertising Example #4: Snooty Peacock
Sometimes, a subliminal message can be in your face and still work.
Case in point: the Snooty Peacock.
Why it works: The optical illusion used here delivers two images: one a peacock, the other a woman with a necklace.
Depending on how you look at it, you could see one or the other. Both, however, are intended to hint at the elegance of the brand.
Peacocks are one of the prettier birds, often seen as decorative, while the woman represents the unique clientele. If you couldn’t tell, the Snooty Peacock is a jewelry manufacturer.
Once again, it’s not a necessarily a sales tactic. But it will cause a viewer to look twice at the ad – which is exactly what the Snoot Peacock wants.
Subliminal Advertising Example #5: FedEx
Here’s another one you probably didn’t see coming.
Even your friendly, neighborhood FedEx is harboring a hidden message. The whitespace between the E and X clearly outlines an arrow.
Why it works: FedEx uses the arrow to highlight speed and efficiency – the brand’s biggest benefits.
Like many others on the list, you wouldn’t know it until someone pointed it out. But once you do, you feel all the more clever for it.
Subliminal Advertising Example #6: SFX Magazine
SFX Magazine is sci-fi magazine that focuses on all things fantasy and sci-fi entertainment related.
But you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the cover.
Many have noticed that logo is often obscured to look like it’s spelling out something a little different – especially when women are featured on the cover.
Coincidence or intentional subliminal advertising?
Why it works: Well, made you look, didn’t it?
Subliminal Advertising Example #7: Pirates of the Caribbean
Disney’s long been accused of hiding subliminal messages in their movies.
But this one may be the most subtle (and clean) of them all.
While not exactly obvious, a longer look has many convinced that Disney adapted the well-known skull and crossbones emblem to look more like their iconic Mickey Mouse logo.
Why it Works: People love Mickey Mouse. They feel good about Disney.
So present them with something that’s reminiscent of both, and they’re bound to transfer some of those good feelings – whether conscious of it or not.
Whether it was Disney’s intention or not to draw such a close similarity, there’s no denying the resemblance.
Subliminal Advertising FAQ:
1. Is Subliminal Advertising Illegal?
You should consult an attorney to get an answer to that question.
However, there are some court precedents that you might want to bring up when talking about the issue with your attorney.
The first is Central Hudson Gas & Electric v. Public Service Commission of New York. In that case, the Supreme Court held that in order for marketing speech to be protected by the First Amendment, it must not be misleading.
If your subliminal message is misleading, you could run into problems.
In a separate case, Vance v. Judas Priest, a Nevada judge ruled that subliminal messages aren’t protected by the First Amendment.
2. What Do Psychologists Say About Subliminal Advertising?
Art Markman, writing for Psychology Today, says that subliminal advertising can have some influence on a consumer, but it can’t turn that person into a robot.
In other words, the best you’re going to do with subliminal advertising is to nudge people in a direction they were headed anyway.
But it does have some influence.
Philip Merikle, who works for the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, points to several studies that show “considerable information capable of informing decisions and guiding actions is perceived even when observers do not experience any awareness of perceiving.”
3. Are There Any Countries That Ban Subliminal Advertising?
Yes. Both Australia and the UK ban subliminal advertising for any reason.
However, the United States does not have an outright ban on subliminal ads. So if you’re using subliminal strategies on print and online ads only in the U.S., you should be okay.
It’s always best to consult with an attorney on legal questions, though.
4. Do Non-Profit Organizations Use Subliminal Advertising?
Back in 2000, the Republican National Committee ran a campaign ad for presidential candidate George W. Bush. The ad highlighted the word “RATS” as part of “BUREAUCRATS” when criticizing Al Gore’s health care plan.
It was widely viewed as an example of subliminal advertising.
5. Does the FCC Regulate Subliminal Advertising?
The Federal Communications Commission says that subliminal advertising is not in the public interest. So you shouldn’t even try to run subliminal ads on TV or on the radio.
However, you can still run subliminal ads online and in print.
Wrapping Up Subliminal Advertising
So there you have it: how to pull off subliminal advertising – and how not to.
Remember, it’s all about subtlety. Focus on art and design rather than words, and you could very well have a hit on your hands.