Subliminal Messaging

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We are members of the consumer society and in one way or another, we have been subjected to subliminal messages. Subliminal messaging is long considered the dark art of persuasion, and one thing for a fact they are often connected to conspiracy theories specifically those of politicians and advertisers. These groups of people use them to manipulate our minds and eventually modify our behaviours in a way that favours them. Everyone seems worried that advertisers and politicians are always on a mission to control their behaviour through subliminal messages. This is indeed a scary thought. This might be a legitimate concern, but that calls for debate. There are have been years of scientific research on subliminal messaging. But, do we know what subliminal messages are?

What are Subliminal Messages[edit]

Subliminal messages are stimuli or signals that are below the absolute threshold level (ATL) of our conscious awareness. The word subliminal itself has led to different interpretations, and most of them are wrong. There are many cases where people confuse subliminal influence with subconscious influence. You need to understand that we cannot perceive a subliminal signal, even if we are looking at it. The absolute threshold level is actually the lowest level of stimulus that we can detect, in the form of visual, audio, or sensory among others. Therefore, when an external stimulus is below ATL, it cannot be detected consciously. One thing you need to note is that a stimulus can actually influence a person subconsciously without being subliminal. If you can see it or hear it, even if you don’t consciously notice, that is not subliminal. It is actually considered supraliminal. In a German wine and French wine experiment, supraliminal messaging was illustrated how it influences our behaviour through conscious perception. The experiment involved a selection of German and French wines of the same price and sweetness. When the researchers played German music on particular days, they discovered that German wine outsold French wine. When they played French music, the reverse was discovered. In the experiment, people did not actually know that the music was influencing their behaviour. They indeed heard the music, but very few of them reported music as the main factor in their choice of wine. Thus, the music, which was the stimuli was actually supraliminal, and not subliminal. People could perceive signal consciously. However, on the other hand, subliminal messaging is different. People cannot consciously perceive subliminal messages, even they are looking at them.

Types of Subliminal Messages[edit]

In general, there are three types of subliminal messages: • Subvisual messages – there are visual signals that are flashed quickly, usually within a few milliseconds, and people cannot perceive them. • Subaudible messages –these are low volume audio signals that are present in a louder audio source, like music. • Backmasking – this is actually an audio message that is recorded backwards so that it can be played forward in order to disguise the reversed message. All the above types of subliminal messages often involve sexual signals. This is because it is often claimed that associating a stimulus with sex can enhance the appeal or impression of the entire content.

Advertising[edit]

Subliminal messaging was first introduced in 1957 when James Vicary and Frances Thayer flashed the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” for just a few milliseconds every five seconds at a movie theatre over a six-week period. They then reported a sharp increase in popcorn and Coca-Cola sales of 57.5 percent and 18.1 percent respectively during those movie shows. They actually claimed to boost concession sales by just flashing the words during a movie. This claim was actually a hoax. Many people speculated that this claim by Vicary was actually his way to rid the subliminal message of its bad reputation. But the damage had already been done. People became scared that mind control was possible, and this hoax gave advertising a bad reputation. In 1957, Vance Packard in his book, The Hidden Persuaders, examined psychological techniques used by advertisers to manipulate consumers so that they would buy products that they didn’t need. Packard actually did not use the word “subliminal” in the book, but the book became a bestseller. This compounded the negative public attitudes about subliminal messages. In 1962, five years after creating and mounting fear and anger about supposed mind control, James Vicary actually came forward and made an astonishing announcement – His stud was fake! Vicary never conducted the experiment and had actually made up the whole thing in order to create publicity to save his failing marketing business. However, fear about subliminal message still lived even after Vicary’s fraud. In 1974, the Federal Communications Commission issued a public notice stating that subliminal messages were against the public interest and intended to be deceptive. The notice continued to state that those use them are not protected by the First Amendment.

Subliminal Seduction Book[edit]

In 1972, Wilson Bryan Key, in his book Subliminal Seduction, claimed that advertisers were using hidden images, many of which were sexualised such as phallic symbols and suggestive words to influence the buying habits of consumers. John O’Toole, president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, denied Bryan’s claims. He stated that there was no such thing as subliminal advertising. He went on to say that he had never seen nor heard it seriously discussed as a technique by advertising people. O’Toole claimed stated that the theory proposed by Wilson Bryan Key was more absurd. Key’s claims were actually denied by even those who had no stake in the world of advertising.

Subliminal Messages in Disney[edit]

Advertisers were not the only people criticised of subliminal messaging. People actually grew more fearful that there might be subliminal messages in film and music. This saw movie editors from Disney get criticised for putting subliminal messages in movies. Disney has been repeatedly accused of using sexualized subliminal messages in some of their animated films. But former Disney animator Tom Sito told HuffPost that what viewers thought they saw or heard was incorrect in most cases. For instance, in a scene from Aladdin (1992), Aladdin appears to vaguely say “Good teenagers take off their clothes.” However, according to Sito, the correct line is, “Good tiger. Take Off. Scat. Go!” Also, the famous star Lion King, Simba stirs up a dust cloud that appears to form “S-E-X.” but this is regarded as merely a misreading of “S-F-X,” which the animators actually put in there as a nod to the film’s special effects crew.

Subliminal Messages in Music[edit]

In 1990, the band Judas Priest found themselves in court after they were accused of using subliminal messages in their music that led to two young turning a shotgun on themselves after listening to one of the band’s records. One of the men died, but the other survived. James Vance, the one who survived, and his family then sued the band claiming that subliminal messages of “try suicide,” “do it,” and “let’s be dead” were present in the music and had made the men shoot themselves. The band denied using subliminal messages and the judge found no evidence thus cleared the band of the charges.

Do Subliminal Messages Work?[edit]

Many studies conducted from the 1960s to the 1990s generally discredited subliminal messaging, but some more recent research suggests that these messages have some effect after all. A Princeton study conducted in 2002, showed that participants’ thirst levels increased by 27 percent after they had experienced subliminal messages, which involved 12 images of Coca-Cola can and 12 frames of the word “thirsty” that had been inserted into an episode of The Simpsons. A few years later, researchers from Utrecht University and Radboud University in the Netherlands conducted a similar experiment in which they discovered participants exposed to subliminal messages experienced not only an increased thirst level but also a tendency to choose a certain beverage. A number of studies have shown subliminal messages to be effective in real-world applications, and sometimes the effects can last for an extended period of time. More recently, studies involving brain scans have shown that subliminal messages can actually induce measurable psychological effects on the emotional and memory centres of the brain.

Conclusion[edit]

Subliminal messaging has attracted a lot of scepticism. Recent research has given more details to this field. Recent studies have actually been finding merit to some aspects that people fear about subliminal messages. Other aspects have been debunked. Subliminal messages can indeed influence your thoughts and behaviours, but they can make you do something you wouldn’t want to do.