A message – such as a sound or picture - that is too quick or too subtle for the conscious mind to process, is called a subliminal message. The Cambridge dictionary tells us subliminal means ‘not recognised or understood by the conscious mind, but still has an influence on it.’
The subconscious can be influenced in a flash
Research on subliminal messaging in sports, by Professor Samuele Marcora of Kent University’s School of Sport and Exercise Science and Bangor University in Wales, has illustrated positive visual cues help us perform better during exercise.
When athletes were shown action-related words such as ‘go’ or ‘energy’, or were shown images of happy faces, they were able to keep going for significantly longer. In this experiment, cues were placed in front of the athlete for only 0.02 seconds and were not obvious to the conscious mind. The conclusion: there’s a clear correlation between positive subliminal messages and increased endurance during exercise.
Advertisers also try to appeal to the subconscious mind. In a cinema in the US state of New Jersey, back in 1957, a market researcher flashed ads on the screen every 5 seconds, during a screening of the movie, Picnic.
These advertisements were up for a tiny fraction of a second; so quick in fact, that the conscious mind was unable to detect them. However, the result was that Coca-Cola sales reportedly went up by 18% and popcorn sales by nearly 60%. The flashes of these products, it’s thought, pushed up the sales.
Sounding a bit far-fetched? Well, it is. When the researcher, James Vicary, was later challenged to repeat the experiment and prove the results, he failed. It turned out the whole thing was a hoax and Vicary had faked his findings. (What this much talked about urban myth did prove however, is that people are gullible, because many fell for his gimmick!).
More to the point is that subliminal advertising does exist, despite the lack of data. "Subliminal advertising is thought to be a pretty potent form of influence. But there's really not much on which to base that conclusion," said Ian Zimmerman, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
There is a question mark over whether it works or not, but in marketing and advertising, it certainly continues to be used and companies think it’s effective. There is even a question mark over whether something really counts as subliminal in the first place.
Take the Baskin Robbins logo for example. It has a hidden pink ‘31’ in the B and the R, representing the 31 different ice-cream flavours that were originally created in the 50s – one flavour for each day of the month. If someone looks carefully enough, they can spot the ‘31’ and work out why it’s there. In a flash of course, it’s unlikely to be noticed and therefore could be counted as subliminal.
So where do we draw the line between subliminal or not... it’s hard to define and probably differs from person to person. More data is needed. But anecdotally at least, the subconscious mind can be influenced.
Athletes perform better when exposed to subliminal cues (medicalxpress.com)
How Your Subconscious Mind Is Running Your Life And How To Fix It (forbes.com)
A Strange, Brief History of Subliminal Messages in Advertising - The Niche Marketer
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