Do you wonder if there’s anything to this “subliminal messaging” thing, where you’re being influenced in ways you don’t detect? Well, you are! But not in the ways you think.
People think about subliminal messages in terms of images that flash on the screen too fast to notice consciously, or words spoken too softly to notice consciously. The idea is that the message will be picked up by the unconscious mind (or subconscious mind—same thing), but the conscious mind doesn’t notice. Sort of like hypnosis, but in a context where, instead of getting assistance with the issue of your choice, you’re ambushed by someone else’s agenda.
So here are five things you should know about subliminal messaging:
1. Before Worrying About the Subliminals, Notice the SUPERliminals
For an example of the superliminal vs. subliminal issue, look at Figure 1. Because this pinup calendar picture was distributed to machine shops and garages across the country, the depiction of a lathe is relevant and sensible. But the scantily clad young woman doesn’t belong there! (If she did, she’d be wearing steel-toed shoes, not ballet slippers). The concept of superliminals is to add an element that is powerful yet irrelevant, hoping for a response like: “What a great company, to put out calendars featuring two things I like: scantily clad ladies and brand-new machine tools!” With superliminals, all subtlety is cast aside. You’re supposed to notice.
This the basis for a surprising amount of ordinary human communication. Not just in advertising, but in day-to-day life, such as little kids looking cute and saying, “Pleeeeeeease, take us to the circus, pleeeeeease.” The next thing we know, we’re at the circus. Doesn’t make sense… works like a charm.
Human beings are great at connecting the dots. We do it automatically and largely unconsciously. The process is almost instantaneous, but lacks precision. Emotions from one thing spill over onto everything nearby. A model wearing ballet slippers makes you feel better about that industrial lathe. A mediocre song that was popular when you’re falling in love becomes “our song.”
Frankly, this kind of golden glow, this “gilt-by-association” effect is fundamental to how humans learn. The world is complex, and many things we don’t fully understand occur in patterns. We respond to the patterns because they’re often all we have. And when we understand something thoroughly? We still respond to the patterns.
Everything people say about subliminals is also true about superliminals, except that superliminals are out in the open.
2. Subliminals Work, Sort Of
The idea with subliminals, though, is that you respond to them without actually noticing them consciously. Some people claim that you can’t notice them. Traditional subliminals take one of these forms:
- A single-frame image or very short video slipped into the footage of a movie or TV show: too brief for you to notice it consciously, but long enough for you to pick it up subconsciously. Like the clip from Family Guy above.
- An audio message, reversed so it plays backwards, and inserted into an audio track, such as in a song.
- An audio message so faint that you can’t hear it consciously.
- Hidden message/hidden picture elements in photos, drawings, or logos, like the one in Figure 2.
Yeah, some of this stuff works, sort of. It works well enough that people can do controlled studies of subliminal influence and, if they do it right, they get statistically significant results. (You can see a listing of 3,472 publications here.)
My take is that the stuff that works best isn’t really subliminal: it’s stuff that a lot of people overlook because it’s hidden in plain sight. If you look for it, there it is. The Good/Evil diagram above is a good example.
It’s also true that some of this stuff doesn’t work at all! In one test, Richard Bandler, co-developer of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, tells the story of a time he wanted to know if sublimials worked. He created a “subliminal relaxation tape” which buried a series of suggestions below the level of the soothing music, just quiet enough that you couldn’t tell someone was talking.
In a characteristic Bandler twist, all of the suggestions were for the listener to become nervous, anxious, and agitated! The people receiving this tape, who expected it to be relaxing, reported that it was. So it’s the label that says “Subliminal Relaxation Tape” that’s doing the heavy lifting, aided by the soothing music. The inaudible voices don’t do anything.
Similarly, people listening to messages played backwards seem to hear what they expect to hear. The actual words said backwards have no effect on them, but the words they imagined they heard work pretty well! That’s the power of suggestion.
3. You Respond to Everything Around You, Even Things You Ignore
As we grow up, we’re taught to ignore practically everything around us: we’re supposed to eat what’s put in front of us whether we want it or not, we’re supposed to sit up straight and pay attention to the incredibly boring lecture, and so on.
We’re constantly trained to screen out the vast majority of … everything. So when people come to me for hypnosis—say, to stop smoking or have better eating habits, I use suggestions to notice things other than cigarettes or junk food. All the things they were tuning out before.
Our schooling emphasizes book-learning and theory in a way that almost excludes the world around us and our own experiences. I once heard a person claim that we don’t know how to eat unless we become biochemists. But in fact, we started out just fine as our own personalized nutrition coaches. It took years of training for us to mess that up. If you’ve seen a preschooler eat as much as he wants, then say, “All done” and push the plate away, well, that’s how it’s supposed to work! A big chunk of our neurology is devoted to telling good food from bad, deciding what we’re hungry for, and when we’ve eaten enough. Then grown-ups smash up this finely tuned machine by, for example, telling a child who’e eaten enough that, if they’re good, they’ll force down some extra vegetables. And the ice cream they’re given as a reward for overeating is expected to be received with joy, and not as a second round of punishment. But because people are social creatures, because children believe what they’re told and want to please, they learn to ignore what their bodies are telling them.
But it’s not quite that simple. Our unconscious minds still notice what our bodies and our surroundings are telling us. And we respond to everything we notice unconsciously.
The conscious mind, on the other hand, is in the attention business. It focuses on the things you’re paying attention to (which aren’t necessarily the things you want to be paying attention to). It’s mostly unaware of the rest. In short, the unconscious mind is responding all the time to things the conscious mind is unaware of.
Sounds like subliminals, doesn’t it? The difference is that subliminals are supposed to be indetectable, even if you’re looking for them. That’s not what I’m talking about. Anytime you shift your attention, you shift your awareness, and you become conscious of different things.
In short, you’re always responding to the world around you. Not responding isn’t an option. But we’re often not aware of our responses. We can learn, though.
4. Some Good Tricks
In this section I’ll talk about a few things with subliminal-like effects, but aren’t all that subliminal.
Product placement attempts to transfer some of the feelings evoked by the film to some product an advertiser wants to sell. “If James Bond gets hammered on Heineken, and moviegoers want to be like James Bond, our sales will soar.”
The more intense the emotion of the scene, the better, and the more unique and specific the context, the better. Sales of men’s hats went up after Raiders of the Lost Ark because Indiana Jones’ hat was prominently featured in the most exciting moments. Also, hats had become a fairly rare accessory. (Jones also wore socks, but they weren’t conspicuous in the movie, and sock-wearing wasn’t unusual, so sock sales remained flat.) Similarly, it was sales of Jones-like fedoras that went up, not ball caps, sombreros, or beer hats.
How does anchoring work? You can anchor any feeling or behavior to any other feeling or behavior, whether they have a logical connection or not. The unconscious mind works in terms of intensity and context rather than logic (associative reasoning). Remember, draping a scantily clad woman over your lathe makes the lathe look good for no logical reason.
(Anchoring can also be done with unpleasant feelings, as anyone who has received unwanted mail from the IRS can testify.)
This is Pavlovian conditioning. One thing you have to realize about Pavlov’s work with dogs and tuning forks (not bells) was that, after sounding the tuning fork before every meal for a while, the dogs would salivate every time they heard the tuning fork, even if they knew that no meal would be served. If the usual tuning fork was middle C, one with a different note would get a lesser response, depending how far off it was: B-flat got better results than A. Conditioned responses are about association, not reason. It works with people, too.
By the way, people often do this wrong, and create negative anchors by mistake. When I first started selling free-range eggs at the farmers’ market, I found myself parroting the usual “store-bought eggs are disgusting” pitch. Then I realized that evoking feelings of disgust and revulsion in people makes them suddenly unwilling to buy food! I switched gears and talked up the good points of fresh local food instead. That worked a lot better. I eventually added photographs featuring hens out on green grass under a bright blue sky with fluffy white clouds. What does the condition of the sky at that particular moment have to do with my produce? Nothing. But it helps. (Pro tip: Add a couple of little kids in overalls to the scene if you can, or somewhat older kids who are feeding the chickens.)
People tend to accept whatever context they’re offered, so offer them a good one (and be skeptical of what you’re offered.)
Had the bottled water industry used the frame of, “We charge you a dollar for a landfill-ready bottle of tap water, lightly filtered to remove the chlorine taste,” they never would have gotten anywhere. Images of glaciers and mountain streams work better.
Tricks With Text
We’ve spoken a lot about imagery, but words are important, too. The following tricks are used constantly in advertising, so you might was well learn how to spot them:
- Quotes. “This computer is an excellent product” — Abraham Lincoln.
Quoting a third party provides social proof. Putting obnoxious words in someone else’s mouth gets you partly off the hook compared to saying it yourself. “Even unattributed quotes have these properties.”
- Anecdote. Humans do automatic role-playing, considering a statement about someone else first in its original form, and then recasting themselves in the starring role. So someone who would instantly resist a suggestion like, “You should invest $500 in my start-up company” might be happy to hear, “Mary is excited about investing $500 in my start-up company.” Their unconscious mind will likely make three passes through that sentence: first as spoken, then with themselves as the role of Mary, and then with themselves in the role of you, the person trying to get people to pony up $500 investments. If these daydreams seem good, you may get your $500 investment.
- Embedded Commands. As social animals, humans tend to follow direct orders, but only from people who seem entitled to give them. Quotes and anecdotes are two ways of working around this. Another method is to disguise the command so it doesn’t seem to come from anywhere in particular. If the unconscious mind picks up the command, but it’s muted enough that it doesn’t draw your conscious attention, that fits the bill, and is also subliminal. Embedded commands are a bit too squirrely to describe here, so I’ll give you just one. In sales copy, it’s more or less traditional to start sentences with “By now,” in the hope that the unconscious mind is indifferent to spelling, and sees “By now” and “Buy now” as equivalent.
5. None of These Secrets are Very Secret
Yes, there are sneaky persuasion techniques out there. Yes, some of them work pretty well. No, none of them amount to mind control. Hey, my brother’s kids could get me to ride on roller coasters just by asking, and I hate roller coasters. The expectations of children are way more powerful than anything I’ve discussed here.
Also, the advertising folks, speechwriters, filmmakers, and sales people all study each others’ work, and so do the research psychologists. Almost everything that’s known can be found on the Internet for free, and the rest can be found fairly cheaply. These are poorly kept secrets.
As a hypnotist, I find these concepts useful. Not to fool people, but to bring home the same message on multiple levels, so it makes sense any way you look at it. I think subliminals, superliminals, and just plain liminals are at their best when their message is exactly the same as the core message.