Almost fifty years ago, the idea of subliminal advertising raised a public furor; supposedly, messages flashed on a movie screen too fast for the viewers to consciously see boosted concession sales. Subsequent media coverage and books had people looking everywhere for subliminal messages.

The concept that ideas or information can be sent to the brain without cognitive processing is nothing new, and certainly can’t be denied. Every advertisement has an overt message, but contains many other messages – the attractive young woman driving the car, the expensive custom home in the background, even the font used to display type on the screen all tell the viewer something about the product. The kind of subliminal messages that caused the uproar, though, were quite different – they were simple messages flashed too fast for the viewer to see. Apparently, though, some part of the brain did see them because they had a behavioral effect.

Interest in subliminal ads died out for a variety of reasons, but an article by Jay Ingram in the Toronto Star, Making Your Brain Crave a Cola, talks about recent research in subliminal ads.

The studies showed that subliminal messages DO have an effect, but perhaps not one that would be useful to marketers. In one study that Ingram describes, viewers were exposed to the words “drink” and “cola” during a movie. The study found,

Both groups drank more than a control group that had seen neither word, but, curiously, those who’d seen “cola” didn’t choose cola more than mineral water. So, behaviour did change, but not to the point of preferring one drink over the other.

So, extending that thought, flashing “Chevy” to people subliminally might get them thinking about cars, but they wouldn’t be influenced to buy a Chevy instead of a Ford or Toyota. Another experiment Ingram describes combined a subliminal message with a more conventional sales pitch; in this case, the subliminal message seemed to boost the effectiveness of the conscious message in getting the subjects to choose one brand over another.

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