Subliminal Messages Work!


Exciting new research shows that subliminal messages do reach the brain, although their impact on behavior has yet to be demonstrated.

Scientists at the University College London (UCL) have found the first physiological evidence that invisible subliminal images do attract the brain’s attention on a subconscious level. The findings challenge previous scientific assumptions that consciousness and attention go hand-in-hand.

“What’s interesting here is that your brain does log things that you aren’t even aware of and can’t ever become aware of,” Bahador Bahrami from the UCL said. “We show that there is a brain response in the primary visual cortex to subliminal images that attract our attention without us having the impression of having seen anything. (From Subliminal messages ‘impact on brain’ – original linked page gone. See similar content at Subliminal advertising leaves its mark on the brain.)

In one sense, this isn’t a huge surprise. Our past posts on priming, for example, show the impact of information that is assimilated unconsciously. And anyone who has read Malcom Gladwell’s Blink knows that the unconscious mind takes in a whole lot more than one might expect.

Still, it’s exciting to see proof that truly subliminal messages are processed by the brain. Certainly, it would be interesting to better understand the impact of these messages – would people actually act on a message to “Buy Coke”, for example? To some degree, this is of mostly academic interest. It’s hard to imagine regulatory bodies viewing insertion of subliminal messages as acceptable. Nevertheless, understanding how the brain handles subliminal messages will be of interest not only to neuromarketing devotees but the broader group of psychologists, neuroscientists, and marketers.

Related paper: Attentional Load Modulates Responses of Human Primary Visual Cortex to Invisible Stimuli.

  1. Simon Evans says

    This is a fascinating field. Still, I wonder if we can ever understand the ‘meaning’ of the messages, which are likely to be different for everyone. Just like conciously received messages, subliminal messages are likely to be put in the context of individual experiences. While a subliminal visual image might induce a subconcious positive state for one person it may be negative for another.

  2. Jeffrey Eisenberg says

    The vast majority of marketers aren’t very good at articulating their messages at the concious level. Subliminal messaging is fascinating but unlikely to be used effectively any time soon.

  3. Steve Mann says

    Hey…love your blog… I am a former Neuroscientist AND Marketer… as you can tell from my blog… have a similar love.

    I look forward to dialogging.


  4. Roger Dooley says

    A few years ago, neuroscience and marketing seemed like strange bedfellows, Steve… not any more!

    Simon, I’m sure you are right – subliminal messages may be interpreted differently just as consciously viewed ones. Still, as Jeffrey notes, we are unlikely to see advertisers using effective subliminal messages in the near future.

    Of course, going all the way back to the early days of subliminal testing, messages like “I’m thirsty” and “drink Pepsi” might be hard even for the subconscious mind to misinterpret.

  5. Roxanne says

    I recall from the early subliminal literature, that they do work, as long as the message is endorsing / reinforcing a desire that is already there… To use RD’s example, If I like Pepsi and am thirsty, seeing a subliminal message about drinking it should make me more likely to get up and buy one, (if the inclination were already present).

    As far as subliminal messages becoming strong enough to get us to do things we don’t want to do, let’s hope that never becomes possible! And if it does, let’s call it brainwashing instead of subliminal messaging!

  6. Arthur J. Graham, Ph.D. says

    Having coined the term “subliminal racism” which is based upon my 1980, UCSD Dissertation, “The Manichean Leitmotif,” I stand to bear witness from my research data that subliminal messages do emphatically produce results and are deliberately struct or embedded into the act and/or mode of presentations through “form, motion, sound, and color” that I call the four aesthetic elements. (See Graham’s: tetranalysis)

    Please visit my website for more info at:

  7. Patrik says

    It is one thing to measure some kind of response through the attentional system. And something else to make sense of the communicated information through a higher order process such as decision making. Dr Bahrami’s research does not tell how the consumer’s decision making process is to be affected by the claimed “subliminal advertising”. //

  8. Roger Dooley says

    Clearly, more research would be required to show a definite effect on consumer behavior. Indeed, much of the work in the neuromarketing area seems to bypass that key step. I’ve spent years in direct marketing, where theories and assumptions don’t count for much – the proof is in actual, measurable sales results.


  9. Stics says

    Every now and then (not often but it happens) I bump into art directors and PR agents who are intentionally using amusing versions of the Coke & Popcorn hoax in their own marketing in order to get extra attention to their messages. To gain the right effect you have to “leak” the story in one way or the other, preferably to a journalist.

    Using “subliminal advertising” as a joke or in a phony way may be a powerful strategy for unknown brands since you will attract curious journalists and bloggers who will willingly write about the phenomena etc. At the same time it is worth to remember that there is a major risk in using this strategy for well known brands in general and the Coca Cola brand in particular. It doesn’t take many guesses to understand why.

    Ps. If your local garage band is not successful enough; let the general public get to know that your little band is using “Backwards Masking” and you will boost PR as well as sales, especially if hardrock music is your thing. The one and only reason to use backwards masking is to build your “rock’n’roll image”, stir up parents’ emotions, get journalists and bloggers to write a lot and thereby earn a few extra dollars in the process.

  10. Encefalus says

    Hey, a very interesting research. I mentioned you on my blog and I left you a trackback. If you want see my post about subliminal advertisting at

  11. DJ says

    As to the blogs published. Subliminal messaging works, during the 1980 companys were experimenting with subliminal messages in their ads wich was proven to work shortly after the Goverment out-lawed subliminal messaging in advertisments. Ever since it’s only other application has been self help. Another example would be Cherry magazine sold subliminal CD’s, do to the message on the CD’s and it affecting so many people the company was forced to close.
    a little discretion should be taken before you bad mouth some-thing you dont understand just cause you dont believe it works great it may not for you but it might for some one.

  12. Lea Ann says

    Do you think that in the self-help arena, positive affirmations flashed on your computer screen would have the ability to influence your behavior?

    I recently purchased a program that does this (flash positive affirmations).

    Thanks in advance!

  13. manucheher says

    i,d like to know how can we use subliminal messages forin our daily life and how do they work/doesit really work?

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