The theater is dark. Specks of dust float visibly in the thin stream of light coming from the movie projector. The action flick projected on the screen seems reassuringly solid, the protagonist’s leap from the flaming car looks fluid and unbroken. But to James M. Vicary, a practicing psychologist and marketing researcher, the movie failed to reach one crucial part of the human mind: the subconscious . In reality, the human eye only captures 10-12 frames per second, leading to a wealth of possibilities lying in wait for the rest of the screen time. Vicary conducted a famous experiment in a 1957 movie theater, where he repeatedly flashed the words “Eat popcorn!” and “Drink Coca-Cola!” on the movie screen in thirty-millisecond intervals. After doing so, he asserted that popcorn sales went up by 57% and soda sales by 18% . And from that moment onwards, there has been a fear in the general public of a potential onslaught of subliminal advertising, where persuasive messages are presented incredibly quickly through visual or auditory stimuli, supposedly too quickly to be directly noticed but long enough to be perceived by the unconscious. The process seems suggestive of a dystopian future straight from the pages of 1984 or Brave New World, but fortunately researchers have determined that subliminal advertising is mostly ineffective. Though intriguing, this method of product placement lacks roots in reality, rendering the mass paranoia excessive and superfluous.
The premise of subliminal advertising seems admittedly attractive to businesses. In this age of progressing consumption, companies seek increasingly persistent ways to promote their products or services. From the subtlest product-placement to hour-long infomercials, advertisers attempt to work in conjunction with the human mind to prime and seduce consumers into purchasing goods, thus increasing profits. Subliminal advertising, also known as subliminal priming, refers to the process of targeting the human subconscious through very brief exposure to information, through which advertisers supposedly influence a person’s choice of product or service .
In an early study in the field, researchers claimed that subliminal advertising allowed marketers to “break into the deepest and most private parts of the human mind and leave all sorts of scratchmarks .” However, the marketing tactic has attracted skepticism over the years, largely due to the inability to standardize experimental procedures and to isolate a clear relationship between the advertising strategy and any concrete, consistent results. Even establishing a clear definition of the term “subliminal” is unclear. Early studies equated subliminal advertising with marketing that is readily noticeable but rarely acknowledged, like the banners on taxicabs or the placement of a popular beverage on a reality show judge’s table; in contrast, a different notion of “subliminal” has emerged that believes the advertising should be completely invisible to the conscious mind, but somehow able to reach the unconscious mind . Quibbles over precise, objective definitions of the term detract from the reliability of studies conducted at this time. Additionally, the time span that the advertisements are shown to the test subjects varies greatly between experiments. Humans absorb information at different rates and therefore the brevity of the time interval that the advertisement is shown, which must be below the “threshold of information,” remains murky . Everyday agents further compromise the threshold of information; for example, how tired the subject is at the end of a long day may cause the information absorption time to increase. Since the data collected is so dependent on the state of the subjects, it is rendered unreliable.
Nowadays, modern researchers also focus on external factors like previous brand loyalty and, most importantly, consumption habits, to disprove advocates’ claim for the effectiveness of targeting the subconscious. Researchers have realized that “messages are flashed so quickly (typically at 1/3000 of a second), that the viewer is unaware of their presence,” adding that the message of the advertisement is often compromised enough to render it useless . For instance, a specific message that asks the consumer to choose a particular brand may dissolve into a vague positive message. According to Dr. Timothy Moore of York University, “meaning is constructed by the receiver in active, complex, and often specialized ways. […] The potential effects of subliminal stimuli are easily nullified by other ongoing stimulation in the same sensory channel .”
The mass paranoia regarding the phenomenon of subliminal stimuli may have originated either from the innate human fear of powerlessness, or as a way to rationalize our overconsumption. According to James Twitchell, a professor of advertising at the University of Florida, “It’s one of our most popular interpretations of advertising: ‘They are injecting us with an unnatural desire’ […] It says, ‘I’m so weak that someone with a strong message can make me do something that I wouldn’t normally do.’ For those who believe in it, it’s a gift from heaven. It explains everything. It’s poppycock .” While this psychological trait may still be present in some, subliminal priming in the context of advertising has indeed been mostly disproved.
However, priming the subconscious in other circumstances may prove to be useful after all. For example, researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business have found a correlation between positive, academically oriented subliminal priming and students’ performance on practice exams . In the experiment, subjects who were primed with words that were related to wisdom and intellect had mean scores on the assessment that were 9.6% higher than those who were exposed to neutral words, though uncertainty in the data collection renders the data statistically insignificant. The process of priming itself has been shown to affect human behavior towards others, and therefore must be studied with further depth and clarity in the future.
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