In 1900, Knight Dunlap, an American professor of psychology, flashed an "imperceptible shadow" to subjects while showing them a Müller-Lyer illusion containing two lines with pointed arrows at both ends which create an illusion of different lengths. Dunlap claimed that the shadow influenced his subjects subliminally in their judgment of the lengths of the lines.
Although these results were not verified in a scientific study, American psychologist Harry Levi Hollingworth reported in an advertising textbook that such subliminal messages could be used by advertisers.
In 1957, market researcher James Vicary claimed that quickly flashing messages on a movie screen, in Fort Lee, New Jersey, had influenced people to purchase more food and drinks. Vicary coined the term subliminal advertising and formed the Subliminal Projection Company based on a six-week test. Vicary claimed that during the presentation of the movie Picnic he used a tachistoscope to project the words "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat popcorn" for 1/3000 of a second at five-second intervals. Vicary asserted that during the test, sales of popcorn and Coke in that New Jersey theater increased 57.8 percent and 18.1 percent respectively.
It was later revealed, however, that Vicary lied about the experiment. He admitted to falsifying the results, and an identical experiment conducted by Dr. Henry Link showed no increase in cola or popcorn sales. This has led people to believe that Vicary actually did not conduct his experiment whatsoever.
Vicary's claims were promoted in Vance Packard's book The Hidden Persuaders, and led to a public outcry, and to many conspiracy theories of governments and cults using the technique to their advantage. Subliminal messages in movies and media. Retrieved on 2008-05-21.. The practice of subliminal advertising was subsequently banned in the United Kingdom and Australia, and by American networks and the National Association of Broadcasters in 1958.
But in 1958, Vicary conducted a television test in which he flashed the message "telephone now" hundreds of times during a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation program, and found no increase in telephone calls. In 1962, Vicary admitted that he fabricated his claim, the story itself being a marketing ploy. Efforts to replicate the results of Vicary's reports have never resulted in success.
In 1973, commercials in the United States and Canada for the game Hūsker Dū? flashed the message "Get it". During the same year, Wilson Bryan Key's book Subliminal Seduction claimed that subliminal techniques were widely used in advertising. Public concern was sufficient to cause the FCC to hold hearings in 1974. The hearings resulted in an FCC policy statement stating that subliminal advertising was "contrary to the public interest" and "intended to be deceptive". Subliminal advertising was also banned in Canada following the broadcasting of Hūsker Dū? ads there.
A study conducted by the United Nations concluded that "the cultural implications of subliminal indoctrination is a major threat to human rights throughout the world.
The message [of a piece of heavy metal music] may also be covert or subliminal. Sometimes subaudible tracks are mixed in underneath other, louder tracks. These are heard by the subconscious but not the conscious mind. Sometimes the messages are audible but are backwards, called backmasking. There is disagreement among experts regarding the effectiveness of subliminals. We need more research on that.Stuessy's written testimony stated that:
Some messages are presented to the listener backwards. While listening to a normal forward message (often somewhat nonsensical), one is simultaneously being treated to a back-wards message (in other words, the lyric sounds like one set of words going forward, and a different set of words going backwards). Some experts believe that while the conscious mind is absorbing the forward lyric, the subconscious is working overtime to decipher the backwards message.
This testimony may have been based on an incorrect understanding of backward masking, however.
Later findings discover that not everyone will benefit from such messages, in fact it has been reported to have certain adverse effects.
By subliminally priming or preparing the participant with text or an image without being aware of it, gave the partaker familiarity with the product. Half of his participants were subliminally primed with Lipton Ice ("Lipton Ice" was repeatedly flashed on a computer screen for 24 milliseconds), while the other half was primed with a control that did not consist of a brand. In his study he found that subliminally priming a brand name of a drink (Lipton Ice) made those who were thirsty want the Lipton Ice. Those who were not thirsty however, were not influenced by the subliminal message since their goal was not to quench their thirst.
Subconscious stimulus by single words is well known to be modestly effective in changing human behavior or emotions. This is evident by a pictorial advertisement that portrays four different types of rum. The phrase "U Buy" was embedded somewhere, backwards in the picture. A study (Key, 1973) was done to test the effectiveness of the alcohol ad. Before the study, participants were able to try to identify any hidden message in the ad, none found any. In the end, the study showed 80% of the subjects unconsciously perceived the backward message, meaning they showed a preference for that particular rum. Though many things can be perceived from subliminal messages, only a couple words or a single image of unconscious signals can be internalized. As only a word or image can be effectively perceived, the simpler features of that image or word will be cause a change in behavior (i.e., beef is related to hunger). This was demonstrated by Byrne in 1959. The word "beef" was flashed for several, five millisecond intervals during a sixteen-minute movie to experimental subjects, while nothing was flashed to controlled subjects. Neither the experimental nor controlled subjects reported for a higher preference for beef sandwiches when given a list of five different foods, but the experimental subjects did rate themselves as hungrier than the controlled subjects when given a survey If the subjects were flashed a whole sentence, the words would not be perceived and no effect would be expected.
In 2007, to mark the 50th anniversary of James Vicary's original experiment, it was recreated at the International Brand Marketing Conference MARKA 2007. As part of the "Hypnosis, subconscious triggers and branding" presentation 1,400 delegates watched part the opening credits of the film PICNIC that was used in the original experiment. They were exposed to 30 subliminal cuts over a 90 second period. When asked to choose one of two brands 81% of the delegates picked the brand suggested by the subliminal cuts.
Studies in 2004 and 2006 showed that subliminal exposure to images of frightened faces or faces of people from another race will increase the activity of the amygdala in the brain and also increase skin conductance.
In 2007, it was shown that subliminal exposure to the Israeli flag had a moderating effect on the political opinions and voting behaviors of Israeli volunteers. This effect was not present when a jumbled picture of the flag was subliminally shown.
Backmasking, an audio technique in which sounds are recorded backwards onto a track that is meant to be played forwards, produces messages that sound like gibberish to the conscious mind. Gary Greenwald, a fundamentalist Christian preacher, claims that these messages can be heard subliminally, and can induce listeners towards, in the case of rock music, sex and drug use. However, this is not generally accepted as fact.
Following the 1950s subliminal message panic, many businesses have sprung up purporting to offer helpful subliminal audio tapes that supposedly improve the health of the listener. However, there is no evidence for the therapeutic effectiveness of such tapes.
Subliminal messages have also been known to appear in music. In the 1990s, two young men died from self-inflicted gunshots and their families were convinced it was because of a British rock band, Judas Priest. The families claimed subliminal messages told listeners to "do it" in the song "Better by You, Better Than Me". The case was taken to court and the families sought more than US$6 million in damages. The judge, Jerry Carr Whitehead, ruled that the subliminal messages did exist in the song, but stated that the families did not produce any scientific evidence that the song persuaded the young men to kill themselves. In turn, he ruled it probably would not have been perceived without the "power of suggestion" or the young men would not have done it unless they really intended to.
Subliminal messages can affect a human's emotional state and/or behaviors. They are most effective when perceived unconsciously. The most extensive study of therapeutic effects from audiotapes was conducted to see if the self-esteem audiotapes would raise self-esteem. 237 volunteers were provided with tapes of three manufacturers and completed post tests after one month of use. The study showed clearly that subliminal audiotapes made to boost self-esteem did not produce effects associated with subliminal content within one month’s use.
Before the re-election of French president François Mitterrand in 1988, a subliminal picture of him was mixed in the title sequence of French national television daily news show, and it appeared for several consecutive days.
The subject was also prominently featured in the 1999 film Fight Club. Pictures of the main character, Tyler Durden, flash onscreen at various points during the earlier parts of the film, before Durden is introduced. Also, Durden is shown at his job as a projectionist, splicing pornographic flash frames into a film he is showing. A picture of a penis flashes before the end credits.
During the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign, a television ad campaigning for Republican candidate George W. Bush showed words (and parts thereof) scaling from the foreground to the background on a television screen. When the word BUREAUCRATS flashed on the screen, one frame showed only the last part, RATS. The FCC looked into the matter, but no penalties were ever assessed in the case.
In the British alternative comedy show The Young Ones, a number of subliminal images were present in the original and most repeated broadcasts of the second series. Images included a gull coming into land, a tree frog jumping through the air, a man gurning, and the end credits of the movie Carry On Cowboy. These were included to mock the then-occurring matter of subliminal messages in television. Although they may fall foul of the FCC guidelines, these images do appear in the U.S. boxset DVD Every Stoopid Episode.
Chris Morris famously used subliminal messages to display a half-frame of the last episode of Brass Eye, stating "Grade is a cunt" in reference to Michael Grade, the Channel 4 executive responsible for the heavy editing of Morris's show .
Shaun Micallef's Australian 'Micallef P(r)ogram(me)' shows contained strange subliminal messages that can be seen on the DVDs. As they are of random, humorous statements, questions, etc, they are not regarded as advertising. They were usually images of politicians, as is the case with his more recent Newstopia.
In Warner Brothers' 1943 animated film "Wise Quacking Duck", Daffy Duck spins a statue which is holding a shield. For one frame the words "BUY BONDS" are visible on the shield.
The December 16, 1973 episode of Columbo titled "Double Exposure", is based on subliminal messaging: it is used by the murderer, Dr. Bart Keppler, a motivational research specialist, played by Robert Culp, to lure his victim out of his seat during the viewing of a promotional film and by Lt. Columbo to bring Keppler back to the crime scene and incriminate him. Lt. Columbo is shown how subliminal cuts work in a scene mirroring James Vicary's experiment.
A McDonald's logo appeared for one frame during the Food Network's Iron Chef America series on 2007-01-27, leading to claims that this was an instance of subliminal advertising. The Food Network replied that it was simply a glitch.
In Formula One racing, the paint scheme of many cars would carry messages intended to look as if they were of banned tobacco products in many Grands Prix where tobacco advertising was banned, though many of these were jokes on the part of the teams (for example, Jordan Grand Prix ran Benson and Hedges sponsorship as "Bitten and Hisses" with a snake-skin design on their cars). A similar procedure was used by NASCAR driver Jeff Burton after the AT&T Mobility advertising was banned by a court order in 2007.
In June-July 2007, Sprite used a type of obvious subliminal message, involving yellow (lemon) and green (lime) objects such as cars. The objects would then be shown inconspicuously in the same setting, while showing the word "lymon" (combining the words lime and lemon) on screen for a second at a time. They called this "Sublymonal Advertising." The previous year, Sprite used a similar advertising campaign, but this time it was tied in to Lost Experience, an alternate reality game.
In Brainiac: Science Abuse, there is an experiment carried out to see if viewers would react to subliminal messages. One was shown during an experiment to discover which substance provides the best skid; the message appeared when a brainiac hit a bale of hay. The second message appeared across a T-Shirt of a brainiac saying 'Call your mum', and the third said 'scratch your nose' when a sound wave hit the Brainiac logo. At the end of the show, people were shown in a theatre watching that episode. The test showed that the messages barely impacted the audience. The subliminal content in this episode was legal, as its presence was announced at the beginning and end of the episode.
In Week 11 of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart in which candidates have to create an ad for the Delta's former low-cost commercial airlines Song, the team Matchstick used a 1/48th of a frame image at the bottom-right corner with the Song Airlines logo.
Many of these purported messages are Satanic; for example, if the Led Zeppelin song "Stairway to Heaven" is played backwards, lyrics including "Oh here's to my sweet Satan" can supposedly be made out.
These two messages have not been confirmed by the artists (and denied by some band members), and have not been proven to exist by fully respected sources.
In February 2007, it was discovered that 87 Konami slot machines in Ontario (OLG) casinos displayed a brief winning hand image before the game would begin. Government officials worried that the image subliminally persuaded gamblers to continue gambling; the company claimed that the image was a coding error. The machines were removed pending a fix by Konami.
Governments are often depicted as employing subliminal messages in propaganda. The novel "FREEZE FRAME" by B. David Warner depicts the election of a corrupt president candidate using subliminal advertising to sway the votes in his favor. The movie Josie and the Pussycats described a long lasting plot whereby the U.S. government was controlling trends by inserting subliminal messages in popular music. Furthermore, towards the end of the film, a government agent shuts down the operation, saying that subliminal advertising works better in films. The words "Josie and the Pussycats is the best movie ever" are then spoken rapidly in voice-over and displayed quickly on screen, with the words "Join the Army" in smaller letters below it. And in the 2005 science fiction movie Serenity, the Alliance uses subliminal messages broadly disseminated in commercials and other video to cause River Tam to go berserk. It only works on River because she was subjected to Alliance training and conditioning.
Many references deal specifically with the military. An episode of The Simpsons involved Bart and his friends joining a boy band, the Party Posse. While watching a video for the Party Posse, Lisa notices the phrase "Yvan Eht Nioj" being repeated continuously by belly-dancers. She plays the video in reverse and finds that it means "Join the Navy". Also, an Uncle Sam "I Want You" poster can be seen in the video frame by frame. The joke was that the United States sends subliminal messages in order to recruit people. In addition, the art of "superliminal messages" was demonstrated to Lisa; a Navy representative leans out a window, sees Lenny Leonard and Carl Carlson, and shouts "Hey you! Join the Navy!" And in an episode of Malcolm in the Middle titled "Reese joins the Army (2)", one of the drill sergeants comments about the other's restored confidence in the Army "I guess the subliminal advertising's working after all." his fellow drill sergeant then matter-of-factly states "the army doesn't use subliminal ads" and then the pair slowly turn and look at each other. Not too different from the joke in The Simpsons episode mentioned above, this episode was a joking reference to the low military recruiting numbers in 2004 suggesting that the U.S. military uses such things in a tactic of desperation. And in an episode of Babylon 5, during a scene which represents a public service announcement for Psi Corps, the words "TRUST THE CORPS" and "THE CORPS IS YOUR FRIEND" appear on screen for four frames. J. Michael Straczynski wanted the audience to recognize the subliminal message; "I had my staff find out what constitutes subliminal material--and it's two frames per second, which is illegal, you can't do things at that speed--so I went four frames per second".
An early episode of the X-Files deals with a small town plagued by killings where the perpetrators are influenced by messages appearing on ATMs and other electronic devices. Mulder refers to the use of subliminal messages in several instances. The Family Guy episode Mr. Griffin Goes to Washington jokes about subliminal messages for smoking in television. It shows an old black and white TV show whose dialogue is repeatedly interrupted by a suited man stating "Smoke" and later "Are you smoking yet?" in a monotone voice. Later in the episode, when Peter is arguing with his bosses about smoking, the same man interrupts while saying "Smoke."
The advertising element is mocked in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Moving Pictures, when, to please a sponsor, a movie producer inserts a still image lasting several minutes of a serving of spare ribs. The producer claimed that if showing just a few frames would have a positive impact, imagine what showing it for longer would do.
Subliminal psychological influence is also referenced frequently by the British mentalist Derren Brown who alleges their use as the basis of many of his effects. Often, these claims are just decoys to divert attention from the real workings of his effects.
In an episode of the animated TV show "Kappa Mikey" Lily and Gonard made the public do their bidding by using subliminal messages in a cheese stick commercial.