How to Detect Subliminal Messages

by David M. Oancea; Updated September 26, 2017
Subliminal, symbolic message in a cigarette ad linking the use of cigarettes with sexual intercourse.

The use of subliminal messages in experiments and therapies has been practiced since the 1860s. Later, it was employed in advertising. Although most people are unaware of the use and effectiveness of these messages and may even consider the suggestion of their use to be in the realm of "science fiction" or "fantasy," some researchers have dedicated years to the study of these methods to "secretly" influence human thought processes and therefore behavior. Detecting and decoding these subliminal messages is best begun by studying print ads for hidden images or perceptual ambiguities that are imperceptible without focused concentration.

Items you will need

  • Print ads from magazines or online for tobacco or alcohol products (especially ones containing ice cubes)
  • Print ads from magazines or online for fast foods
  • Print ads from magazines or online for exercise or weight-loss products
  • Magnifying glass
Step 1

Study the ad contents, images and words, and determine whether anything seems out of place or odd (such as the elements in the ad and their placement), or hidden in the background or within an image. (Use the magnifying glass for closer study.) Determine whether the ad is an actual photo or an artist's rendering. Write down your observations.

Step 2

Answer the following questions about the ad, as suggested by Bill Chapman in his "Classroom Tools": "At whom is it targeted? Is it commercial or non-commercial? In one clear, brief sentence, how would you summarize the message? Are there other messages in this item? Is the author attempting to elicit a behavior or a belief? What is the behavior or belief the author wants from the target? Does the message attempt to manipulate with emotion, reason or both? How you think the manipulation works? Do you believe this item was successful propaganda? What evidence supports your answer?"

Step 3

Select print ads that advertise exercise or weight-loss products. Answer the same questions from Step 2 to determine what, if any, subliminal messages are being employed to sell the product.

Tips

  • Learning to detect and decipher subliminal messages takes practice and deliberate study of the elements in an ad to determine what lies below the surface. Developing the awareness that an advertisement in any media form is often a sophisticated attempt to convince the viewer to buy or use a particular product may also help to explain why a person is especially drawn to one product over another.

Warnings

  • After seeing how advertising uses subliminal messages to encourage destructive behavior, one may believe that all subliminal messages are bad or even evil. The student of subliminal messages should realize that their use may also be employed to encourage positive behaviors through the use of subliminal positive affirmations and self-hypnosis. The use of subliminal messages in this manner may actually correct destructive behaviors, create a positive self-image, and reinforce constructive behaviors.

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