Reasons Subliminal Messages Don't Work

by Sarah Pickard; Updated September 26, 2017
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Subliminal messages lie just under the threshold of human perception. The word "subliminal" comes from the Latin words meaning “Under the threshold.” Basically, subliminal messages are images or sounds that we are not consciously aware of, but that register with our unconscious mind. Subliminal messages were first developed to use in advertising to increase sales. While scientists and psychologists agree that our minds do unconsciously receive information, there is much skepticism on the effectiveness of subliminal messaging.

History

Subliminal messaging began in 1957, with a market researcher that flashed suggestive phrases on a screen during a film. These phrases, such as “eat popcorn,” seemed to have increased concession sales during their use. The phrases were only on the screen for 1/3000th of a second; so short that the human eye is not aware of seeing them. When the American public found out about this market research, they were discomforted by the idea that a company could get them to unconsciously want to purchase their products. The FCC banned the use of subliminal messages in 1974 because their use was “contrary to the public interest.”

Unconscious Perception & Behavior

Subliminal messages are ideally used to create desires for things that we are not consciously aware of how or why the desire exists. While many professionals agree that we can indeed pick up on unconscious information, there is little research that shows that it can alter a person’s behavior. Without the subliminal messages being able to alter behavior, they will not be successful in most cases -- especially as a marketing strategy.

Awareness

One of the arguments for subliminal messages came when people compared them to hearing a song on the radio or in a store and then later singing the song without remembering having heard it earlier. While the person was not totally aware of hearing the song, perhaps because he was distracted, he did in fact hear it and his brain registered it. Subliminal messaging is supposed to work without the person ever even being aware of hearing or seeing the message. The message is so short that the brain doesn’t have time to register the information and store it for later use.

Neurological

One reason that subliminal messages do not work is because every person’s brain reacts differently to different stimuli. Some people are more suggestive than others and may not be open to new information. The brain must code information that is received and then transmit that information to the appropriate area of the brain, but every person’s brain does this differently. In order for subliminal messaging to work, it would have to be created for a specific person, which would require research on that person’s brain, and that is not generally feasible.

References

About the Author

Writing out of Salt Lake City, Sarah Pickard started her freelance writing career in 2010. She graduated with a B.S. in psychology from the University of Utah. Pickard is a member of the American Psychological Association, as well as several honor societies.

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