Subliminal Advertising

Burger King Subliminal Advertisement



A subliminal advertisement is a promotional symbolic or embedded message created to subconsciously influence an audience to act. Or, it is "the unconscious emotions that secretly motivate us" (Bullock, p. 144). And the “subliminal” perception of a person supposedly takes place below the threshold of awareness, they may go unnoticed. An advertising creator can subliminally advertise by presenting visual stimuli of very brief duration on a television screen, embedding texts or images in print ads, or by using accelerated low-volume or high-frequency speech in an auditory message. These messages are everywhere, whether audiences know it or not. They can be transmitted via:

  • spoken language
  • sounds
  • music
  • written
  • color
  • images

The media used to transmit these messages are:
  • books
  • magazines
  • TV
  • radio
  • newspaper
  • film
  • mail or e-mail
  • CDs/MP3s
  • billboards/posters
  • video games...etc.

There is a well known story of James Vicary, a marketing expert who claimed that he increased a movie theatre's sales of Coca Cola and popcorn by 57.7% and 18.1% by using the slogans "Eat Popcorn" and "Drink Coca Cola ." He achieved this by using a device called a tachistoscope to flash the messages for a brief period of 0.003-seconds into a movie film. A few years later, Vicary's experiment was said to be a hoax, however his idea is not that far fetched, subliminal advertising can be an effective medium.

Subliminal Advertising Slideshow

Successful vs. Unsuccessful: Reasons for Use

If these ads sometimes go unnoticed, or it takes a lot of zooming and second guessing to find a subliminal message, would this deem them as ineffective? Not necessarily. Subliminal advertisements can be successful, depending on the intent and content usually on the basis of ethics.

From an advertising standpoint, one of the first goals of an ad - be it commercial, print, or what have you - is to catch the consumers' eyes to then hopefully build brand awareness. The creator of the ad can use flashing text, embedded messages or images (the most popular choices are that of sexual), or sounds that can change viewers' feelings and attitudes, or it can motivate them to continue use of a product, or continue viewing a show, etc. Either way, these subliminal messages have a purpose.

Sometimes when messages are discovered and talked about, it can affect the company or business positively and negatively. Many have heard the talk of sexual messages and images being subliminally embedded in Walt Disney movies. The use of the word "sex" spelled out with fog, water, or smoke in various scenes are found frequently. Also male and female genitalia can be found when one looks closely at an image drawn by the production artists of the movies. The creators of the subliminal messages are obviously taking the risk of showing something morally "wrong" and catching some flack (i.e. mothers of children viewing Disney movies) and using this as a marketing tool in hopes of creating a positive effect in, ultimately, sales. In the Disney Movie "The Lion King," many viewers claim that in this clip, the word "sex" is visible in the dust to the top left corner. This is shown in the picture below:

Subliminal Advertising in "The Lion King"
Subliminal Advertising in "The Lion King"

In print ads, subliminal ads that are sexual occur frequently. If one looks close enough at the ice cubes in the bottom of the glass in the image on Key's book, what the he or she may find is a silhouette of a couple in a sexual position. Ice cubes are one of the most popular places to embed subliminal ads, not just sexual.

Examples of symbolic subliminal message that are out there today can be considered the following: Nike 's "Just Do It" campaign, "In-N-Out Burger slogan," or the frequently used slogan "Size Matters," to name a few. "We all realize that advertisers routinely try to add libidinal 'charge' to the text of media by using ambiguous sexual terms" (Phillips, 1997, p. 144). The "Just Do It" sloglan is symbolic for "go for it," in a sports-sense, but can be taken in a sexual way very easily, but still is catching attention.

Despite the fact that a lot of the messages are seen as sexually-explicit, it is true to many in marketing and advertising that "sex sells." Sex has been present in advertising since its beginning. Advocates of this media can argue that even if the images and messages are considered inappropriate, they still caught attention (sometimes eventually) and people are going to continue talking about them and looking for more.


Thus the marketing strategy can be explained: some may become curious and will try to find these hidden images themselves, and go to the lengths of searching, buying, renting, clicking on or downloading a medium in which he or she believes contains subliminal messages. This goes for messages that are sexual, funny, surprising, interesting, etc. on any kind of ad. This can even create loyal customers and/or viewers.

Chipotle Mexican Grill has shown success with its new campaign by using subliminal advertisements. "Three words from that sign are highlighted in black: "Chipotle," "tastes" and "delicious." in a mock salute to the concept of subliminal advertising. Another sign uses the same approach, highlighting four words out of 24, so the "subliminal" message it delivers is "We make big burritos" (Elliot, 2010, par.1).

"Subliminal Sex Messages in Advertising"


Subliminal advertising is illegal in Britian and Australia, but not in the United States.
The FCC has no rules on the use of subliminal perception techniques. " In fact, the Commission appears to have addressed the issue only twice. In 1974...[and in] 1987, during an anti-smoking program on behalf of the American Cancer Society . The FCC has no rules on what is, or is not, a 'subliminal' message. Consequently, there is no basis for it to determine whether any advertisement contains a 'subliminal' message" ( FCC, 2000).
Nonetheless, subliminal advertising is legal, but it is the ethicality of the issue that people still argue about today.
There is also question as to whether subliminal advertising is even effective or not. If you take notice the “hidden” message when it occurs, then it is not considered “subliminal”. There was a test done where a series of commercials were shown to an audience. The audience was then advised to write down any single digit number that popped into their heads after each advertisement. In the end they explained that a single digit number had flashed 1000 times throughout the commercial. Very few got the number correct and the results reigned inconclusive. They would have been the same if the participants were to just simply guess a number. Subliminal advertising is questionable in its effectiveness. (Gray, 105)


Besides the costs of risk for offending people because of what a viewer may see or hear, or just the fact that this type of messaging appears to some as being invasive (which is the root of its ethical controversy). There are different categories of subliminal advertising: embedded and symbolic. Embedded messages are the most controversial and expensive because of the difficulty, talent, and technology it takes to produce them. Symbolic are less controversial because they are not embedded and are visible, and they represent something that will hopefully psychologically trigger a target audience to act.

Reach, Frequency and Scheduling

There sometimes is no set schedule for subliminal messages, especially those that are embedded. They can be placed virtually anywhere, any time. As for the symbolic, these would take more air time, or magazine space, considering they are more noticeable. The video below is an example of an embedded subliminal message, where the Fox News channel embedded an image of John McCain in a logo during the 2008 elections:

When creating these messages/advertisements, advertisers want to target a particular audience who will understand the underlying message, this is especially true in symbolic subliminal ads. The reach and frequency of subliminal messages are both pretty high. An example would be a popular song which has a subliminal message, it will be played over and over again on the radio, people will download it, but may not completely understand or even realize it, however with this large amount of listeners and the numerous times the song is heard, there is an increased chance of the subliminal message being heard and understood.

The question is if the audience is really going to understand, see, or take the message the particular way that the creator wants, which is ultimately to act: buy more, listen more, download more, etc.

Recent Research on the Impact and Responsiveness

The question still lives on as to whether or not subliminal advertising actually works. A study done in 2006 by Johan Karreman, where he and other researchers used different soft drink brands. "Beyond Vicary's fantasies: the impact of subliminal priming...shows that subjects were influenced in their intention to drink a specific brand of soft drink by a subliminally presented brand name, but only if they were thirsty" (Bermeitinger and Goelz, p. 42).

"The main findings could be replicated: the subliminal presentation of a drink’s name increased the choice-probability for this drink and the intention to drink this beverage only for thirsty individuals. The study is perfectly in line with assumptions (and research which confirms these assumptions) that one can be subliminally influenced only if one is in a corresponding state with a selective vigilance; that is, if the prime is in relation to one’s current goals or needs; and even Vicary himself assumed that in 1958" (Bermeitinger and Goelz, p.42).

In a more recent study in 2009, German researchers Christina Bermeitinger and Ruben Goelz, and a few others found that there was a same pattern as what Karreman found, only that tired participants consumed more of the subliminally presented than the non presented brand.

"Therefore, the findings confirm that subjects are influenced by subliminally presented stimuli if these stimuli are need-related and if subjects are in the matching motivational state" (Bermeitinger and Goelz, p.49).

One study conducted by researchers at the University College London examined the effects of subliminal advertising on the brain. Although there have not been any completely solid conclusions made regarding whether subliminal advertising has great effects on a person, strong evidence does exist. Science Daily explained that, “Using fMRI, the study looked at whether an image you aren't aware of -- but one that reaches the retina -- has an impact on brain activity in the primary visual cortex, part of the occipital lobe” (2007, University College). During the experiment, subjects were told to wear filter glasses. These projected faint pictures of familiar objects in one eye, and a strong flashing image called “continuous flash suppression” into the other. This new method blocks out the subject’s consciousness of the faint objects. While wearing the glasses, the subjects performed another task, either easy or requiring some form of concentration. During the more difficult task, the brain actually shut out the subliminal image. Researchers found that the brain will not consciously pick up on subliminal images if it is engaged with other things. The results of the study support that subliminal advertising does have an impact on brain activity.

Audience Qualities

After viewing subliminal advertisements, some "...will never watch a commercial, make a sales presentation, or look in the mirror the same way again..." (Bullock p. 10) after taking a closer look at some of the embedded and symbolic images, sounds, etc.

The quality of audience that advertisers want to reach with this particular type of media are those who are interested, intrigued, and want to seek out more about what is being advertised. The messages are tools to spark these types of attitudes and feelings.

Subliminal Messages in Disney Movies

Other Interesting Qualities

Subliminal advertising can also come in the form of product placement. By using visual technology in the movie "Lord of The Rings," the words "Coca Cola" can be read in this scene of the movie, if played in slow motion.

"Lord of the Rings" Subliminal Advertisement
"Lord of the Rings" Subliminal Advertisement


Bermeitinger, C., Goelzz R., Johr, N., Neumann, M., Ecker U., & Doerr, R. (2009). The Hidden Persuaders Break Into the Tired Brain. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45 (2), 320-326. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2008.10.001.

Bullock, A. (2004). The Secret Sales Pitch: An Overview of Subliminal Advertising. San Jose, CA: Norwich.

Elliot, S. (2010, April 5). Chipoltle Bites the Hand it Used to Feed. New York Times: Media Decoder. Retrieved April 10, 1010 from

Gray, Gary. (2000, November). Nothing sublimal about it: the truth about the myth of marketers' manipulative powers, from someone who was there. Marketing Magazine, 105(47), 9. Retrieved December 13, 2010, from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 375370521).

Phillips, Michael J. (1997). Ethics and Manipulation in Advertising: Answering a flawed indictment. Westport, Connecticut: Quorum Books.

(2007, March 9). Subliminal Advertising Leaves Its Mark On The Brain. University College London. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 20, 2010 from