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Subliminal Messages: Deceiving the Mind

By Autumn C. Koerbel,
Special Feature,

Although you might not realize it, subliminal messages are probably being used on you. Used mainly as advertising tools, such messages are designed to be relayed without their targets ever being conscious of them.

Because of this, their use is banned in most major countries. Nonetheless, subliminal messages continue to be disseminated throughout the media world, deceiving those who encounter them.

Subliminal messages were apparently first unleashed on the American public in the 1950s by James Vicary, an advertising executive. Vicary performed a study at movie theaters in which the words "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Eat Popcorn" were flashed on the screen, yet so quickly that the unwary audience didn't consciously notice them. Vicary claimed that sales on popcorn and Coke accordingly soared at the concession stands, jumping 57.7% and 18.1% respectively. Although no substantial results were demonstrated, this story has been around for over 50 years.

Subliminal messaging can be defined as the use of a signal or message designed to pass below the normal limits of perception. These messages are typically undetectable to the naked eye or ear, cloaked from the conscious mind and yet perceived unconsciously.

This cloaking is usually achieved by burying the subliminal images or words inside a clearly visible, distracting form of media. A verbal message might be hidden inside an audio track, or a small image could be concealed inside a larger one.

Wondering if you've ever witnessed subliminal messaging? If you've seen the movie Fight Club, you might remember a scene where Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt's character) adds subliminal frames of a penis on the screen while working as a projectionist in a movie theater.

After James Vicary introduced the idea of subliminal messaging, many others followed suit in experimenting with this supposedly potent new tool.

New York psychologist Lloyd H. Silverman ran a series of tests throughout the 1960s on the effects of subliminal messages on people with depression. One test group looked at a photo while the phrase "Destroy Mother" was quickly and repetitively flashed on its surface. A second group was exposed to the same image, this time with the words "People Thinking." Neither group consciously perceived either message.

Nonetheless, the effects of the subliminal messaging were seen later in the experiment, as the first group's depression increased but the second group's depression did not change.

It didn't take long for advertising agencies to realize that the use of the "extra information" that Vicary and Silverman dabbled with was particularly applicable to their industry, and they were pleased to discover that the hidden message did not even have to relate directly to the product they were selling.

In fact, all that seemed to be required was that the message had to somehow appeal to the subject. It wasn't a big jump from there to conclude that the idea of "sex" would be particularly pleasing to most consumers. A devious plan was concocted: Let the viewer's subconscious mind pick out the words, sounds, or pictures and send "pleasing thoughts" to the conscious mind, and, in turn, the consumer would be influenced to purchase the product.

A highly successful book that became required reading for college students at this time was titled Subliminal Seduction, written by Wilson Bryan Key. Key claimed that he found the word "sex" spelled out in the patterns of dots making up magazine illustrations. He also noted that in one ad, phallic images were hidden in depictions of ice cubes.

Key discovered an additional example of sexually-related subliminal messaging when studying a Howard Johnson menu. He claimed he saw a picture of a plate of clams on the menu that was in fact a depiction of a sexual orgy, which included several people and a donkey.

People have always claimed that cigarette advertisements are full of sexually-suggestive subliminal messaging. For instance, in Camel cigarette advertisements depicting "Joe Camel," the head of the cartoon spokesman has been alleged to symbolize the "head" of male genitalia. In addition, it is said that if you look closely enough at the back leg of the camel pictured on the cigarette pack, you can see an image of a naked man with an erect penis.

During the Cold War, there was an interesting advertisement for Kent cigarettes seen in America. The ad was a picture of three people on a ski lift -- a woman seated in between two men. The man on the left was dressed in red and yellow, characteristically considered to be communist colors. The man on the right was wearing red, white, and blue -- and was clearly the object of the woman's attention. Not surprisingly, the man in the colors of the U.S. flag had a Kent cigarette in hand.

The detection of hidden messages is by no means a new phenomenon; people have been "seeing" things for centuries. Over a thousand years ago, Aztecs observed a lounging lady in the silhouette of a mountaintop in Central Mexico. They named the large peak "Ixtaccihuatl," meaning, "sleeping woman."

In more recent years (1990 to be exact), some protesters complained that Pepsi was subliminally influencing consumers by designing their new "Cool Cans" so that when six-packs were stacked at grocery stores, the word "sex" could be seen from the supposedly random design.

Another incident occured in September of 2000, prompting two democratic senators to ask the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to review an RNC (Republican National Committee) television advertisement. It was discovered that when the commercial was slowed down, the word "Rats" appeared on the screen in large white letters superimposed over the words "The Gore Prescription Plan." Then, in a fraction of a second, the word disappeared, and the words "Bureaucrats Decide" appeared on the screen in small letters.

In addition to advertising, subliminal messaging can be found in numerous forms of popular entertainment ranging from "backward messaging" in songs to hidden commands or suggestions in movies.

Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page is said to have placed the backward message "Here's to my sweet Satan" into the song "Stairway to Heaven." The Beatles have also been known to use tapes played backward for musical effect and have purportedly used subliminal messages announcing Paul McCartney's death when he was still alive.

In the Disney movie Aladdin, some have heard a whispered message saying "Good teenagers, take off your clothes." In another Disney film, The Lion King, the word "sex" seems to form in the clouds above Simba's head after he watches his father die.

There's no question that subliminal messaging doesn't sit well with most people, and many searches are conducted by those who wonder just how prevalent this technique remains today. Furthermore, as far as tools go, subliminal messaging is a pretty cool one.

Subliminal messaging frequently slips off the public radar, but interest in its history is quickly revived with every fresh alleged instance of its use. Even where evidence of it is missing, people tend to seek out examples of covert influencing. After all, everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, especially those that involve the government and massive corporations.

Even if its use is one day deemed extinct, the history of subliminal advertising will always be taught to burgeoning ad execs and Communications Studies students, guaranteeing prolonged interest in the subject.


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