(James Scott) Subliminal Advertising and Subliminal Influence: How Advertisers Stimulate Action

by James Scott | Sept 19, 2012

Hot Buy, Chia-Li ChienBefore discussing subliminal influence, we should understand what it really means. In the 1960s and 1970s most people understood the idea to mean placing hidden messages so that individuals could not perceive them, thus subconsciously affecting decisions. That could influence people to make choices they might not otherwise choose.

Psychology has established two flaws in that hypothesis. First, anything we cannot perceive cannot affect our thinking at all. That means we must perceive a message for it to affect our behavior. If the reason for subliminal communication is overriding resistance, that means the message simply cannot attract our attention.

So, if a message registers at the threshold of perception it can influence behavior, but that alone does not suffice. The second flaw is the idea that subliminal messaging makes us behave as we otherwise would not. Subliminal effectiveness requires predisposition -- but marketers can generate that, and often quickly.

Together this means that if a supermarket wants to sell more soft drinks, and plays a recording saying, "buy more soda," behind its music and below human hearing, that achieves nothing. If instead it includes barely perceptible sounds of soda pouring over ice -- or a bottle opening -- that could cause thirsty people to buy more soda. Offering free samples of a salty snack to entering the store makes more customers thirsty, and sells even more soda.

The biggest way advertisers apply these principles in mass media is product placement. That does not hide the product at all. It just disguises the sales pitch as entertainment. This proves especially effective when exploiting parasocial relationships. A parasocial relationship is the sense of personal relationship people develop with media personalities.

Bruce Campbell has a strong parasocial relationship with his fans, so he could go on the air and just endorse a particular brand of beer. That would increase sales some, but experienced consumers often habitually filter out overt sales pitches. However, if on an episode of Burn Notice Campbell is drinking a beer, and a brief conversation discusses how he likes it, an involved audience may never notice the sales pitch. Those Bruce Campbell fans inclined to drink beer anyway would more likely grab that brand the next time shopping, possibly never recognizing the influence from the show.

While use of sound toward subliminal ends is mentioned above, in our visual world color and sex are also effective techniques, especially with products like beer. Showing a bikini clad woman tipping a longneck bottle to her mouth, with sighs and sexy music in the background, embraces a stack of sexual associations. Consumers associating the product with the sensuality are more inclined to purchase the product because of the associations.

One beer company with green bottles also included a sailing ship -- suggesting adventure -- with sails the color of the bottle, backlit and kind of glowing. The bottle appeared damp, cool, with beads of moisture condensing on its sides. Viewers then associating that color might pick up the product just because of how the color affects them later.

Of course the predisposition rule applies. For any of these viewing experiences to affect consumers they first must be interested in buying the product. Then the sensual appeal has to have some personal meaning, and that differs among target groups. That is why to make the most of legitimate subliminal techniques advertisers still need to know their target market.

About James Scott

James Scott is the CEO of Princeton Corporate Solutions, a corporate globalization and political strategies firm, PCS offers a unique blend of think tank, corporate and governmental communication strategies to expedite the facilitation of long lasting relationship building in these necessary sectors. http://princetoncorporatesolutions.com


About Chia-Li Chien

Chia-Li Chien

Chia-Li Chien, CFP®, CRPC, PMP; Chia-Li “like JOLLY!” Succession Strategies for Women Entrepreneurs. She is Chief Strategist of Value Growth Institute dedicated to helping private business owners increase the value of their firms. She is the award-winning author of Show Me The Money and faculty member of American Management Association. Her blog and newsletter was named a top small business resource by the New York Times “You’re the Boss” blog.


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