Subliminal Images and Perception Management: Unconscious Mind Branding

by James Scott | Oct. 07, 2012

Chia-Li Chien, IntuitionMention the words "subliminal influence" to consumers and they're apt to think of a tricky form of advertising that tries to get them to buy something by using images and sounds they're not consciously aware of. A widely cited statistic claims that 50 to 70 percent of people surveyed believe that subliminal advertising exists and that it is effective.

An early popularizer of the concept, Wilson Key, published Subliminal Seduction in 1973. In it he claimed that a liquor company, for example, was hiding sexual images in the ice cubes in its ads. Key was following up on earlier sensational reports from the 1950s that advertisers could manipulate theater-goers' soft drink consumption by flashing subliminal messages like "drink Coca Cola" during a movie. The Coca-Cola stunt was a hoax, but subliminal images can indeed be found in some ads.

During the 2000 presidential race, the Bush campaign famously tried to manipulate viewers of an anti-Gore television ad by flashing the word "RATS" briefly on the screen. Hidden images of money and women in bikinis have been found in print ads.

Scientific testing has never verified that such tactics are particularly influential. Responses to subliminal influences do exist, though. From a scientific perspective, a stimulus can be considered subliminal if a person pays attention to it but cannot tell others what he or she perceived. For example, people can subconsciously identify words, even when they can't report what words they saw. Today, researchers agree that people can be affected and even subconsciously motivated by subliminal cues. Subliminal influences work by triggering associations and emotional responses or by affecting an individual's interpretation of the information occurring after the subliminal stimuli. For example, test subjects exposed to subliminal images of larger amounts of money work harder at tasks than those exposed to images of smaller amounts. Consciously, the subjects weren't aware of the images, but subconsciously they had been 'primed' to associate the task with significant or insignifica
nt rewards. Such effects don't last very long, but they are real. Professional marketers and consultants have taken notice of the scientific research into subconscious awareness that has taken place in the last decade. Such research has found that people often react more positively to messages when they're less aware of them.

Marketers today rarely use crude mechanisms such as flashing words on a screen. They use effects consumers don't consciously analyze much more subtly. For example, if you go into a retail store, the store's colors, the clothes the employees wear, the music playing on the store's speakers and many other elements of the store's presentation have been designed to trigger consumer responses on subconscious levels. Another example is the use of scents in stores to make people want to purchase more. Consumers and store employees may not even notice the perfumes wafting their way, but the smells can trigger positive emotional responses that stimulate buying.

Similarly, smart political consultants craft a candidate's image to appeal to the public's sense of what a competent, trustworthy individual 'should' look like. These attempts to influence the public on subconscious levels represent only the beginning of the task of building a brand, though. According to researchers, people don't automatically respond to information they perceive on a subconscious level; it is simply there for them to factor into their decisions. People who don't like vodka, Republicans, soft drinks, or retail shopping need a lot more than subtle subliminal cues to make them change their minds.

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.


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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