Subliminal advertising, does it work?

In the book by Lilienfeld et al one of the 50 myths in popular psychology they tackle is the effect of subliminal messages. Everybody knows the story about an experiment about Coca Cola and popcorn.

“In 1957 Vicary conducted his research in to subliminal messaging. He used a movie theatre in Fotr Lee, New Jersey, and over a 6 week period he tested subliminal messaging on over 45,000 movie goers.

While the patrons watched a movie (called Picnic) Vicary displayed 2 subliminal messages – on stating “Eat Popcorn” and another stating “Drink Coca-Cola”. The messages were text based subliminal messages and were displayed much faster than the human eye can see – they flashed on the screen for 3/1000s of 1 second – and they were displayed once every 5 seconds.

Results were taken by comparing the current 6 weeks sales of Coca Cola and popcorn to sales figures from the previous 6 weeks. The difference was phenomenal:

    • Popcorn sales had risen by 57%
    • Coca Cola sales rose by 18.1%

These figures suprised even Vicary himself. At the time the findings caused somewhat of a hysteria, further research started to be done into the influence of subliminal messages, and they were soon banned from being used within advertisements.” (source)

Problem is: Vicary faked the research actually. In a 1962 Advertising Age interview, Vicary admitted that the original study was “a gimmick” and that the amount of data was “too small to be meaningful”. (source) The problem is, even this was a lie. The experiment NEVER TOOK PLACE; Vicary just had lied and fabricated the results. It was a simple scientific fraud. (source)

OK, but does this mean that subliminal messages don’t exist and don’t work? There were many trials to copy the original research (that didn’t happen) without success. But when I last discussed this myth with some researchers they said that there is some other research and indeed the past years there was research published that tells a different story.

Dutch research from 2006 suggests it does work with some extra elements needed, check the abstract from this research article:

With his claim to have increased sales of Coca Cola and popcorn in a movie theatre through subliminal messages flashed on the screen, James Vicary raised the possibility of subliminal advertising. Nobody has ever replicated Vicary’s findings and his study was a hoax. This article reports two experiments, which assessed whether subliminal priming of a brand name of a drink can affect people’s choices for the primed brand, and whether this effect is moderated by individuals’ feelings of thirst. Both studies demonstrated that subliminal priming of a brand name of drink (i.e., Lipton Ice) positively affected participants’ choice for, and their intention to, drink the primed brand, but only for participants who were thirsty.

Other research showed that this could work… if the persons involved are tired (source) and there is a relation with habits (source)

Priming is a technique that quite often is used in psychology.  From Wikipedia:

Priming is an implicit memory effect in which exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus. It can occur following perceptual, semantic, or conceptual stimulus repetition. For example, if a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that he or she will answer table is greater than if not so primed. Another example is if people see an incomplete sketch that they are unable to identify and they are shown more of the sketch until they recognize the picture, later they will identify the sketch at an earlier stage than was possible for them the first time.

The effects of priming can be very salient and long lasting, even more so than simple recognition memory. Unconscious priming effects can affect word choice on a word-stem completion test long after the words have been consciously forgotten.

If you look at this (funny) movie, I do think it is a clear example of priming but do notice that the subliminal messages last much more than the frame in a movie.


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