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A subliminal message is an audio or visual stimuli that’s not perceived by your conscious mind. They’re often put into songs, films or adverts, as they can be used to enhance the persuasiveness of something – or convey something else entirely.

Subliminal messages are below the threshold of conscious perception. You can picture your subconscious mind in the same way as an iceberg, with far more of its mass below the surface than above. As the subconscious, or unintentional aspect of your mind represents around 90% of your total brain function, it’s clearly way more powerful than your conscious mind when it comes to processing information.

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The human body sends around 11 million bits per second to the brain for processing; its capacity has been estimated by the researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and by Bell Labs engineer Robert Lucky at 120 bits per second. So that’s the amount of ‘bandwidth’ you have for paying conscious attention to at any given time.  There’s no formal agreement on how fast the subconscious mind is, but scientists posit that it can process up to 500,000 times more than the conscious mind is able to.

So, a subliminal message is one that’s bypassing your conscious mind, but being picked up by your subconscious.

What is subliminal advertising?

Subliminal messaging in ads was first introduced as a concept by James Vickery, and then by Vance Packard in his book from 1952, The Hidden Persuaders, which claimed that Coca-Cola had used subliminal advertising in cinemas to drive sales of drinks and popcorn. (The study the claim was based on was later discredited.)

Subliminal Advertising: A definition

According to Campaign magazine, ‘the definition of subliminal advertising is quite broad. By one definition, it is: "The use by advertisers of images and sounds to influence consumers’ responses without their being consciously aware of it."’ 

Potentially convincing people to buy your product or service through subliminal advertising can be done in a number of different ways. Sometimes, it’ll involve words or images being flashed on a screen so briefly that you don’t detect them consciously (try 0.003 seconds). In print advertising or logo design, there may be an image, colour or shape incorporated into it that takes you a while to see – but your subconscious has potentially registered it.

Subliminal advertisement examples:

1. The Amazon logo

It’s a logo you’ve seen a million times, so where’s the subliminal message? Well, have you ever noticed that the arrow points from the ‘a’ to the ‘z’, telling your subconscious mind that you can literally get anything from Amazon? Plus, the arrow looks like a smile, subliminally making you feel good about the brand, so there are actually two messages cleverly hidden in one device.

2. The FedEx logo

Bet you’ve never clocked this one – FedEx make clever use of negative space – look between the ‘E’ and the ‘x’ and what do you spot? Yep, another arrow. Created by Landor Associated design bureau in 1994, it’s received more than 40 design awards, and was mentioned in a run-down of the top 10 best emblems by Rolling Stone magazine.

3. Toblerone

The Toblerone logo isn’t really subliminally selling you anything – unlike FedEx’s subtle promise of speedy deliveries and Amazon’s that you’ll be able to buy anything from A-Z. Look closely at the mountain range, which mimics the chocolate’s distinctively-shaped chunks, and you’ll be able to find a bear standing on its hind legs. Bern, the Swiss capital where the Toblerone bar was created, is called the ‘City of Bears’ and the bear features on its coat of arms – the logo thus pays tribute to the bar’s birthplace.

Does subliminal advertising work?

In truth, no-one really knows. Most people would likely tell you it doesn’t – in the same way that, despite it being a multi-billion pound global industry dating back to the 15th century, plenty of people tell you they’re never persuaded by ads. That’s more down to people not liking to feel manipulated – and as if they have very little control over their conscious decisions.

There are, however, several studies that Philip Merikle, who works for the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, points to that show, ‘considerable information capable of informing decisions and guiding actions is perceived even when observers do not experience any awareness of perceiving.’ Hedging all bets, subliminal advertising has officially been illegal in the UK, US and Australia since 1958.

Looking for background music for advertising? Rest assured, none of our music has any subliminal messages in it!

The best subliminal messages

Subliminal messaging in movies

Are they subliminal messages, or are they just things that bored movie-makers have put in to entertain themselves? We’ll let you be the judge.

1. The Simpsons

In The Simpsons, for example, eagle-eyed viewers will have spotted that God and Jesus are the only characters drawn with five fingers (all the other denizens of Springfield have four).

2. The Matrix Reloaded

Most of the license plates in the Matrix films refer to Bible verses – Trinity and Morpheus’s ‘DA203’ seen in this clip is Daniel 2:03 – ‘I have had a dream that troubles me, and I want to know what it means’.

3. The Exorcist

What is it with subliminal messages and religion? Perhaps most of them date back to the iconic horror film of 1973, in which a section of garbled speech is revealed when Father Damien Karras plays it backwards. This clip reveals what the demon is saying.

4. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy

Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) visits a Mexican restaurant, whose sign reads ‘Escupinos en su Alimento’, which may be a clue that they’re not going to be enjoying much fine dining – the English translation? ‘We spit in your food’.

5. Fight Club

Want to rewatch a favourite film to pick up a ton of hidden messages and visual clues you’ve missed? We recommend David Fincher’s cult hit Fight Club as one of the best. When Edward Norton’s Narrator meets charismatic Tyler Durden for the first time, for instance, it’s not actually the first time the audience has seen him: he’s a ‘blip’ in four different frames, including when the Narrator is making photocopies; when he’s leaving the doctor’s; when he sees Marla leaving a therapy session and during a cancer support group. He’s also in the front row of a group of waiters, when the Narrator is watching TV in his hotel room – onscreen, the group say, ‘Welcome’ (Tyler can be seen on the far right.)

One of the film’s themes is the pervasiveness of non-stop advertising, which Fincher illustrated by having a Starbucks cup in nearly every scene. And as points out, there’s a very subtle hint early on that Tyler isn’t real. When the Narrator’s condo blows up, he calls Tyler from a payphone: no answer. When the phone rings seconds later, the camera zooms in on the payphone. There’s text that says, ‘no incoming calls accepted’ – ie, Tyler couldn’t have called him back on it.

Subliminal messaging in songs

In 1985, two young men were drinking, smoking marijuana and listening to heavy metal records – among them Stained Class, a Judas Priest album. At sunset, one of the men, Raymond Belknap, shot himself and died. His friend, James Vance also attempting to take his own life, but did not die immediately – he died of complications three years later.

The two men’s families sued Judas Priest’s label, CBS Records, for $6.2 million, arguing that the pair had been driven to shoot themselves by the track ‘Better by You, Better Than Me’ on Stained Class. The plaintiffs claimed that there was a subliminal message – ‘do it’ – urging listeners to take their lives. The suit was eventually thrown out, but there have been rumours of subliminal messages concealed in music for decades.

Who, for example, would’ve thought that the squeaky-clean purveyors of 60s pop The Beatles would’ve hidden subliminal messages in their music? The Fab Four first came across what’s called ‘backmasking’ – recording a message backwards onto a track – when they were making Rubber Soul in 1965. They put a backmasked line into ‘Rain’, a single from 1966.

But their use of backmasking led to the group being at the centre of a strange urban legend. In 1969, rumours began spreading that Paul McCartney had died in 1966 and been replaced by a lookalike. One suggestion was that when the White Album’s ‘Revolution 9’ was played backwards, the phrase ‘turn me on, dead man’ could be heard. Plus, if you played the ‘mumbling’ by John Lennon between the songs ‘I’m So Tired’ and ‘Blackbird’ backwards, did it really sound like, ‘Paul is a dead man. Miss him’? It was, of course, all rubbish.

However, the band had the last laugh when they created a backmasked message for the 1995 recording of John Lennon’s 1977 demo ‘Free as a Bird’. Released as a studio version 15 years after his death, it featured a clip of Lennon saying ‘turned out nice again’ at the end. McCartney told The Observer, ‘We even put one of those spoof backwards recordings on the end of the single for a laugh, to give all those Beatles nuts something to do.’

Other groups who messed about with backmasking include Pink Floyd, whose ‘Empty Spaces’ from The Wall contains the message, ‘Congratulations. You’ve just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the funny farm, Chalfont…’ ELO, meanwhile, went to the extreme: their 1983 album, Secret Messages, is entirely comprised of reversed vocals.

To end on a more upbeat note, Franz Ferdinand decided to subvert the trope that backmasked messages are often ‘Satanic’ by adding one of the best subliminal messages, the phrase ‘She’s worried about you, call your mother’ into ‘Michael’ to add something wholesome. Aww.

For more expert articles and inspiration, explore our articles on using music in advertising, films and on YouTube. Our regularly updated playlists have music for every mood or production genre, enabling you to license tracks globally, and for every use.

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