Subliminal advertising really does work, claim scientists
Subliminal advertising really does work, claim scientists who found that people
subconsciously respond to flashed messages - especially if they are negative.
By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent
Published: 7:00AM BST 28 Sep 2009
From The Telegraph Newspaper.
Researchers found that briefly displaying words and images so quickly that people
do not even consciously notice, does nevertheless change their thinking.
They found it was particularly effective with negative images and words which
could alter a person’s mood.
The phrase subliminal advertising was coined in 1957 by the US market researcher
James Vicary, who said he could get moviegoers to “drink Coca-Cola” and “eat popcorn” by flashing those messages
onscreen for such a short time that viewers were unaware.
His claims led to fears that governments and cults would use the technique to
their advantage and it was banned in many countries, including the UK.
Vicary later admitted he had fabricated his results.
But more than 50 years on British researchers have shown messages we are not aware
of can leave a mark on the brain.
A team from University College London, funded by the Wellcome Trust, found that it
was particularly good at instilling negative thoughts.
“There has been much speculation about whether people can process emotional
information unconsciously, for example pictures, faces and words,” said Professor Nilli Lavie, who led the
“We have shown that people can perceive the emotional value of subliminal messages
and have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words.”
In the study, published in the journal Emotion, Professor Lavie and colleagues
showed fifty participants a series of words on a computer screen.
Each word appeared on-screen for only a fraction of second – at times only a
fiftieth of a second, much too fast for the participants to consciously read the word.
The words were either positive (e.g. cheerful, flower and peace), negative (e.g.
agony, despair and murder) or neutral (e.g. box, ear or kettle).
After each word, participants were asked to choose whether the word was neutral or
“emotional” (i.e. positive or negative), and how confident they were of their decision.
The researchers found that the participants answered most accurately when
responding to negative words – even when they believed they were merely guessing the answer.
Professor Lavie believes that the ability to subconsciously pick up fleeting
signals could have developed as a way of picking up fleeting warnings.
“Clearly, there are evolutionary advantages to responding rapidly to emotional
information,” she said.
“We can’t wait for our consciousness to kick in if we see someone running towards
us with a knife or if we drive under rainy or foggy weather conditions and see a sign warning ‘danger’.”
Professor Lavie believes the research may have implications for the use of
subliminal marketing to convey messages, both for advertising and public service announcements such as safety
“Negative words may have more of a rapid impact,” she said.
““Kill your speed” should be more noticeable than “Slow down”. More
controversially, highlighting a competitor’s negative qualities may work on a subliminal level much more
effectively than shouting about your own selling points.”