Way back in 1957, a market researcher by the name of James Vicary announced that he had created a new form of advertising that he called subliminal advertising. Vicary claimed that he had repeatedly flashed two slogans — "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Eat popcorn" — throughout a movie.
Although the flashes were too quick to be perceived by the conscious mind, Vicary believed that they were perceived by and affected the subconscious mind. In fact, Vicary claimed that popcorn sales at the theater had increased over 18% and that Coca-Cola sales had gone up nearly 58%.
Unfortunately, Vicary didn't get the reaction he had hoped for. He thought people might welcome subliminal advertising, since he believed it could replace conventional advertisements that delayed the start of the movie and annoyed people.
Instead, people were outraged and scared. No one seemed to welcome the idea that people could be manipulated subconsciously. For example, fears of government "mind control" programs abounded.
Eventually, the public learned that Vicary's claims weren't entirely accurate. The theater owner claimed that there had been no increases in sales of popcorn or Coca-Cola as Vicary claimed. Vicary later admitted that he hadn't been honest about the results of his studies.
Despite these admissions, the idea that subliminal messages could affect and possibly control human behavior were already out there and entrenched in people's minds. Many governments banned the use of subliminal messages and, even today, many people still believe they can be a powerful influence on behavior. But do they really work?
The word subliminal comes from the Latin words sub, meaning below, and limen, meaning threshold. Subliminal messages, therefore, are those messages that consist of visual flashes that are faster than the eye can see or sounds lower than the ear can hear. They are below a person's threshold of conscious awareness, yet still able to be perceived and processed by the subconscious mind.
Hundreds of scientists have studied subliminal messages over the years with a wide range of findings. Despite attempts to assess the effectiveness of subliminal messages, there remains no real consensus on whether it works or, if it does, how effective it is and what conditions must be met for it to be effective.
There's really no need to worry that subliminal messages will make you do something against your will. That's just a myth. Those studies that have shown subliminal messages to be able to influence behavior in some way reveal that those effects aren't very powerful and are usually limited to the strict conditions present in the study.
For example, subliminal messages might influence you to purchase something you were already interested in and thinking about buying. That's quite different than influencing you to do something you dislike or have no intention of doing.
Moreover, when scientists have attempted to duplicate findings made during scientific experiments in the lab in the real world, they've found it basically impossible to do. With the constant information overload we experience in the modern world on a daily basis, trying to use subliminal messages to influence behavior would be incredibly difficult to pull off.
Scientists will continue to study subliminal messages and what effect, if any, they can have on the subconscious mind. Some scientists point out that stimuli don't necessarily have to be subconscious to affect us. For example, some restaurants play upbeat music on purpose. We hear the music consciously. What we might not realize is that the speed of the music subconsciously makes us eat faster, leading to a faster turnover rate and larger revenues for the restaurant!