The Truth About Subliminal Messages
You’ve heard the hype from the self-help gurus: learn while you sleep; lose weight while you drive; attract money by listening to our subliminal message audio program! The claims are extraordinary, but the question remains – is it really possible? Should you buy into the hype surrounding subliminal messages and subliminal self-help programs? Will it work for you?
Let’s start at the beginning.
What’s Is a Subliminal Message?
A subliminal message is any “message” that is designed to be transmitted to you, the recipient, below the level of conscious awareness. Images flashed quickly on a screen, too fast for the eye to consciously notice, are one example of a “subliminal” message. Masking a verbal message with sound, music or other audio, so that you can’t consciously hear the words, is another. Many companies sell self-help audio recordings that are filled with positive messages and affirmations, which are then “masked” with music so that you can’t consciously hear them. Listening to them sounds like simply listening to the music. The messages are buried in the recording, so you never actually hear them spoken.
How Are Subliminal Messages Supposed to Work?
The idea behind subliminal messages is pretty simple. There are a lot of things going on around us that we’re not consciously aware of, but that our mind nevertheless picks up on at an unconscious level. Think of the last time you were singing a song in your head, unsure as to why it suddenly popped to mind, only to discover that your friend was quietly singing it next to you just moments before. You weren’t consciously aware of having heard the song, but it popped into your mind because you unconsciously heard it.
Subliminal self-help programs are designed to work in a similar way.* You want to lose weight? Listen to a subliminal message program loaded with positive messages about weight loss – exercise more, avoid sugary snacks, cut back on the calories – and, according to the thinking, your unconscious mind should absorb them and put them into action, even though you can’t actually hear what’s being said.
*I say similar, but the real difference is that in the example, you didn’t hear the song being sung because you weren’t paying attention. In the case of subliminal messages, you can’t hear the messages because they are intentionally hidden, which means that, even if you do pay attention, you won’t hear them.
But here’s the catch – there’s no evidence that subliminal messages actually work! Sure, it’s a great idea. And wouldn’t we all like to increase our confidence while we sleep? Or improve our memory while we watch TV? But the evidence for subliminal messaging is just not there. In fact, it’s quite the contrary. Scientific research has not been able to replicate any of the claims made by marketers, and has not shown any measurable impact on test subjects beyond a placebo effect .
Most psychologists agree that subliminal messaging has shown no lasting impact upon the behavior of subjects tested . While research has shown that subliminal messaging may create a momentary change in thinking, this effect is – when present – extremely fleeting, and often impacts only those already primed for a particular behavior. The standard example given is that of beverage advertising. If an already thirsty test subject is subliminally shown images of beverages, their desire for a beverage may increase slightly for a short duration . But even this example is fraught with misconceptions, due to the now infamous “experiment” run by James Vicary, and where we get the term subliminal advertising.
Beware The “Evidence”
Perhaps the most common example of subliminal advertising – and subliminal messaging – in the popular mind is the one associated with popcorn, Coca-Cola and movie theaters. Virtually every person has heard stories about how movie theaters run subliminal ads before and during the show to encourage people to buy food and drinks at the concession stand. This entire myth is based upon one event only, and one that turned out to not even be true.
The year was 1957 and a market researcher named James Vicary claimed to have run an experiment in a movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey, wherein he flashed the messages “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Hungry? Eat popcorn” for 1/3000 of a second at five-second intervals, throughout the duration of a film that was showing at the theater. He claimed that sales of Coca-Cola, as a result of this subliminal advertising, increased by 57%, while popcorn sales increased by 18%. So successful were his experiments, he went on to form the Subliminal Projection Company, while the CIA took an interest in his studies, issued their own report based upon it, and the US government banned the use of subliminal advertising.
Problem is, the study was never actually conducted.
In 1962, James Vicary admitted to having made it all up . The experiment was never conducted, and Vicary confessed to having made up the story as a marketing gimmick for his company. Subsequent actual studies have been conducted, and have all failed – naturally – to duplicate the claimed results.
The most common – and most often cited – example of the power of subliminal messaging turns out to not only be false, but completely made up!
So, can subliminal message programs deliver what they promise? The bottom line is this: scientific research shows little-to-no benefit.
That’s not to say that scientifically engineered audio programs won’t work. Only that in regards to the specific claims of subliminal programs, there is currently little evidence to support them. Of course, science doesn’t know everything, and researchers will continue to investigate, gather data and develop new programs that may indeed be effective. But as consumers, we should all keep in mind the age-old adage – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
While the claims of subliminal programs may be questionable, there are a host of other psychological therapies that do have a positive track record when it comes to self-help, losing weight, quitting smoking, depression, anxiety and other wide-ranging concerns. Among them are traditional therapy and psychotherapy, sports psychology for the athlete, hypnosis and hypnotherapy, group therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy. At the end of the day, these therapies have a proven track-record, while the record of subliminal therapy is highly questionable. And while none of the traditional therapies listed above can promise “instant change” or “change while you sleep”, many do deliver fast, permanent and powerful changes. If you’re struggling with a problem and feel you need help, there are effective options open to you. But when it comes to the claims of subliminal audio programs – buyer beware.
The Center for Neuro-Hypnotic Science is dedicated to providing the latest in hypnosis news and information. A leader in at-home hypnosis and hypnotherapy programs, The Center for Neuro-Hypnotic Science develops and distributes proven, effective, results-oriented programs to help you through the issues impacting your life.
—References  Pratkanis, A.; Eskenazi, J.; Greenwald, A. (1994). “What You Expect is What You Believe (But Not Necessarily What You Get): A Test of the Effectiveness of Subliminal Self-Help Audiotapes”. Basic and Applied Social Psychology 15: 251. doi:10.1207/s15324834basp1503_3 -
 Pratkanis, A. R.; Greenwald, A. G. (1988). “Recent perspectives on unconscious processing: Still no marketing applications”. Psychology and Marketing 5: 337. doi:10.1002/mar.4220050405 -
 Strahan, E. (2002). “Subliminal priming and persuasion: Striking while the iron is hot”. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 38: 556–568. doi:10.1016/S0022-1031(02)00502-4 -
 Urban Legends Reference Pages: Business (Subliminal Advertising), The Urban Legends Reference Pages, http://www.snopes.com/business/hidden/popcorn.asp