Given a warning, we can shield ourselves from subliminal messages

Posted on October 1, 2013

Can you find the subliminal message?

Ad-man James Vicary generated excitement and discomfort in equal measure back in the 50s when he boasted about the success of his "subliminal adverts". Presenting the words "Drink Coke" or "Eat Popcorn" on-screen, mid-movie, too fast to be consciously detected, had the effect of increasing the purchase of refreshments by cinema-goers, or so he claimed.

It turns out this was a hoax, but more recent research has confirmed that people can be influenced by subliminal messages. From the Latin "below the threshold", these messages make certain mental concepts more accessible and, under the right conditions, can influence people's behaviour. Most important seems to be that the message is goal-relevant. So a subliminal message for a drink brand is more likely to influence you if you're thirsty.

Thijs Verwijmeren and his colleagues exposed 173 students to the name of a drink brand (7-up or Nestea) for just 17ms, far too quick to be consciously detected; or if they were in the control group, no brand was shown. Crucially, for those students shown a subliminal brand name, half had been given a prior warning that they were going to be exposed to a subliminal message and that such messages can affect behaviour. Finally, all the students made a hypothetical choice between two drinks - 7-up or Nestea.

The warning worked. Thirsty participants exposed to a subliminal drink brand were more likely to choose that brand, unless they received the warning message. This suggests we are able to shield ourselves from subliminal advertising, but how?

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Source material from British Psychololgical Association

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