Does Subliminal Messaging Impact Our Behaviour?

by Kareena Dodeja
Does Subliminal Messaging Impact Our Behaviour?

February 21, 2021

A lot of people watched Netflix's The Social Dilemma. And they all were shocked with what the one-part documentary showed- how humans get played by the "marketers" intent to sell everything they interact with online. One dialogue stood out in summarising the message- "If you're not paying for the product, then you're the product". But how come we don't realise that we are being targeted without us noticing? Find it out here.

Advertisers, social media marketers, and the “all-mighty algorithms” exploit our subliminal sense in making us engage and buy products that we don’t know we want (or even need, for that matter). We call our subliminal mind the visual or auditory stimuli that the conscious mind cannot perceive.

Subtle statements inserted in TV commercials or songs are aimed at our subliminal mind- we find it hard to decipher what kind of message is conveyed in the advertisements.

The general belief is that [subliminal messages] are pretty powerful and that they can get us to do all sorts of things that we don’t want to do.

What's The Matter With Our Brain & Subliminal Messages?

Our conscious mind cannot discover subliminal messages because the stimuli we respond to are above our conscious perception. What seems to be interesting is that we are unaware of the hidden messages even when we directly watch or listen to them.

We have all been subjected to subliminal messages. The concept was first heard in the 1950s and has slowly matured since then. The perception and reaction to subliminal messages happen at the subconscious level.

Advertisers Hit Right Where It Hurts The Most

Subliminal messaging has been banned in many countries. But, the United States allows the use of it in advertisements. In 2008, KFC used subliminal advertising in the new “Snacker Sandwich”. There was a dollar bill hidden in the lettuce of the sandwich. This was quite controversial at that time.

The dollar bill was concealed as a sandwich’s garnish, which triggered more and more people to buy the sandwich as they expected an uncertain reward for which they were actually paying. KFC is best known for its branding and subliminal messaging in advertisements.

To be effective, the brain must be able to distinguish the subliminal sound from the rest of the audio.

Freudian Delineation of Subliminal Mind

Sigmund Freud defines the term “subconscious” as the part of our mind that operates below conscious awareness. It is referred to as a hidden spot where our secret desires, motives, and past experiences lie. What is fascinating is that our subconscious self can process 20,000 bits of information while our conscious can deal with lesser.

Supraliminal v/s Subliminal

Some of us might confuse subliminal with supraliminal- here is the difference. Supraliminal is the opposite. It evokes responses that influence our behaviour and can be perceived by our conscious mood. Whereas subliminal stimuli cannot be perceived when we are aware, we have to look for them. 

An example that illustrates the difference is the German and French wine experiment. A store sells German and French wines at the same price. The store plays German and French music on alternate days. Sales of German wine increase when German music is played, and the same occurred when French music was played.

This is how supraliminal messaging works as it can be perceived consciously. When the consumers hear the music, they notice and knowingly choose the wine according to the ambience.
Alpha power for supraliminal (a) and subliminal (b) condition in response to positive and negative aversive facial expressions.

Visual v/s Auditory Subliminal Messaging

Subliminal messaging targets the two senses- visual and auditory, and there are two kinds of visual messages: sub-visual and embeds. Sub-visual cues flash so quickly that viewers cannot perceive them. Embeds are static images in a visual environment, hiding from our view.

There are two kinds of audible messages: sub-audible and back-masking. Sub-audible messages are low-volume messages inserted into louder messages which cannot be heard or understood. Back-masking is a video message recorded backwards, and the original message is disguised when it is played forward.

Limitations of Subliminal Messaging

For subliminal messaging to work, people must already want to do that behaviour to be influenced (except when sleeping, because your brain paralyses you in sleep– not kidding). When we have a need, it makes it easier to trap us with this kind of advertising. Subliminal messaging cannot control your behaviour. It can only guide it.

Self-help audios are considered subliminal audio programs because they help people lose weight, change their lifestyle, and improve memory. Subliminal messaging does work, but it is only useful because of the placebo effect, we already go with the mindset that it will work.

Famous Examples of Subliminal Messaging

Baskin-Robbins is an American multinational chain of ice cream and cake specialty shop restaurants owned by Inspire Brands. Based in Canton, Massachusetts, Baskin-Robbins was founded in 1945 by Burt Baskin and Irv Robbins in Glendale, California.


Have you heard of the ice-cream brand, Baskin-Robbins? It is famous for having 31 flavours. The ‘B’ in the beginning and ‘R’ in the logo form number ’31.’ This exposes the subliminal messaging to remind us that Baskin-Robbins is different from other brands. 


Disney has been criticized for adding subliminal messages in their movies as well. In one of the animated movies Aladdin, we can vaguely hear him say, “Good teenagers take off their clothes.”

Industries Apple and IBM look to be tackling first include retail, healthcare, banking, travel, transportation, telecommunications and insurance (among others) per the official press release, with a planned rollout starting this fall.

Apple v. IBM

Another example by Fitzsimons, Chatrand, and Fitzsimons (2008) found that people were able to find more uses for a brick when they were subliminally primed with the logo from Apple when compared to IBM’s logo. The subliminal messaging to Apple’s logo enhanced creativity. 

Better By You, Better Than Me

Judas Priest has a song called Better By You, Better Than Me that influenced two people to shoot themselves. The families sued Judas Priest in the context of subliminal messages in the song. If we hear the song clearly, we can vaguely hear “Do it” in the background that led to the children taking the big step to kill themselves. 

Subliminal messaging has garnered a lot of scepticism as some aspects of it have been debunked. It can influence our thought processes and behaviour. The messaging is effective when we already have a need and react to it. 

Subliminal messages give consumers an extra push to buying a product, regardless of the messaging. Subliminal messaging is showed in advertising, music, and movies. It received criticism as people will see meaning in anything if they look hard enough. It is a fascinating concept, nevertheless. 


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