An Essay on Subliminal Advertising 

copyright 1990 by B. Diane Blackwood
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   Media bashing is a popular sport in American culture, from deriding television programming to complaining about news reports.  And from the standpoint of advertising sales pitches, it is probably healthy that it is such a popular pastime.  From the beginning, the purpose of advertising has been to guess what would motivate the consumer to buy, buy, buy!

    In 1957, James Vicary announced his technique of "subliminal" advertising and it was tested in a New Jersey movie theater with messages urging the consumption of popcorn and Coca Cola.  Vicary claimed sales of the items went up.  Were people being manipulated without realizing it (Fox, 1984)?  The experiment results were never duplicated (Synodinos, 1988).  In January 1958, Congress viewed a subliminal prepared by Vicary.  Printers' Ink reported that Congress "having gone to see something that is not supposed to be seen, and not having seen it, as forecast, they seemed satisfied."  Vicary was hired to create audio subliminals for a radio station in Los Angeles, "but adverse public reaction kept them from the air, and in the spring of 1958 the National Association of Broadcasters banned them from the airwaves" in advertising (Fox, 1984, p 186; Key, 1980).

    The question of subliminals resurfaced in 1974 with the publication of a series of books by Dr. Bryan Wilson Key, starting with Subliminal Seduction and continuing with Media Sexploitation in 1976 and The Clam Plate Orgy in 1980.  Key claims to be able to see embedded words in advertising and melting faces, death symbols and silhouettes in the ice cubes of liquor ads.  Additionally, he claims to have found the word "SEX" embedded in U.S. five dollar bills, Norman Rockwell's first Saturday Evening Post cover of 1917 and in a seventeenth century Rembrandt (Key, 1980).  Although I could see the embeds that Key was talking about in the pictures in his book, I still was not convinced that he and I were not seeing things; using our "anthropomorphic attitude" to create the "Man in the Moon" (Luckiesh, 1965).


    Artists have been aware of visual illusion for over two hundred years.  "Our past experience, associations, desires, demands, imaginings, and other more or less obscure influence create illusions" (Luckiesh, 1965).  The Mueller-Lyer illusion of two lines, one with arrows pointing toward the line and one with arrows pointing away from the line, was named in 1889.


The lines are the same length when measured with a ruler, but to the unaided eye, the line with the arrows pointing away appears shorter than the line with the arrows pointing toward the line.  The St. Louis arch is another example of visual illusion.  The height is equal to the width, but does not appear to be.  An additional example of visual illusion is the way we view 8's and S's.


We normally do not view them upside down, so we don't notice that the top portion is smaller than the bottom.  Visual illusion is possible because we interpret what we view and create our visual reality mentally (Coren and Girgus, 1978).  Visual illusion is not subliminal embeds but subliminal embeds may employ visual illusion.

    I have always been very good at finding the teacups and ice cream cones in the hidden pictures in Highlights for Children and Games Magazine; and I could see most all of the subliminals that Key points out in his books; but I can also find faces, 'sex' embeds, and phallic symbols in the water drop patterns on my shower door if I am looking for them.                                       Back to Beginning


    In 1989, a movie starring such notables as the professional wrestler, Roddy Piper, picked up the subliminal theme.  They Live portrayed the use of subliminals everywhere from billboards to television commercials.  Subliminals were being used by extra terrestrials to control and manipulate the human population. Although the idea of people from another world manipulating us through the use of subliminals seems humorous, the question remains, are we being manipulated through the use of subliminals in advertising?  Seduction - yes, subconscious - hopefully, but subliminal (Meyers, 1984)?

    The movie Exorcist (1973) used actual subliminals in the dream scene of the younger priest and in the beginning of the exorcism scene with the old priest.  A 'death mask' appears for portions of a second in both cases and can be frozen on the screen with the pause button when played back on a video recorder.

    In 1981, a movie called Agency starring Robert Mitchum explored the use of subliminals in advertising to sell political candidates.  Mitchum played the new 'power elite' backed owner of an advertising agency.  During the movie, Lee Majors points out visual subliminals in a magazine advertisement similar to the ones Key demonstrates.

    In the opening of the movie The Golden Child (1988), for a fraction of a second 'nuns' appear walking down the street in the background, but if one pays closer attention, the 'nuns' are actually penguin suited actors (Lander,  1981).
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    In 1986, Psychology Today reported the subliminal visual experiments being conducted by Robert B. Zajonc.  Test subjects were exposed subliminally to 1/1000th of a second flashes of a specific polygon shape.  Later when shown a picture of several different polygon shapes including the one they had been exposed to subliminally, the test subjects verified that they were unaware of having seen any of the shapes before, but when asked if they had a preference for any of the shapes, a significant number selected the specific polygon shape that they had been exposed to subliminally (Hall, 1986).

    In 1980, Jacoby and Whitehouse reported the results of a well designed experiment to test recognition of "context words" flashed subliminally on a screen.  Subliminal exposure increase the "feeling of familiarity with the subliminal" (Jacoby and Whitehouse, 1989).  Or to quote Zajonc, "Repeated exposure to an object increases our liking for it."  He conjectures that this is due to our protective mechanism that cause a natural alert-tense reaction to something new but that repeated exposure without harm relaxes this mechanism.  The question then becomes do subliminal nudes and embedding of the word 'sex' increase our liking of sex or for the product being advertised (Hall, 1986)?

    Kilbourne, Painton and Ridley created a test of subliminals using an original Chivas Regal ad with a subliminal nude and an additional picture retouched to take out the nude.  They reported their results in Psychology Today. The picture with the subliminal nude was preferred over the picture without the subliminal nude (Natale, 1988; Kilbourne et. al., 1984). They point out that part of the problem with Key's reports is his ambiguous use of the word subliminal.  Key makes no distinction between innuendo, metaphor, embeds and subliminals.  The phenomenon that Key is most concerned with are actually visual embeds, also known as hidden pictures (1985).    Back to top.


    There is no 'mental cost' involved in choosing one bottle of Chivas Regal over another, or one polygon over another.  Therefore the idea of using subliminals to reduce math anxiety by increasing familiarity, discounts the other factors of socialization.  Synodinos' survey showed that the sample group found subliminals more acceptable in public service orientations than in private gain situations (1988).

    I have never been able to lose weight using subliminal tapes (It has always taken a very conscious decision and careful food selection.) which has made me wonder about the effectiveness of subliminals.    Palda reports on "distributed lags" and Alwitt and Mitchell report a "sleeper effect" in advertising but both they and Warneryd and Nowak attribute this not to delays in exposure to effective advertising or any subconscious or subliminal messages but to the delay caused by "group influence."  In other words, one person in a community group has to see a product advertised or find it in the marketplace, try it, like it, and report this finding to others in the community before use will spread.  By the same token, if the product tried is not liked this opinion will be spread through the community group.  A subliminal could not overcome a poor quality product (Alwitt and Mitchell, 1985; Warneryd and Nowak, 1967; Palda, 1963).

    We already have an over communicated society.  A television picture changes 30 times a second, Congress passes some 500 laws a year and at the Pentagon the photocopiers crank out the equivalent of a thousand novels each day.  "There's a traffic jam on the turnpikes of the mind" and subliminal messages are not likely to find anymore room than conscious messages (Ries and Trout, 1981).  Consumers will buy an inferior product only once (Ogilvy, 1963, p156).  Unfortunately, with large ticket items like houses, cars and politicians, once may be too much, but that is another essay.  Back to top.


    The question still remains, are Dr. Key and I seeing subliminals in magazine advertising pictures placed on purpose by the advertisers or am I creating them with my imagination?  Although Kibourne, Painton and Ridley report some use of purposeful  embeds, they found it not to be anywhere nearly as extensive as Dr. Key contends (1985).  Based on my personal experience, I think Dr. Key and I have excellent "anthropomorphologic" imaginations.

    Dr. Key has discovered what artists have known for centuries.  In order to draw anything one uses lines and curves (Computer Images, 1986:34). As Dr. Key contends, in order for the word 'SEX' to appear subliminally in a photo or drawing, all that is necessary is the S and the X and the mind will 'fill-in' the E.  It would then be next to impossible not to implant 'SEX' in a drawing or photo since all that would be necessary would be two intersecting opposite curves and two intersecting lines (Key, 1976, 1980).      

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Alwitt, Linda F., and Andrew A. Mitchell, Editors. Psychological Processes and Advertising Effects - Theory, Research and Application. Hillsdale, NJ: Laurence Erlbaum Associates.

Coren, Stanley, and Joan Stern Girgus.  Seeing is Deceiving: The Psychology of Visual Illusions.  Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.  1978.

Computer Images. By the editors of Time-Life Books.  New York, NY.  1986.

Fox, Stephen.  The Mirror Makers.  New York, NY: William and Morrow Co.  1984.

Hall, Elizabeth.  "Mining New Gold from Old Research" in Psychology Today.  February 1986. Pages 47-51

Jacoby, Larry L. and Kevin Whitehouse.  "An Illusion of Memory: False Recognition Influenced
by Unconscious Perception" in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 118: 126-35. June 1989.

Key, Wilson Bryan.  The Clam Plate Orgy.  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall Inc. 1980.

Key, Wilson Bryan. Subliminal Seduction. New York, NY: Signet. 1976.

Kilbourne, William E.; Scott Painton; and Danny Ridley.  "The Effect of Sexual Embedding on Responses to Magazine Advertisements" in Journal of Advertising.  Vol. 14, No. 2, 1985.  Pages 48-56.

Lander, Eric. "In Through the Out Door" in Omni. February 1981.  Pages 45-48+.

Luckiesh, M. Visual Illusions. New York, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.  1965. (c 1922).

Meyers, William.  The Image Makers.  New York, NY: Time Books.  1984.

Natale, JoAnna.  "Are You Open to Suggestion?" in Psychology Today.  September 1988. Page 28.

Ogilvy, David. Confessions of An Advertisng Man.  Atheneun, NY: 1971 (c 1963).

Palda, Kristian S.  The Measurement of Cumulative Advertising Effects.  (Ford Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Series).  Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.  1964.

Ries, Al and Jack Trout.  Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind.  New York, NY: Warner Books.  1981.

Synodinos, Nicolaos E. "Subliminal Stimulations: What Does the Public Think About It?" in Current Issues and Research in Advertisng 1988.  Division of Research School of Business Administration, The University of Michigan.  1989.

Warneryd, Karl-Erik, and Kjell Nowak.  Mass Communication and Advertising.  Stockholm Va, Sweden: The Economic Research Institute of the Stockholm School of Economics. 1967.

West, Charles K.  The Social and Psychological Distortion of Information.  Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.  1981.

Woolfolk Cross, Donna.  Media-Speak: How Television Makes Up Your Mind.  New York, NY: New American Library (Mentor Books).  1983.

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