A subliminal message is a signal or message embedded in another medium, designed to pass below the normal limits of the human mind's perception. These messages are unrecognizable by the conscious mind, but in certain situations can affect the subconscious mind and can negatively or positively influence subsequent later thoughts, behaviors, actions, attitudes, belief systems and value systems. The term subliminal means "beneath a limen" (sensory threshold). This is from the Latin words sub, meaning under, and limen, meaning threshold.

Effectiveness

Visual
Used in advertising to create familiarity with new products, subliminal messages make familiarity into a preference for the new products. Dr. Johan Karremans suggests that subliminal messages have an effect when the messages are goal-relevant. Karremans did a study assessing whether subliminal priming of a brand name of a drink would affect a person’s choice of drink, and whether this effect is caused by the individual’s feelings of being thirsty.

His study sought to ascertain whether or not subliminally priming or preparing the participant with text or an image without being aware of it would make the partaker more familiar with the product. Half of his participants were subliminally primed with Lipton Ice ("Lipton Ice" was repeatedly flashed on a computer screen for 24 milliseconds), while the other half was primed with a control that did not consist of a brand. In his study he found that subliminally priming a brand name of a drink (Lipton Ice) made those who were thirsty want the Lipton Ice. Those who were not thirsty, however, were not influenced by the subliminal message since their goal was not to quench their thirst.

Subconscious stimulus by single words is well known to be modestly effective in changing human behavior or emotions. This is evident by a pictorial advertisement that portrays four different types of rum. The phrase "U Buy" was embedded somewhere, backwards in the picture. A study (Key, 1973) was done to test the effectiveness of the alcohol ad. Before the study, participants were able to try to identify any hidden message in the ad, none found any. In the end, the study showed 80% of the subjects unconsciously perceived the backward message, meaning they showed a preference for that particular rum. Though many things can be perceived from subliminal messages, only a couple words or a single image of unconscious signals can be internalized. As only a word or image can be effectively perceived, the simpler features of that image or word will cause a change in behavior (i.e., beef is related to hunger). This was demonstrated by Byrne in 1959. The word "beef" was flashed for several, five millisecond intervals during a sixteen-minute movie to experimental subjects, while nothing was flashed to controlled subjects. Neither the experimental nor controlled subjects reported for a higher preference for beef sandwiches when given a list of five different foods, but the experimental subjects did rate themselves as hungrier than the controlled subjects when given a survey. If the subjects were flashed a whole sentence, the words would not be perceived and no effect would be expected.

In 2007, to mark the 50th anniversary of James Vicary's original experiment, it was recreated at the International Brand Marketing Conference MARKA 2007. As part of the "Hypnosis, subconscious triggers and branding" presentation 1,400 delegates watched part the opening credits of the film PICNIC that was used in the original experiment. They were exposed to 30 subliminal cuts over a 90 second period. When asked to choose one of two brands 81% of the delegates picked the brand suggested by the subliminal cuts.

Studies in 2004 and 2006 showed that subliminal exposure to images of frightened faces or faces of people from another race will increase the activity of the amygdala in the brain and also increase skin conductance.

In 2007, it was shown that subliminal exposure to the Israeli flag had a moderating effect on the political opinions and voting behaviors of Israeli volunteers. This effect was not present when a jumbled picture of the flag was subliminally shown.

Audio

Backmasking, an audio technique in which sounds are recorded backwards onto a track that is meant to be played forwards, produces messages that sound like gibberish to the conscious mind. Gary Greenwald, a fundamentalist Christian preacher, claims that these messages can be heard subliminally, and can induce listeners towards, in the case of rock music, sex and drug use. However, this is not generally accepted as fact.

Following the 1950s subliminal message panic, many businesses have sprung up purporting to offer helpful subliminal audio tapes that supposedly improve the health of the listener. However, there is no evidence for the therapeutic effectiveness of such tapes.

Campaigners have suggested subliminal messages appear in music. In 1985, two young men - James Vance and Raymond Belknap, attempted suicide. At the time of the shootings, Belknap died instantly. Vance was severely injured and survived. Their families were convinced it was because of a British rock band, Judas Priest. The families claimed subliminal messages told listeners to "do it" in the song "Better by You, Better Than Me". The case was taken to court and the families sought more than US$6 million in damages. The judge, Jerry Carr Whitehead said that freedom of speech protections would not apply to subliminal messages. He said he was not convinced the hidden messages actually existed on the album, but left the argument to attorneys. The suit was eventually dismissed. In turn, he ruled it probably would not have been perceived without the "power of suggestion" or the young men would not have done it unless they really intended to.

Another well known incident with subliminal message happened a few months after Judas Priest's acquittal, Michael Waller, the son of a Georgia minister, shot himself in the head while listening to Ozzy Osbourne's record Suicide Solution. His parents claimed that subliminal messages may have influenced his actions. The judge in that trial granted the summary judgment because the plaintiffs could not show that there was any subliminal material on the record. He noted, however, that if the plaintiffs had shown that subliminal content was present, the messages would not have received protection under the First Amendment because subliminal messages are, in principle, false, misleading or extremely limited in their social value (Waller v. Osbourne 1991). Justice Whitehead's ruling in the Judas Priest trial was cited to support his position.

The most extensive study of therapeutic effects from audiotapes was conducted to see if the self-esteem audiotapes would raise self-esteem. 237 volunteers were provided with tapes of three manufacturers and completed post tests after one month of use. The study showed clearly that subliminal audiotapes made to boost self-esteem did not produce effects associated with subliminal content within one month’s use.

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Author's Bio: 

This definition is part of a series that covers the topic of Subliminal Messages & Subliminal Learning. The Official Guide to Subliminal Messages & Subliminal Learning is Susannah Lippman. Susannah Lippman is President of Alphasonics International, the company that pioneered much of the new technology. Their audios were selected for use by the researchers who tested all brands. She founded Alphasonics in 1987, after discovering breakthroughs in subliminal research, to bring this new generation of powerful personal growth tools to the public. For over 18 years their tapes and CDs have been used worldwide, by individuals and by practitioners who offer them to patients. Susannah holds a master’s degree in communications, has been a teacher of speech and communications, a writer, a producer for educational television, and Director of the Association for Humanistic Psychology, Eastern Region.

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