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Marketing Tips, Insights, and Trends

Subliminal Messages in Advertising

Author: Kaitlyn Partington Category: Marketing Date: January 12, 2023

Bold subliminal word with its definition on a dictionary

Have you ever noticed the hidden messages in the logos for Amazon, Tostitos, FedEx, and Baskin Robbins? No? Go take a look. We’ll wait. If you missed these great instances of subliminal messages in advertising (or maybe you just didn’t feel like searching), we’ll help.

  • That little smirk under the word Amazon is also an arrow indicating that the online retailer sells everything from “A to Z.”
  • The “T”s in the Tostitos logo are having a chip party with the “I” as their table, and you’re invited.
  • Look closely and you’ll see an arrow between the “E” and “X” in FedEx’s logo.
  • The color shift in parts of the “B” and “R” in the Baskin Robbins logo serve as a reminder that the ice cream brand features 31 flavors.

Clever, right? Subliminal messages in commercials and advertising with subliminal messages have been used for decades as another creative way to engage with audiences. But what is subliminal messaging, and can, or should, you employ it? And how do you use subliminal messages?

What is Subliminal Messaging in Advertising?

What does subliminal messaging mean? According to Mirriam-Webster, the meaning of subliminal is ”existing or functioning below the threshold of consciousness.” Subliminal advertising uses visual or auditory elements that share a message or tell a story the conscious mind doesn’t perceive. The theory behind subliminal marketing is that much of our decision making happens through our subconscious, instead of our conscious mind. Your conscious brain will take in an image or sound, but what feelings you get from subliminal messages are processed by your subconscious. You’ve probably seen them at their worst on TV and in movies (Zack Morris used subliminal messages to get a date on Saved by the Bell and creepy old films use them to turn viewers into zombies in horror flicks), but subliminal messages are real and have successfully (and sometimes unsuccessfully) been used frequently in the marketing and advertising industries.

When Subliminal Message Advertising Goes Wrong

While using subliminal messages can mean success for your efforts, it is not without its share of risk. Consumers may feel uneasy about subliminal messages in ads because they can find them dishonest or manipulative, which undermines their trust in your brand. One of the most controversial tactics used in subliminal ads is when an image flashes in a video so quickly that viewers don’t detect it but still receive the message.

The idea of subliminal messaging advertising gained notoriety in the 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard, which claimed moviegoers were shown subliminal advertising during films that encouraged them to purchase popcorn and Coca-Cola from theatre concession stands. Even though this subliminal marketing example turned out to be false, the idea left its mark on public lore and raised awareness of the use of subliminal messages.

That is certainly not the only example of subliminal messages in advertising that has been met with public scrutiny. Husker Du, a board game released in the 1970s, featured subliminal messages in its commercials in the form of single frames of text reading, “Get it,” peppered in.  When viewers learned of these ads with subliminal messages, many filed complaints with the FCC. Consumers were so concerned about real subliminal messages, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) declared subliminal messages in advertisements as “contrary to the public interest.”

Famed cigarette brand Marlboro tried to get around attempts to limit cigarette advertising and European bans on sponsorships by cigarette brands by using subliminal advertisement. This example of subliminal advertising included a barcode-style design on a Formula 1 racing car that would replicate the company logo when the vehicle reached high speeds. However, the European Public Health Commission pressured lawmakers to determine the approach fell under existing bans.

Another potential example of subliminal messages in ads occurred on a 2007 episode of Food Network’s popular cooking show “Iron Chef America.” Fast food giant McDonald’s logo flashed quickly across the screen. While both the network and restaurant denied it was an attempt at subliminal advertising, perceptive viewers were skeptical.

When Subliminal Message Advertisement Goes Right

The best use of subliminal messages is when you take a fairly subtle approach to advertising. Subliminal messages in advertising examples that use it the right way include those we mentioned above – Amazon, Tostitos, FedEx, and Baskin Robbins, all of which serve as examples of subliminal messages in text instead of quick flashes across the screen. You want the meaning of your subliminal message to help customers feel like they are in on the joke, as opposed to being treated like a fool. The key to effective subliminal messages is that, once they discover the hidden message, you want your audiences to say “Well, isn’t that creative?” instead of, “Well, isn’t that sneaky?”

Should You Use Subliminal Advertising in your Marketing?

There is no clear-cut answer to this question. Are subliminal messages legal to use in your advertising? In many countries around the world, they are not. They are not expressly banned in the US, but there have been some court cases that have addressed the issue. In Central Hudson Gas & Electric v. Public Service Commission of New York, the Supreme Court ruled that marketing speech like subliminal messages in ads must not be misleading to be protected under the First Amendment. In Vance v. Judas Priest, the infamous case where parents sued the rock band Judas Priest claiming the subliminal messages in the band’s music led their son to shoot himself as part of a suicide pact, a Nevada judge ruled that the First Amendment does not protect subliminal messages even though the case was eventually dismissed. The key to effective subliminal messaging in advertising is subtlety and transparency. It is best to consult an attorney if you are concerned about your use of subliminal messages in ads.

Using subliminal messaging in advertising requires you to walk a fine line between brilliant and devious. And it’s probably not a walk you should take alone. At Paradigm, we ensure all our clients receive the benefit of each team member’s unique area of expertise, which are combined to deliver purpose-driven marketing strategies, solutions, and individual tactics that will resonate with your audiences and get results from your digital marketing efforts. Please contact us today.

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