in Music, Ads, and the Movies

Messages-Subliminal Effectiveness


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.


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 supposedly listening to Ozzy Osbourne's song Suicide Solution (despite the fact that the song Suicide Solution was not on the record [Ozzy Osbourne's Speak Of The Devil] found playing in his room when his suicide was discovered). 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.


In 1978, Wichita, Kansas TV station KAKE-TV received special permission from the police to place a subliminal message in a report on the BTK Killer (Bind, Torture, Kill) in an effort to get him to turn himself in. The subliminal message included the text "Now call the chief," as well as a pair of glasses. The glasses were included because when BTK murdered Nancy Fox, there was a pair of glasses lying upside down on her dresser; police felt that seeing the glasses might stir up remorse in the killer. The attempt was unsuccessful, and police reported no increased volume of calls afterward.

During the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign, a television ad campaigning for Republican candidate George W. Bush showed words (and parts thereof) scaling from the foreground to the background on a television screen. When the word BUREAUCRATS flashed on the screen, one frame showed only the last part, RATS. The FCC looked into the matter,[30] but no penalties were ever assessed in the case.[citation needed]

In the British alternative comedy show The Young Ones, a number of subliminal images were present in the original and most repeated broadcasts of the second series. Images included a gull coming into land, a tree frog jumping through the air, a man gurning[vague], and the end credits of the movie Carry On Cowboy.[citation needed] These were included to mock the then-occurring matter of subliminal messages in television. Although they may fall foul of the FCC guidelines, these images do appear in the U.S. boxset DVD Every Stoopid Episode.

Chris Morris famously used subliminal messages to display a half-frame of the last episode of Brass Eye, stating "Grade is a cunt" in reference to Michael Grade, the Channel 4 executive responsible for the heavy editing of Morris's show .

Shaun Micallef's Australian 'Micallef P(r)ogram(me)' shows contained strange subliminal messages that can be seen on the DVDs. As they are of random, humorous statements, questions, etc, they are not regarded as advertising. They were usually images of politicians, as is the case with his more recent Newstopia.

In Warner Brothers' 1943 animated film "Wise Quacking Duck", Daffy Duck spins a statue which is holding a shield. For one frame the words "BUY BONDS" are visible on the shield.

In the film Metropolis, there are many instances of single-frame sentences or photos included to make the audience feel like a worker in the underground cities so that the film would have a larger and greater impact on them. Some instances include single frames with the words 'Bow to Government' And 'Work to please.' It also included photos of atom boms and massacres in attempt to scare the audience subconciously, to almost brainwash them like the workers int he film have been.

The December 16, 1973 episode of Columbo titled "Double Exposure", is based on subliminal messaging: it is used by the murderer, Dr. Bart Keppler, a motivational research specialist, played by Robert Culp, to lure his victim out of his seat during the viewing of a promotional film and by Lt. Columbo to bring Keppler back to the crime scene and incriminate him. Lt. Columbo is shown how subliminal cuts work in a scene mirroring James Vicary's experiment.

The horror film the Exorcist is well-known for its frightening yet effective use of subliminal images throughout the film, depicting a white-faced demon named Captain Howdy. This image is shown in the character Father Karras's nightmare, where it flashes across the screen for a few seconds before fading away.

A McDonald's logo appeared for one frame during the Food Network's Iron Chef America series on 2007-01-27, leading to claims that this was an instance of subliminal advertising. The Food Network replied that it was simply a glitch.n Formula One racing, the paint scheme of many cars would carry messages intended to look as if they were of banned tobacco products in many Grands Prix where tobacco advertising was banned, though many of these were jokes on the part of the teams (for example, Jordan Grand Prix ran Benson and Hedges sponsorship as "Bitten and Hisses" with a snake-skin design on their cars). A similar procedure was used by NASCAR driver Jeff Burton after the AT&T Mobility advertising was banned by a court order in 2007, and by Penske Championship Racing in NASCAR (where Cellco Partnership is prohibited) and the IRL (Marlboro). In both instances, a distinctive design where the banned company's identity (the Verizon "V" and the Marlboro chevron) were integrated into the car's design.

On November 7, 2007, Network Ten Australia's broadcast of the ARIA Awards was called out for using subliminal advertising in an exposé by the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). In June-July 2007, Sprite used a type of obvious subliminal message, involving yellow (lemon) and green (lime) objects such as cars. The objects would then be shown inconspicuously in the same setting, while showing the word "lymon" (combining the words lime and lemon) on screen for a second at a time. They called this "Sublymonal Advertising." The previous year, Sprite used a similar advertising campaign, but this time it was tied in to Lost Experience, an alternate reality game.

In Brainiac: Science Abuse, there is an experiment carried out to see if viewers would react to subliminal messages. One was shown during an experiment to discover which substance provides the best skid; the message appeared when a brainiac hit a bale of hay. The second message appeared across a T-Shirt of a brainiac saying 'Call your mum', and the third said 'scratch your nose' when a sound wave hit the Brainiac logo. At the end of the show, people were shown in a theatre watching that episode. The test showed that the messages barely impacted the audience. The subliminal content in this episode was legal, as its presence was announced at the beginning and end of the episode.

In Week 11 of The Apprentice: Martha Stewart in which candidates have to create an ad for the Delta's former low-cost commercial airlines Song, the team Matchstick used a 1/48th of a frame image at the bottom-right corner with the Song Airlines logo.


Some groups have made claims that subliminal messages can be found in various forms of popular entertainment, such as the supposed use of "backward messages" in rock and roll songs.

Many of these purported messages are Satanic; for example, if the Led Zeppelin song "Stairway to Heaven" is played backwards, lyrics including "Oh here's to my sweet Satan" can supposedly be made out. However, it has been proved that it simply sounded that way because of Robert Plant's voice, as somebody sang the extract from the song which had aroused controversy, and backmasked it. It sounded, quite simply, like nonsense, suggesting the message was unintentional.

When Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust" is played backwards some listeners perceive a message about marijuana: "Stop to smoke marijuana", or "It's fun to smoke marijuana".

These two messages have not been confirmed by the artists (and denied by some band members), and have not been proven to exist by fully respected sources.

In February 2007, it was discovered that 87 Konami slot machines in Ontario (OLG) casinos displayed a brief winning hand image before the game would begin. Government officials worried that the image subliminally persuaded gamblers to continue gambling; the company claimed that the image was a coding error. The machines were removed pending a fix by Konami.

Fictional references

While their ultimate efficacy is somewhat controversial, subliminal messages have a long history in television shows, movies, and novels.

Governments are often depicted as employing subliminal messages in propaganda. The novel "FREEZE FRAME" by B. David Warner depicts the election of a corrupt president candidate using subliminal advertising to sway the votes in his favor. The movie Josie and the Pussycats described a long lasting plot whereby the U.S. government was controlling trends by inserting subliminal messages in popular music. Furthermore, towards the end of the film, a government agent shuts down the operation, saying that subliminal advertising works better in films. The words "Josie and the Pussycats is the best movie ever" are then spoken rapidly in voice-over and displayed quickly on screen, with the words "Join the Army" in smaller letters below it. And in the 2005 science fiction movie Serenity, the Alliance uses subliminal messages broadly disseminated in commercials and other video to cause River Tam to go berserk. It only works on River because she was subjected to Alliance training and conditioning.

Many references deal specifically with the military. An episode of The Simpsons involved Bart and his friends joining a boy band, the Party Posse. While watching a video for the Party Posse, Lisa notices the phrase "Yvan Eht Nioj" being repeated continuously by belly-dancers. She plays the video in reverse and finds that it means "Join the Navy". Also, an Uncle Sam "I Want You" poster can be seen in the video frame by frame. The joke was that the United States sends subliminal messages in order to recruit people. In addition, the art of "superliminal messages" was demonstrated to Lisa; a Navy representative leans out a window, sees Lenny Leonard and Carl Carlson, and shouts "Hey you! Join the Navy!" And in an episode of Malcolm in the Middle titled "Reese joins the Army (2)", one of the drill sergeants comments about the other's restored confidence in the Army "I guess the subliminal advertising's working after all." his fellow drill sergeant then matter-of-factly states "the army doesn't use subliminal ads" and then the pair slowly turn and look at each other. Not too different from the joke in The Simpsons episode mentioned above, this episode was a joking reference to the low military recruiting numbers in 2004 suggesting that the U.S. military uses such things in a tactic of desperation. And in an episode of Babylon 5, during a scene which represents a public service announcement for Psi Corps, the words "TRUST THE CORPS" and "THE CORPS IS YOUR FRIEND" appear on screen for four frames. J. Michael Straczynski wanted the audience to recognize the subliminal message; "I had my staff find out what constitutes subliminal material--and it's two frames per second, which is illegal, you can't do things at that speed--so I went four frames per second".

An early episode of the X-Files deals with a small town plagued by killings where the perpetrators are influenced by messages appearing on ATMs and other electronic devices. Mulder refers to the use of subliminal messages in several instances. The Family Guy episode Mr. Griffin Goes to Washington jokes about subliminal messages for smoking in television. It shows an old black and white TV show whose dialogue is repeatedly interrupted by a suited man stating "Smoke" and later "Are you smoking yet?" in a monotone voice. Later in the episode, when Peter is arguing with his bosses about smoking, the same man interrupts while saying "Smoke."

The advertising element is mocked in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel Moving Pictures, when, to please a sponsor, a movie producer inserts a still image lasting several minutes of a serving of spare ribs. The producer reasoned that if showing just a few frames would have a positive impact, showing it for several minutes would have a huge effect.

Subliminal psychological influence is also referenced frequently by the British mentalist Derren Brown who alleges their use as the basis of many of his effects. Often, these claims are just decoys to divert attention from the real workings of his effects.

In the episode "With Fans Like These..." of the animated TV show "Kappa Mikey" Lily and Gonard threaten Guano made the public do their bidding by using subliminal messages in a fish stick commercial.

The television show Chuck has a plot which is based around subliminal encoding. The main character receives an e-mail in which thousands and thousands of pictures flash right before his eyes, resulting in an ability to 'mind flash' on certain things, for example a ring or a picture of someone.

In an episode of The IT Crowd, Douglas attempts to seduce Jen by putting a quick flash of his photo into a presentation.

In the movie "Fight Club" the character played by Brad Pitt flashes frames of pornography to astonished movie-goers.

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