Nozak Consulting

Subliminal Advertising: Mind control in marketing or the next big thing?

Scott Emigh

Subliminal messaging in advertising isn’t anything new. In fact, the history of this marketing tactic dates back as far as the 1950s when Coca Cola reported astounding increases in sales of their drink in cinema outlets by almost 60% after using short frames of messages were played.

It was eventually established that the study was a complete fabrication and was even cited by some as ‘psychological manipulation.’

Despite the shambolic introduction of this theory, it sparked a notion that advertising could indeed leverage the power of the subconscious mind to boost sales.

This scared many people, who firmly believed that advertisers were essentially able to control people’s minds without them, even knowing it was happening.

Ever since its adoption into mainstream advertising and even politics, it has been demonstrated that the concept doesn’t just work; when done properly, it can leverage outstanding results, but there are limitations, and we’ll discuss those in this post.

What exactly is subliminal advertising?

Subliminal advertising is the use of imagery, sounds, or words in media with the sole intention of increasing sales of a specific product or service.

The very notion that a company (or their advertisers) can control public behaviour by using hidden messages that only speak to a person’s subconscious is too uncomfortable for most people to accept.

To understand how subliminal advertising actually works, you really need to understand the workings of subliminal messaging first.

Here’s a quick explanation of subliminal messaging, with details of the different types of subliminal messaging.

Generally speaking, there are three main types of subliminal messaging.

  1. Sub-audible Messaging – These are usually audio cues that are very low volume, and which get inserted into a louder source of audio, such as a song or jingle.
  2. Sub-visual Messaging – These are typically visual cues that flash-up for a matter of milliseconds; as such, anyone who is watching will not even perceive them.
  3. Backmasking – These are audio messages that get recorded backward with the intent of it being played forward in order to disguise or mask the message in reverse.

How does subliminal advertising work?

Subliminal messaging is the driving force behind subliminal advertising. Essentially, these messages are used in media, be that TV commercials, online advertising, or songs as just as few examples. The messaging is designed to elevate the persuasiveness of the advertisement, or it can even convey a completely different message altogether.

But even if you are told that an advert is using subliminal messaging tactics, it is not usually possible for a person to discover what the hidden message is. The core reason for this is that ‘true’ subliminal messages are below the threshold of our conscious perception.

The perception of, and the reaction to subliminal messaging all take place at the subconscious level. Just as we breathe in and out without even given it a moment’s thought, our subconscious mind is always working away in the background. Subliminal advertising is only ever intended to appeal to our subconscious mind by using external stimuli in order to trigger reactions.

The seven categories of sensory stimuli are taste, touch, hearing, sight, smell, movement, and bodily awareness.

Examples of Subliminal Advertising at Work

A very quick search online will bring up many examples of subliminal messaging being used in marketing. Some of the most dominating stories demonstrate its abundant use in American TV Advertising and Politics.

British Supermarket – Anon

A prime example of a subliminal advertising success story was found when a UK store saw a pattern of increased sales in regional wines. When they played French music in the background, their sales of French wines spiked. The same pattern emerged when they played German and Italian music too. When their patrons were asked why they chose to buy the German or Italian wine, not a single one mentioned the music that was playing in-store. This further cemented the theory of the success of using subliminal messaging to influence a buyer’s behavior. Despite the fact they could hear the music of that country being played, nobody was aware that it had indeed influenced their buying behavior.

Husker DU

The first known example of subliminal messaging in TV advertising in America was by a company called Husker DU. They ran a series of TV ads that featured single frames that simply said ‘get it.’ The board game was produced by Premium Corp, and it’s not a brand or company that most people will recall, but it was iconic in its own right. It was this advertising campaign that led the FCC to investigate, and later ban the use of subliminal messaging in advertising after it was deemed to be ‘contrary to the public interest.’


Another historical example can be found after a subliminal message was used as part of the battle for the presidential campaign that took place between Al Gore and George W Bush back in 2000. Following a string of complaints after Gore accused Bush’s campaign managers of trying to manipulate people in a public attack that was targeted at Gore’s healthcare policies, the advert was pulled and taken off mainstream TV. If you’re interested, you can see a copy of that ad here.


As one of the world’s most famous cigarette brands, Marlboro’s advertising tactics came under heavy scrutiny following the ban on tobacco advertising in Europe. In an attempt to circumvent the advertising restriction, they resorted to the use of subliminal advertising through visual tactics, only to be told to remove their adverts at a high cost to their business. If you’re a motor-sport fan, you may have even witnessed this one yourself, but, like many others, you would not have known the true source of the brand behind the image.

If you notice the barcode on the image below, this may appear as if it was part of the exterior design as there is no name next to the image, as is the case with all other sponsors. However, if you scroll down, you will see exactly how clever Marlboro was trying to be when they placed this subtle marking on the lightning-fast Ferrari.

Take a look at the imagery below and see for yourself just how their attempts at subliminal advertising to try and convey the banned Marlboro branding actually panned out. When the car sped around the track, it was depicted as being too close to the original branding.

Despite the fact that this attempt to get around the advertising ban that was placed on tobacco companies was indeed quite clever, it didn’t last for long, and they were ordered to remove the markings from the car.

Is subliminal advertising really worth the money?

According to new research, there is demonstrable proof that subliminal advertising does indeed work, and it can influence an individual’s purchasing behaviour. However, despite many positive studies, there are a few important findings that outline the limitations of subliminal advertising.

For a person to be influenced, there must already be an underlying need. In a nutshell, although subliminal advertising can influence a person’s behaviour, it is unable to make somebody do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do.

So, for anyone concerned about an advertiser’s ability to inflict mind-controlling tactics through the use of subliminal messaging, there isn’t actually anything of any substance to be overly worried about just yet. Sure, there are certain tactics that can mess with your mind, but not to the point it will force you into doing something completely out of character.

These examples all prove that subliminal advertising can indeed work, but it needs to be targeted at people who are already in the buying cycle or those who have a pattern for buying products or services of a similar nature.


As part of a society of consumerism, you will have been subjected to subliminal messaging at one point or another in your lifetime. As you will appreciate, there is real science behind the act of subliminal messages, and regardless of how well we think we can control our every thought and action, we are all subject to some form of external influence.

Although the original study that was connected to the Coca Cola brand in the 50s may have been a stunt, there have been so many more studies that prove the fact that visual priming can indeed alter the way we feel, and subsequently impact our buying behaviour and decisions.

So, while there is a little clout behind this theory, subliminal messaging cannot control our minds, but it can help to give us a little nudge in a particular direction. However, with the important of trust, and the significant amount of money and effort that companies put into building up their client’s trust, it must surely be considered that any short-term gains from any type of subliminal advertising campaigns are surely not worth the risk of losing the trust of their client’s and business partners alike.