I get asked about this a lot. We have discussed this subject in my hub with fellow professionals and I thought I’d relay some of our discussions and the evidence base here on my main hypnosis blog. One of the problems us hypnosis professionals face, is that popular perception often associates hypnosis with subliminal messaging and also, lots of hypnosis professionals and hypnotherapists sell ‘subliminal recordings’ or promote ideas of subliminal messaging.
As with so much popular psychology, the field of hypnosis and hypnotherapy is rife with misinformation and falsehoods. Despite us having a lot of brilliant evidence and research to draw upon to support our field (which would require actually reading books and journals), there are many who insist on perpetuating nonsense instead, nonsense that seems to be forged forever in everyday culture.
With reference to today’s hypnosis blog entry title – The short answer is ‘no’ – there is no evidence to prove that they (subliminal messages or subliminal recordings) work. That would probably make for an unsatisfactory ending to the blog entry, so let me tell you why I write that.
The Bible for advocates of subliminal advertising is a book written in 1974 by Wilson Bryan Key, Subliminal Seduction. This very successful book (sales-wise) led many to believe that the advertising industry were subliminally influencing the public.
What about the evidence to support the book’s findings though?
In the 1950s, a market research consultant called James Vicary installed a special projector inside a New Jersey cinema. For a period of six weeks, he flashed certain marketing messages onto the screen for less than 3 one hundredths of a second; not enough time for people to consciously recognise or register the message. This happened continually throughout the entire film being shown. The ‘subliminal’ messages said “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Hungry? Eat Popcorn.” Vicary showed that during the films he had flashed the subliminal messages onto the screen, sales of Coca-Cola rose by an average of 18%, and sales of popcorn rose by 58%. It got lots of press, the media sensationalised it, it got discussed in psychology classes….
“So there is our evidence, why are you disputing subliminal messaging Adam?”
Well, Vicary was asked to replicate his research in controlled conditions by Harcourt Assessment. Under controlled conditions, there were absolutely no sales increases at all. When he was then asked to comment upon this, Vicary came clean and confessed that he had falsified the results from his original study. Furthermore, in a 1962 interview with Advertising Age, Vicary explained that he had never conducted the original New Jersey experiment at all, it was all made up! The damage had been done by then and today, people still believe in subliminal messaging.
Heck, one of my favourite films ever perpetuates the myth; Brad Pitt plays character Tyler Durden in the film Fight Club and he explains that when he was working as a film projectionist, he would intentionally add fleeting pictures of penis’s into films and although the images were imperceptible to cinema-goer, the film pans around and focuses on a couple getting hot and steamy while watching his edited film, implying that the subliminal messages were influencing them and their sex drives.
As it happens, the film also contains some flashing images of Tyler Durden during the film, which the director states are illustrating the main characters transformation into him… You can watch this video clip to catch all the instances these flashes were used in the film:
Any potentially positive research findings related to subliminal messages in other studies tend to have the results attributed to placebo and expectation. The same can be said of those people who state that they have derived some benefit from listening to subliminal recordings. As a hypnotherapist, it would be remiss of me to not mention one very powerful additional explanation…
If I create an audio programme stating that it uses subliminal messages to help you lose weight, you are most likely to report that it helped you lose some weight than (if you had no idea what is was supposed to be for) you are to say “Well it didn’t affect my weight, but I found myself stopping smoking.”
The suggestion given with the title/aim of the track, accompanied by believable pseudo-science, placebo effect and the expectancy created (we all know the power of expectancy) all potentially combines to deliver the outcome suggested.
I wonder… If I gave that audio programme, designed to help someone lose weight, that had subliminal messages on it to create that effect, but did not tell anyone what it was for, just asked them to report their findings… How many do you think would be able to know what the track was aimed at doing or would report that they lost weight? Alleged subliminal audios are thought to work by playing messages so audibly low that a person cannot consciously perceive it. Subliminal means below the threshold of conscious perception. So, for any such message to be truly subliminal, it must not be consciously detectable.
The bottom line is that if it is not consciously detectable, it is not influencing or affecting you in any beneficial way.
If you are going to have to choose between subliminal recordings and using your own affirmations – use affirmations. Even better, learn Emile Coués methods of making affirmations even more effective and/or then learn effective self-hypnosis to really take it up another level.
So you can rest assured, subminial advertisements and subliminal messages do not work. You are safe. In numerous carefully controlled laboratory trials, subliminal messages did not affect subjects’ choices or preferences. When tested in the real world, subliminal messaging failed. If you look at peer-reviewed, credible evidence, subliminal recordings are not supported in the slightest.
The Skeptoid coverage of Subliminal Seduction here, when researching this subject matter, found a 2007 study from the University of California Davis and stated; “The findings, surprisingly, were that subliminal sexual images had no effect on men, and actually produced lower levels of sexual arousal in women. Neither group went out and bought popcorn or Pepsi. The conclusion suggests “that the subliminal sexual prime causes women to activate sex-related mental contents but to experience the result as somewhat aversive.” Not really a great advertising strategy.”
In their 2009 book, 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions About Human Behavior, author Steven Jay Lynn an colleagues dispel the myth of subliminal messages.
They cite the 1958 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation experiment whereby the audience was advised that a subliminal advertisement would be tested during a Sunday night television show. The words “phone now” were flashed upon the screen 352 times throughout the television show yet the telephone companies records showed that there was no increase in were examined, phone calls whatsoever.
As I say, it seems entrenched in popular psychology and I am guessing that hypnotherapists of a certain ilk will not stop selling subliminal wares any time soon, I mean if it was used by Vice President Al Gore in his 2000 advertising campaign (he flashed the word ‘Rats’ on screen when referring to his political opponents) then it has reached some lofty heights of awareness, hasn’t it?
Perhaps realising this is nothing more than a great conspiracy means that we can actually
all take our foil hats off now when watching the telly.
Dunning, B. “Subliminal Seduction.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 28 Aug 2007. Web. 8 Apr 2014.
Key, W. B. (1974) Subliminal Seduction. New York: New American Library.
Lillienfeld, S., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2009) 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions About Human Behavior. Wiley-Blackwell.