Subliminal Persuasion: Overview
© 2/1999 ToddStark@AOL.COM
Since the 1950's,
there has been enormous public concern over hidden messages in art, music, and
advertising. Subliminal self-help tapes are a multi-billion dollar industry. Yet
many psychologists claim that subliminal influence consists at best of uselessly weak
This has variously been
described as an elaborate hoax, as a scientific controversy, and as a conspiracy
to hide the true story of subliminal persuasion. Is there a true story ?
Who is telling it ?
Mosy scientists who study subliminal perception
characterize it in terms of
temporary, weak, lexical priming effects. The people
selling subliminal tapes take its effectiveness for granted, and sometimes even claim
scientific support for their products. Authors like Bryan Wilson Key and
Vance Packard helped inspire public scrutiny into advertising practices that could best be
labelled as "sorcery" if they work. How big a deal is this subliminal
sorcery, really ?
ago, the term subliminal came into popular usage to mean nearly any kind of
deliberately hidden message.
of widely read books and articles made us aware of the possibility that unseen,
unheard messages could influence how they think, feel, and act. This is a rightly
frightening prospect, made more frightening by the increasing time we sit watching or
listening to things produced by people we don't know, with motives we know all too well.
The question is not whether most advertisers would be
willing to use "sorcery" to sell products, we know they would.
The real question is in two parts. Does it
work ? And if so, is our freedom of thought threatened by it ?
Unfortunately, the issue has become extremely
contentious. "Skeptics" claim that "believers" are paranoid
alarmists. "Believers" countering that "skeptics" are guilty of
complicity with a grand advertising conspiracy to subdue the public.
Many of the sources have claimed that (secret)
research conducted by advertisers showed that subliminal influence was an effective tool.
They also have claimed that advertisers have been using subliminal techniques on
Reviews of published scientific papers do
not support the claims that research had demonstrated subliminal advertising
techniques to be broadly effective. That's where the conspiracy claims come in.
Of course it's possible that some "real"
research into subliminal techniques is secret, and that no one else has used an effective technique in
their testing. You have to evaluate the credibility of this argument for yourself.
Even if it is not true today, it could some day become true.
Personally, I don't believe the arguments about
conspiracies to hide research. The strongest reason is that so much research has
been published about subliminal or marginal perception. There is no gap in this
field, subliminal "masking" and "priming" techniques are today used
fairly routinely in some kinds of experiments. The conspiracy would have had to be
so elaborate and so selective that it just doesn't seem credible.
Then there's another possible resolution to the
conflicting claims. "Skeptics" and "believers" may be
talking about and emphasizing different things.
Careful experiments have demonstrated that
human beings do process information unconsciously. Even more
remarkably, evidence has also accumulated indicating that unconscious information
processing, unconscious learning, and automatic responding are a normal part
of our daily life. They are not effects limited to special states or contrived
Subliminal experiments may be seen as artificial
situations where these unconscious processes are isolated for study.
The experimental subliminal effects
themselves are weak and usually relatively temporary. However, this is
at least partly because the effect is isolated
to purely unconscious influence. It is also at least partly because the
influence effects in these experiments are usually not tailored to the personality
stucture of the recipient. When stimuli are made more personally meaningful, we seem
to get some more potent and more interesting effects.
Marginal perception of stimuli that are more personally
meaningful, especially presented in a carefully crafted conscious communication
context, can have more lasting and more significant effects on thinking, feeling, and
behavior. This is a central principle in hypnotherapy. To combine
consciously perceived messages with more subtle ones, reinforcing each other.
Subliminal "believers" interpret this to
mean that the experimental conditions themselves make weak use of powerful
subliminal effects. Subliminal "critics" interpret it to mean that even
under the best conditions of contrived subliminal influence, the effect is still
weak. They also point out the
negligible support for the most popular form of claimed subliminal influence, subliminal
Both arguments have merit. Subliminal effects by
themselves are relatively weak and temporary. They can potentially be used
as part of a larger strategy of effective influence, however, just as other weak
techniques can combine in their effects. Think about how effective the simple
positive reinforcement of a product or candidate name can be, if repeated enough.
It boils down to whether subliminal effects
themselves can be exploited under more natural conditions in a more powerful way.
Again, here the evidence is weak specifically for subliminal effectiveness.
Yet the advocates are persistent and persuasive.
Sometimes they are often talking about real kinds of subtle influence that the
critics don't really consider subliminal, or consider of secondary interest. And
sometimes they are talking about situations where the subliminal effects need only play a
secondary, reinforcing role.
Unconscious information processing effects and
unconscious bias has always been used by skilled communicators, and can certainly be
exploited by advertisers. This sort of influence is both more widespread and less
novel than most of us would like to think about. Like hypnosis, it turns out to be
largely a way to exploit the manner in which the human mind evolved to deal with
the non-verbal subtleties of face-to-face communication.
The potential for propagandists to take advantage of our
evolved mental blind spots has always been, and remains, a cause for concern, especially
as technology improves our ability to exploit each other. But most forms of
influence leave clues, especially if we remain educated about them and use our mind,
rather than being paralyzed by fear of the unseen or the unheard.
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