Anyone who knows me knows I talk, A LOT, which is great for working in retail but also means that pretty much all my colleagues (and a lot of customers because they like to ask questions to make polite conversation) know I study consumer psychology. Yet the recurrent question I get asked is “Don’t you think that’s evil, finding ways to make people spend money?” to which my answer is no because it’s not all about that. However it did get me thinking about how ethical consumer psychology is, or at least how ethical it appears. Hence this week’s blog I am focusing on just one ethical issue that arises in consumer research – subliminal advertisement.


Can you see it? If not, tilt your computer screen.

Something is classed as subliminal when it is aimed below a consumer’s threshold of consciousness with the ethical concern being that if you are not actively aware of a stimulus then how you can knowingly respond to it and be in charge of your behaviour. Much of the research into subliminal advertising revolves around visual stimuli and it is such a controversial subject that visual subliminal advertising is banned in parts of the world including in the UK.

The F1 team Ferrari were sued because their non-smoking advertisment still, subliminally, made people think of the smoking advertisment.

The first piece of ‘research’ into subliminal advertising was done by James Vicary, a market researcher who needed to boost his ailing business. He claimed that very brief exposure to the words ‘Eat Popcorn’ & ‘Drink Coca-Cola’ in a cinema boosted sales by 57.5% and 18.1% respectively. Turned out, after the results could not be replicated, that he had fabricated the results. Further studies in this area (for a meta-analysis & review see here) have also produced few significant results using a variety of methodologies. Furthermore when significant results are found the researchers themselves admit that due the highly controlled, artificial environment in which the experiment took place, the results would be difficult to replicate in the real world.


Did you know new research suggests eating popcorn disrupts the effects of advertising? I feel like we’ve come full circle.

Embedding words or images into a visual advertisement is a more contemporary version of subliminal messaging over subconsciously flashing up a word or image. The idea that ‘sex sells’ has led some to believe advertisers  use sexual metaphors and hide sexual images in the form of other objects or by the use of luminance to create outlines of sexual shapes. One notable researcher in this field was Wilson Bryan Key who claimed up to 99% of ads for alcoholic beverages at the time used sexual subliminal messaging. Key even targeted the humble Ritz cracker stating that it had the letters S-E-X imprinted on both sides of the savoury biscuit with the aim of getting people to want to buy more.

Perfectly innocent looking to me. But please, if you do see something unorthadox about this cracker, do let me know!

Whilst Key argued why would advertisers take the time and money to embed these images if they didn’t think/know they were having an effect, critiques retaliated by discussing how humans perceive images all the time for example in clouds, food or simply at an image of dots. Research has also provided a solid argument against Key’s claims. In a study by Vokey & Read, participants to look at vacation photos with each image being distorted by adding a word into the background 3-4 times. This word was either a nonsense syllable, a 3 letter word or the word ‘sex’ and participants saw a variety of the distorted images during the testing phase. Either immediately after, or two days later, participants were recalled to see if they could distinguish which images they had seen before with the researchers finding no significant differences between recall of the images. They concluded that having any word embedded into an image did not affect it’s memorability.

Holy Cheesus! People see all sorts in everday objects.

It is apparent from the literature that visual subliminal advertising has little impact on saliency and recall of an object or predicts behaviour. However research has also investigated whether emotions can be subliminally altered. One study focusing on this asked participants to rate personality for viewed images of individuals. However before showing participants the images of the individuals they had to rate a positive (e.g. Mickey mouse, a group smiling) or negative (e.g. skull, open heart surgery) arousing photo was shown for 13ms. Participants only consciously reported seeing a light for each subliminal stimulus yet results showed that negative images cause more negative personality ratings and vice versa for the positive images.

Linguistic subliminal stimuli has also shown to have some form of salience and be able to be processed, unconsciously, by the brain. In a 2009 study researchers asked participants to view a screen which randomly presented words that were independently rated as neutral (e.g. box), emotionally positive (e.g. flower) or emotionally negative (e.g. murder). Words were presented on screen for just 22ms with participants asked to respond whether they thought the word was emotional or neutral and how sure they were with their response (complete guess to definitely sure). Results showed that when the words were negative, participants were significantly better at classifying them words as emotive compared to the positive words even when they thought their response was a complete guess. fMRI studies have gone on to demonstrate that subliminal and supraliminal emotional stimuli are processed differently in the brain both by hemisphere (right amygdala is more active after viewing subliminal images and the left is for supraliminal) and by the amount of cortical activity (supraliminal images require more cognitive resources and for longer).

Yet the general consensus of consumers is that it can work with self-report studies reporting that up to 65% of consumers believed subliminal messaging are successful in selling products. Additionally it is interesting to see how many products are on the market that claim to use some form of subliminal messaging to change someone’s behaviour e.g. learn a language whilst you sleep (tried it at GCSE level, I’m still pretty much monolingual, and many studies have shown you cannot acquire new knowledge whilst you sleep but it does help consolidate learning). Considering hypnosis can be considered a form of subliminal messaging, there are countless products available about how hypnosis can make you thin, or rich, or happy etc. (I had a look on Amazon, one of their gift suggestions in hypnosis is ‘Hypnotic Gastric Band’ – seriously who thinks that would be a nice Christmas present for someone).

Hypnotising you? Or just making you feel dizzy?

In conclusion I, personally, am undecided how I feel about visual subliminal advertising, though considering there is little evidence to suggest it does actually work, I personally don’t see it as something to worry about. However other areas of consumer research do use subliminal techniques, such as store atmospherics (see my previous scent & music blogs) to influence customers. I can understand the ethical concerns here however my counter-argument is that marketers and companies have the right to find novel techniques to increase their potential as that is the nature of business. However what does concern me, as discussed in this blog, is that many individuals believe businesses are out to trick them. I would never want my chosen career, or future companies I work with, to be tarnished because of misbeliefs as that would have a negative effect. Hence I hope this blog has provided some form of education and got people thinking about their own beliefs around the ethics of consumer research.

P.S. My Youtube video for this week includes an audio subliminal message if you play it backwards. That message is “Congratulations. You have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the Funny Farm, Chalfont…”


2 thoughts on “Consumer Research: Naughty or Nice?

  1. I did a post on subliminal messaging earlier this year and what I found was that subliminal messaging does work, but to a certain extent. As you pointed out with the F-1 advertisement, it reminded people of the Marlboro logo. In fact, subliminal images and messages have been found to later on affect how highly we rate a product (Theus, 1994). However, a lot of these messages that people find seem wholly out of place and I would argue that it comes from our desire and ability to find patterns. Humans are exceptionally good at this, and it’s easy to see why from a evolutionary perspective, we’d have to recognize predators and prey even in sub-optimal conditions.

    Theus, K. T. (1994). Subliminal Advertising and the Psychology of Processing Unconscious Stimuli: A Review of Research. Psychology & Marketing, 11(3), 271-290.

  2. I think another dimension of subliminal messages and advertising is in the product design itself and that is the use of ‘Just noticeable difference’ (JND). JND (Weber) refers to the visibility thresholds of humans and if the difference in a visual field falls under the minimum threshold individuals are not able to notice a difference between two images or in the consumer marketplace this may be between two products. Markers use this technique when any changes that they make to their products that may be viewed as a negative change, for example a reduction in size or quality, are not detected by consumers who then adopt a negative opinion of their brand. Or in contrast, it is used so that they can properly demonstrate the positive changes in their product, whether it is larger and has a higher quality or larger and has a lower price, it will always be detected by consumers and have a positive effect on the brand. A brand that has done this extremely well in the recent past is Cadbury’s Dairy milk, who revamped their packaging in 2012 where they introduced a brighter purple. This was due to the loss of patent rights for their signature purple colour- SHOCK HORROR! Well there was no need to worry because through the use of JND they tempered the purple colour and still retained their strong connection to the colour purple.

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