History of Subliminal Messages


Will you be shocked if you her that the usage of subliminal messages can be traced back to at least 5 century BC? That’s right! Ancient Greeks used the science called rhetoric as a way of influencing people, and that’s the first known usage of subliminal messages in history.

You see, subliminal messages can be put into any kind of visual or audio piece as fragments that our conscious mind doesn’t register – including speech. This is done by placing slight, almost imperceptible, emphasis on certain words in a sentence, or by using the words with more than one meaning. Well, even the Ancient Greeks knew how to do that.

This kind of persuasive speech has been used by great orators that are closer to our time – Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill used it to inspire people.

First Studies and Experiments in Subliminal Messaging

Studying subliminal messages as we know them today started somewhere in the mid 1800, and in 1897 Dr. E.W. Scripture published a book called The New Psychology, in which, for the first time, are mentioned some basic principles of using subliminal messaging in the context of subtle persuasion.

In the 1920, the folks on BBC were the first (as far as we know) to use subliminal messages to influence broader masses. It’s when they started broadcasting on radio for the first time – at a time, people thought that radio was something sinister, the voice of the devil (well, we can understand that – people talking from the inside of a box!), and the BBC wanted to change that attitude:

(…) they placed certain phrases using backward masking in their jingles. (…) A radio jingle was aired, which sounded completely innocent, but when played backwards it reveals a different (true) purpose. The words “This is not a noose, no really it’s not” can clearly be heard. (Source: www.umich.edu)

During the World War II a machine called tachitoscope was invented; tachitoscope was briefly flashing pictures of enemy airplanes to the pilots, helping them to recognize enemy plains in a battle.

In 1957, a market researcher named James Vicary claimed he could make people buy things by using hidden messages in advertising. That same year Vance Packard, an American journalist and author, published his book The Hidden Persuaders, where he criticized the use of covert techniques in advertising, and media influences in general – and that’s when the subject of subliminal messaging really took off.

James Vickary has conducted an experiment in a New Jersey movie theater: he used tachitoscope to flash the phrases “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat popcorn” for 1/2000 of a second during a movie, and he found that the sales increased (58% for popcorn, 18% for Coca Cola) after that.

In the article Is subliminal messaging real? we have mentioned this experiment, and explained how subliminal messages can only influence someone to do something that they were already thinking about doing (people in that theater were thinking about drinking soda and eating popcorn anyway, so subliminal messages just “helped” them go and actually buy them), but this experiment has raised many eyebrows, leading to an enormous response from the public imagining possible effects of subliminal perception on the future.

Vickary, who even founded a company called Subliminal Projection Company and coined the term “subliminal advertising”, later claimed that the experiment was a hoax, but the use of subliminal messages was banned from many countries nevertheless.

During 1970s and 1980s there have been many other studies, with different results; the term was already widely known to the public, and even used in some bizarre contexts – famous is the case from 1985, where the families of two boys who committed suicide claimed that the words “Do it” that Judas Priests subliminally put in their song “Better By You, Better Than Me” have pushed their boys to such a step.

Subliminal Messaging Today

Today, we know a lot more about  how subliminal messages work, there are hundreds of self-improvement programs that use subliminal messaging to help people improve their lives, and these are based on real scientific studies: New York psychologist Lloyd Silverman showed that smokers who want to quit and are exposed to subliminal messaging are 5 times more likely to succeed than those who haven’t had a “subliminal support”.

Some other studies even show that the exposure to subliminal messages has led to actual improvement of IQ levels and academic performance.

It’s however important to understand that, in order for subliminal messages to help us achieve our goals, we have to pursue those goals consciously as well – or, in other words, they can’t make us do what we already aren’t willing to do, but they can greatly help us in conquering the resistance of our unconscious mind. To learn more about the processes in our subconscious and the effects of subliminal messages, you can check the other articles in the section of our website dedicated to subliminal messages.

And Vickary’s experiment? He never released a detailed description of his study, but 50 years later, a recreation of his experiment was made during International Brand Marketing Conference MARKA 2007. The results were interesting, to say the least: 81% of those exposed to subliminal advertising choose a brand they were subliminally exposed to over the other one.

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