6 ways you can be exposed to subliminal advertising (Part 2)

If you’ve read my previous article, you know how subliminal advertising benefits Brands and why they like to use it.

However, the use of subliminal stimuli is considered sneaky and manipulative, and for that reason, it has been prohibited in many countries. So that is not what you should worry about …

How do Brands get around the law?

We know that a subliminal stimulus is information that is below the threshold of conscious perception which is why we cannot see or hear it.

This is opposed to supraliminal information which we can see and hear because it is above the threshold of conscious awareness. We just don’t notice the stimuli (images, words or audio) because it is very subtle, and our attention is focused somewhere else.

Subliminal is prohibited in many countries. Supraliminal is not.

That’s right. Brands actually use supraliminal stimuli! We commonly use the word “subliminal” to include everything related to it, but the proper word is usually “supraliminal”.

When in doubt, just remember that “subliminal” is a message that only your subconscious can get, you are not able to see or hear it (sorry!). If you can see or hear it, it means it’s “supraliminal”.

How often is it used nowadays?

Look, I’m not gonna lie. You can be exposed to supraliminal stimuli pretty much anywhere now (There are ways to be immune to it though!).

They are not only used in TV advertising, they are also used in movies, on logos, at the supermarket, on social media, on any poster campaign, on the radio, on shopping bags, you name it. Brands get extremely creative, especially when they have to find their way around prohibition.

  • Some techniques are obvious, common and completely accepted by society.

For example, H&M giving you a free shopping bag with their brand name on it to carry the shirt you just bought. You are going to walk past a lot of people with that bag on your way home. Are people going to pay attention to the brand name on this basic shopping bag you are holding? Probably not. But their brain will definitely have caught and stored the message!

  • Others are very well thought through and intentionally sneaky.

For example, after Marlboro was banned from using their logo to promote their brand in Europe, they became quite ingenious: They put what seemed like an innocent barcode on Ferraris (Formula One race cars) which, during the race, looked like a pack of Marlboro cigarettes. They could easily pretend that they weren’t breaking the law. Brilliant! (Full story here)

Shake your head to see the effect of the racing car!
Why do Brands love it?

Because that is how they get our “undivided” attention.

They can pass on the message they WANT without us filtering it, interpreting it, judging and deciding whether we agree with it or not.

Well, at least that’s true for brands trying to do marketing.

You may also have heard of subliminal messages referring to anything related to “SEX”, i.e. words secretly spelled out on a photo, a drawing or an image, subtly pronounced in a song or a background music.

This too has proven to be a good way to trigger our attention … unfortunately.

What are examples of supraliminal messages?

Of course, I have kept my personal favourite for the end to nudge you to get through the first 5 examples 🤪.

  1. PRODUCT PLACEMENT

Casually placing a product in a movie, letting the movie characters use that product or just having it displayed in the background. It works well when the product is there, blending in.

  • What is the effect? You become familiar with the product; you may even want to own it yourself! Especially when the product placement becomes more of a referencing technique. For example, say, I don’t know, if Tom Cruise’s character Maverick were to wear Ray Ban sunglasses in Top Gun …
  • Where is it used? You’ll find it mostly in movies, on TV.

NOTE: The Brand name doesn’t always have to be visible. Sometimes you will just know what the brand is because you’ll recognize it (eg. A Coke bottle!). Also, sometimes the product is not even there, characters just mention it. That’s still product placement.

  1. HIDDEN VISUAL

The image or photo is there, but it’s embedded (blended or masked) so it is vague, subtle, and your attention is usually somewhere else. However, if you look for it you can see it, and once you find it you can’t unsee it!

  • What is the effect? The conscious mind will only process information that is relevant. Everything else (including a subliminal image) is stored to the subconscious mind, unfiltered. This allows to subconsciously make associations, for example between the Brand and a feeling. Like with the logo Tostitos where the “TiT” form two friends pleasantly sharing chips and salsa.
  • Where is it used? You’ll find it mostly in movies, on TV, on poster ads, on websites, on logos.

NOTE: Facebook ads are a good example too. They are positioned on the page in such a way that we see them but we don’t look at them!

  1. HIDDEN TEXT

Like the hidden visual, the hidden text is embedded to catch your attention without you noticing it or being able to judge.

  • What is the effect? This is not as efficient as it sounds because research as shown that it takes many parameters for the subtle text to be “effective” (a couple of words max, words blended in context that is consistent with the message, the right mindset from the audience, the right environment). I share good examples of this on Instagram.
This is also a great example of hidden text in a video.
The Republican campaign managers allegedly included the word “RATS” in this video during the Bush presidential campaign. Did you see it?
  • Where is it used? You’ll find it mostly in movies, on TV, on poster ads,on websites.

NOTE: It also works when the words are spelled backwards.

  1. BACKGROUND MUSIC

The song or music is played in the background. We don’t really pay attention to it, we even tend to let ourselves be carried into the ambiance it creates.

  • What is the effect? The main objective is to induce a purchase. There is a psychological side to the use of music. Just like colours, music triggers our emotions. By definition, we don’t think rationally when we are emotional, thus we spend less time considering all factors before making a decision. For example, classical music played in a wine store has proven to increase wine sales.
  • Where is it used? You’ll find it mostly on TV, on the radio, in commercial places.
  1. HIDDEN AUDIO

It’s a message that is embedded in the audio. Yes, that exists! People talking or singing very low in the background, behind a song or behind someone else talking. The song or the other person talking keep your conscious mind busy and at full capacity. Meanwhile, your subconscious mind is capturing the message played very low.

  • What is the effect? It’s like everything else. It allows to pass on a message that will not be filtered by our conscious mind. Thus, the message will be integrated exactly the way the author wants it to be. This method is actually used for self development. A good example is Chandler in Friends trying to quit smoking 🤣.
  • Where is it used? You’ll find it mostly on the radio, in music and songs.

NOTE: It also works when the words are pronounced backwards, it’s called backmasking.

  1. HIDDEN MESSAGE

Ah, my personal favourite! Sometimes there isn’t the need to place an image or specific words to pass on a clear message. Eyes or fingers pointing in a direction can do the job. Obviously, it is the most subtle method and it can be difficult to catch. It’s anything that is open to your own interpretation (although it is very controlled when it’s intentionally subliminal).

  • What is the effect? You know the drill now. This method is efficient to pass on an unfiltered message. It allows us to associate the Brand name with an emotion.

For example this billboard below is full of hidden messages: The way the hand picks it up shows you that it’s pretty light. The hand also gives you an idea of the size of the iPad. Just with the two elements, you know that it’s convenient and easy to carry around. Also, the white background (and universe) indicates that the product is easily customizable and you are able to make it your own (Find out more about the meaning of colours here).

  • Where is it used? You’ll find it mostly in movies, on TV, on poster ads, on websites, on logos.

If you want to see more examples of these methods, I always share more on my Instagram account. Go check it out and we can continue the conversation there 😉

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