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The Power of the Subliminal Message

Updated on July 24, 2013

little perceptions in the big world

In the 1970s, I read about an experiment that took place in a department store, where the management played a subsonic tape repeating the words I am honest, I will not steal, in addition to the normal in-store music. At the end of a definite period, they reported a fall in incidences of shoplifting by many percentage points. For years, I wondered about the experiment. Maybe shoplifting fell for other reasons? It could have been that store detectives, desperately wanting the experiment to work, unconsciously determined to nab fewer “lifters” than usual.

I was wrong. Only later in life, did I learn about the power of subliminal messaging, about the experiments of James Vicary during the 1950s, and about the much more extensive use (and indeed, abuse) of subliminal images in advertising. However, many people are still sceptical. This is unsurprising, given the difficulty in determining results in all experiments of a psychological nature. Writers on the subject cite the difficulty in establishing the effectiveness of subliminal imaging. If subliminal perception does exist, it is still not certain that subliminal messages would be more effective than other forms of advertising, writes Arthur Koponen. At this point, I think of the old adage on advertising, that one half of it is wasted but that nobody knows which half. Surely, the same is true for subliminal messaging – but what is subliminal perception and how does it work?

Subliminal perception has been defined as perception without awareness. Interestingly, philosophers like Socrates, Aristotle and Democritus believed in its existence. Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), a more recent philosopher, shared this belief. A mathematician as well as a philosopher, he was the first thinker to introduce the idea of the unconscious. He defined déjà vu, that weird phenomenon whereby we get a feeling of having seen or heard an event in some other place or time, while it is still rolling. Very occasionally, there is a slight but definite lapse in time between the “happening” of an event, and our awareness of it. This is what accounts for that feeling of déjà vu.

Leibniz pointed out that the world is filled with perceptions, but that we can only consciously focus on a small part of it at one time. He theorized that we somehow pick up numerous other perceptions without being consciously aware of them. Such unconscious perceptions he called little perceptions. Today, we know that images seen with only one eye register in both cortices of the brain. The same is true of the sounds that we register in our ears. Experiments by present-day psychologists have determined that there are varying levels of consciousness.

Most of us can identify with the gamut of consciousness, from being fully alert to relaxed, then sleepy, and then sound asleep. In The Awakened Mind, C Maxwell Cade and Nona Coxhead have identified seven different states, from deep sleep to what they call “lucid awareness”. These states register definite wave patterns on what they call a “mind mirror”, a type of electroencephalograph that detects and measures brainwaves. The same couple has conducted experiments to demonstrate that, at certain levels of consciousness, most notably the state between waking and dreaming, we are more receptive to suggestion by words and images that at others. This is known as the hypnagogic state.

Even more significantly, advertisers use words that arouse emotion, words like love, money and so forth. We know that individuals respond to certain words more emotionally than others, for example, the name of a loved one or even our own name. Experiments undertaken by psychology writer NF Dixon between 1971 and 1981 show that individuals, even in a state of deep sleep, respond to these words. These responses can be recorded with equipment that monitor skin resistance. In 1962, James Vicary did confess that he faked the results of at least one of his experiments. However, the world and many store managers have turned a deaf ear to this confession. Graphic artists and advertising managers have had enormous fun with subliminal messaging, ever since.

Subliminal messaging has even found its way into the world of sound. In the film classic Edward Scissorhands (Tim Burton, 1990), composer Danny Elfman recounts how he selected the soundtrack to accompany various situations in the movie. Elfman, of course, composed several of the actual scores, including the haunting “ice dance” music, which signatures the more romantic parts of the movie. However, Elfman also had to score the more sinister parts of the story. In the sequence where Edward is “criminalized” by being pulled into house-breaking by Kim’s jealous boyfriend, the music takes on a darker twist. On video, Elfman explains how he twisted around the brighter music from the earlier part of the movie, in effect, playing the sequences backwards. Thus, the film audience receives subliminal echoes of the earlier score, while signalling the darker direction of the story.

The accompanying image contains my name in bags – can you find out where?


  • Colliers Encyclopaedia
  • The Awakened Mind by C Maxwell Cade & Nona Coxhead, Element Books, 1991
  • The Oxford Companion to the Mind, edited by Richard L Gregory, Oxford University Press, 1987

Read my piece on Optical Illusions

Look and see....

...find if you can!
...find if you can!


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    • Mary Phelan profile image

      Mary Phelan 5 years ago from London

      Thank you for your comment. I continue to research this fascinating subject, and I appreciate the lead.

      With best wishes

    • profile image

      Jason 5 years ago from HighPoint, N.C.

      Mary Phelan, being from London, are you familiar with Richard Dawkins' "meme" discovery? meme is pronounced "me ' mm" {such as a "gene", except with "m" replacing the "g" & "n" letters, respectively}. Memes are indeed the product of subliminal & the most effective uses of Commercialism, Marketing, Cultural Ideas, etc. etc. {both negative & positive, and everything in between}, it's how ideas spread the easiest & most rapidly (via it's natural biological processes).

    • lorlie6 profile image

      Laurel Rogers 5 years ago from Bishop, Ca

      "The Medium is the Message" by Marshall McLuhan was one of the most influential books for me in college-and the one that opened my eyes to the subject of this Hub. Thank you for this writing, I'll have to check out your references.

      Well done!


    • sparkster profile image

      Sparkster Publishing 5 years ago from United Kingdom

      Leibniz was right. Perception can be easily fooled and subliminal messaging comes down to nothing more than the power of suggestion which should never be underestimated.