I certainly don't question the existence of subliminal perception which has been demonstrated many times in priming studies like those of Daniel Schacter and many others, nor do I reject the notion of the cognitive unconscious introduced by Kihlstrom (I definitely have my doubts on the psychodynamic unconscious however).

My question is about certain big claims like those of Bryan Wilson Key on subliminal messages with sexual content and consumer behaviour, those about subliminal self-help tapes or those even more suspicious that are about subliminal messages detering shoplifters to steal. Other than null results or junk science I haven't seen any convincing study supporting these claims.

On the other hand, studies by Vockey and Read (1985) challenged the effect of subliminal messages in songs and a meta-analysis carried out by Charles Trappey (1996) showed a negligible effect on consumer behavior. Also, what I get from most psychology textbooks is that the general consensus is that subliminal messaging has a poor and temporary effect (Schacter, Gilbert and Wegner, 2009).

Of course, one has to consider if subliminal perception is qualitatively and quantitatively different depending on the modality of the stimuli but then again I am unconvinced of a considerable effect of subliminal messaging on behaviour.

Any thoughts on that?


Schacter, D. L., Gilbert, D. T. & Wegner, D. M. (2009). Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers

Trappey, C. (1996). A meta-analysis of consumer choice and subliminal advertising, Psychology & Marketing, 13(5): pp. 517—530
DOI: 10.1002/(SICI)1520-6793(199608)13:5<517::AID-MAR5>3.0.CO;2-C
PDF Available FREE from National Chiao Tung University

Vokey, J. R. & Read, J. D. (1985). Subliminal messages: Between the devil and the media, American Psychologist, 40(11): pp. 1231—1239
PMID: 4083611 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.40.11.1231

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    $\begingroup$ You clearly found some research, Trappey (1996) is even a meta-analysis. What would mean for the research to be more "serious" than that? $\endgroup$ Jan 6, 2018 at 12:33

2 Answers 2


First we need to define what "subliminal messaging" means. I take it you mean to send a subliminal command and make someone obey that command. Based on that definition, here's some of what I find from googling:

Effectiveness The effectiveness in subliminal messaging has been demonstrated to prime individual responses and stimulate mild emotional activity.[3][4] Applications, however, often base themselves on the persuasiveness of the message. Importantly, research on action priming has shown that subliminal stimuli can trigger only those actions that one plans to perform anyway: an action can be triggered subliminally only if the person already has the specific intention to perform this specific action.[5] The following sections have more information on specific studies in which the effectiveness of subliminal stimuli are investigated.[6][7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subliminal_stimuli

An article with several links to research on the topic:

In 1979 that nearly 50 department stores in the U.S. and Canada had been using subliminal messages over their music systems which had resulted in a significant reduction in both customer based shoplifting and employee theft. One East Coast chain amounted savings of 600,000 over a nine-month period. Another story in the Wall Street Journal in 1980 stated that subliminal messaging a New Orleans supermarket resulted in an all time low within 6 months of use - from 50,000 per six month period to a figure of 13,000! Furthermore cashier shortages dropped from 125 per week to below 10 per week. http://www.realsubliminal.com/subliminal-messages-scientific-research

Subliminal advertising:

University College London researchers have found the first physiological evidence that invisible subliminal images do attract the brain's attention on a subconscious level. The wider implication for the study, published in Current Biology, is that techniques such as subliminal advertising, now banned in the UK but still legal in the USA, certainly do leave their mark on the brain. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/03/070308121938.htm

More information on subliminal and supraliminal messages and the differences:

Generally, there are three types of subliminal messages: 1. Subvisual messages – visual cues that are flashed so quickly (generally a few milliseconds) that people don’t perceive them. 2. Subaudible messages – low volume audio cues that are inserted into a louder audio source, such as music. 3. Backmasking – an audio message that is recorded backwards, with the intention of playing it forward to disguise the reversed message. Does that mean subliminal messages don’t work? A few decades ago, researchers would have agreed that subliminal messages were BS. They found little, if any, support that they were effective (Vokey & Read, 1985). In recent decades, however, things have been changing. Emerging research has shown that subliminal messages can influence our thoughts and behavior (see Kunst-Wilson & Zajonc, 1980 for one of the first notable studies). For instance, new research has shown that subliminal messages in advertising can, in fact, influence our purchasing behavior. For example, participants in one study were significantly more likely to choose a Lipton Ice drink when they were subliminally primed with “Lipton Ice” (Karremans, Stroebe, & Claus, 2006). Pretty cool. http://www.nickkolenda.com/subliminal-messages/

..And lots more articles, if you were to ask a more specific question.

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    $\begingroup$ My question was indeed not specific enough, now that I look at it after some time. As for the links you provided, wikipedia has a nice summary that I had already read. The second link contains exactly the kind of bogus claims I was talking about. Anecdotal evidence without experimental support. The third link points to a page that misrepresents a bit what Bahrami said. This is a better source. Kolenda's article despite some mistakes, provides some links to interesting studies, and it was what I wanted to see in an answer $\endgroup$ Dec 4, 2014 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ @LarryM. You can always answer your own question. :) No shame in that! $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Apr 20, 2016 at 11:08

Your question rightly refers to different types of subliminal messaging, and so there is much confusion in this area. This was not helped by James Vicary's fraudulent "Drink Coca-Cola" study. Many people took this at face value and assumed that all forms of subliminal research were stopped in its tracks. In fact, the opposite is true - the controversy engaged a new generation of researchers, who have since shown subliminal messaging to work across a number of methods, context, and purposes. Studies like Vicary's are now commonplace. You Tube Link here

If you're researching the topic, the usual sources like PubMed/Medline are useful. The US National Library of Medicine has a good collection of papers as well.

Here is a curated list of the seminal studies.

Evidence for Subliminal Messaging falls into two categories:

Group Experimental Testing: Unlike any other forms of the so-called'talking cures' therapies, subliminal messaging lends itself perfectly to double blind testing. Here one group of subjects receive subliminal messages, and another gets a placebo recording (or a blank screen in the case of visual subliminal). These papers represent an earlier tranche of research (from about the 70′s to the mid 90′s). This demonstrated unequivocally that there is a subliminal effect, but was unable to explain the how. This came later. It is also fair to say that just like anything in the behavioural sciences, there also a handful of good and respected experiments which show subliminal messaging doesn't work.

fMRI tests and observations: From the mid 90′s onward, fMRI was able to show the perception and processing of subliminal information within the brain in real time.

I would hasten to add that proof that they exist/work/are effective - does not mean that they can be used for anything and everything.


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