Subliminal messaging

There’s no real evidence that subliminal messaging works. By most accounts, the experiments of the marketing psychologist James M. Vicary in the 1950s were a hoax. The theory was that we pick up words and images presented to us in ways that defy conscious awareness.

Audiences in a cinema could be induced to buy a Coca-cola during intermission if presented with a few images of the brand and texts telling you that you are thirsty. These suggestions would appear for a split second in the film as just single, isolated frames evading conscious detection.

Images flashed in rapid succession are a commonplace in the digital age. If you have sufficient visual acuity you can rattle through their own digital photo-library at about 10 frames a second and identify the portrait of your best friend.

Though advertisers were sceptical about those particular techniques, the idea of subliminal messaging became a leitmotif for critics of mass media advertising. In his book The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard sought to expose the surreptitious nature of advertising tactics.

“It is about the large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes by the use of insights gleaned from psychiatry and the social sciences. Typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness; so that the appeals which move us are often, in a sense, ‘hidden.’ The result is that many of us are being influenced and manipulated, far more than we realize, in the patterns of our everyday lives” (31).

Subliminal perception in Life

Google Books currently provides all the back issues of the weekly Life magazine going back to 1936, offering a searchable compendium of twentieth century cultural mores and how these have changed.

The magazines include advertisements of course, but also articles about advertising. I was drawn to a 1958 article featuring so-called “Hidden sell” techniques, their methods and dangers. Film producers were on the verge of producing SP (subliminal perception) movies, e.g. a film might flash images of a skull at audiences to heighten the impact of a horror scene.

The advertising scenario was best captured by a cartoon that showed a tv addict reclining in his armchair. Hair products are on the coffee table and his hair is in curlers. “I don’t know what came over me” he says. The article highlighted serious and non-serious causes for alarm.

What isn’t subliminal?

The idea that advertising might operate subliminally assumes that the application of such techniques is exceptional — as if we are otherwise in control of what we see, hear and sense, and the effects those sensations have upon us. In fact that particular edition of Life magazine is full of other “subliminal messages.”

In keeping with the age, the edition purveys the good life, middle-class suburbia, a burgeoning consumer culture, and the nuclear family — wash and wear shirts, lawn mowers, pasta sauce, washing machines, South Pacific, a Smith-Corona portable electric typewriter, a Keystone 8mm movie camera, etc.

Life is an American pictorial magazine, but the only non-white depictions of people are performers — Mike Satiri (a sax player) and singer Johnny Mathis in an extended family setting. There’s an exotic depiction of villagers in Sri Lanka, and a cartoon depiction of American First Nation art advertising tourism in Oregon.

There’s an article about schooling. The only negative image on that theme is of a non-white student being admonished by a teacher, captioned “Tough student: New York City has shifted troublemakers from regular schools to  special ‘700’ schools.”

Media presentations that reinforce stereotypes are also a form of subliminal messaging. Most modes of influence are in that category after all. It’s a common feature of interpretation that we are never fully aware of what influences our judgements and interpretations. See posts tagged Hermeneutics.


  • Barthes, Roland. 1973. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. London: Paladin
  • Brean, Herbert. 1958. ‘Hidden sell’ technique is almost here: New subliminal gimmicks offer blood, skulls and popcorn to movie fans. Life, (44) 13, 102-114.
  • Crandall, Kelly B. 2006. Invisible Commercials and Hidden Persuaders: James M. Vicary and the Subliminal Advertising Controversy of 1957. HIS 4970: Undergraduate Honors Thesis University of Florida Department of History, 12 April. Available online: (accessed 13 July 2020).
  • Packard, Vance. 2007. The Hidden Persuaders. Brooklyn, NY: Ig Publishing. First published in 1957.


  • According to their website, “LIFE Magazine is the treasured photographic magazine that chronicled the 20th Century. It now lives on at, the largest, most amazing collection of professional photography on the internet. Users can browse, search and view photos of today’s people and events. They have free access to share, print and post images for personal use.”
  • As they say they are free to share, here are a couple of architectural images from an article about the Brussels World Fair.

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