It has always been obvious to me that psychology is a major part of advertising, but until this past semester none of my classes had really delved into the intricacies and relations between the two. My social psychology professor spent a class period on the subject, and nothing surprised me until he got to the subject of subliminal messaging. It turns out that shockingly, subliminal messaging does, to a certain extent, work.
Check out this old George Bush campaign advertisement. On the surface, it seems fairly straightforward, but after watching it one time go back and press 8 repeatedly. The Bush crew decided that when the word bureaucrat flashed onto the screen in reference to Al Gore, the word "rat" would be emphasized for a split second. They believed that the viewer would subconsciously think of Al Gore as a rat after seeing this. Turn out, despite what we may have thought, they may have been onto something, but only if the rest of the commercial was effective in priming the viewer to think of rats, or more likely Al Gore, in a negative light.
In a 2001 study at Waterloo college researchers performed three experiments surrounding the idea of subliminal messaging. In each of the experiments the researchers checked to see that the students were unaware that there was subliminal messaging. In the first study researchers wanted to see if priming individuals subliminally would effect behavior when there was motivation surrounding a task. They did this by getting the participants thirsty and flashing thirst related subliminal messages on a computer screen. The results (graph below) show that thirsty individuals who received subliminal messages drank more water than thirsty individuals who were not shown subliminal messages and non-thirsty individuals who received the subliminal cues. If people were shown subliminal cues and motivated to drink water they drank more than those that did not receive the cues and were not thirsty. Motivation + Subliminal message= behavior.
In the second experiment, researchers tested whether the persuasiveness of an advertisement could grow with a subliminal message. They followed the template of the last experiment for the most part, but showed the participants two ads for very similar energy drinks. One energy drink had subliminal messages that emphasized how thirst quenching the drink was, while the other drink used subliminal messages with words referencing how many electrolytes it had. At the conclusion of the experiment participants who were thirsty and got the subliminal primes were more likely to choose the drink with the subliminal cues emphasizing thirst than the other drink. This was not the case for thirsty individuals who were not subliminally primed as well as non thirsty individuals who were, as they chose the two drinks equally.
The third study looked to see if the results carried over for something other than thirst. Researchers primed participants subliminally by flashing a sad face on the computer screen and then showed them an advertisement for a CD that wold hypothetically make them happier. Individuals who were primed with the sad face were more likely to believe the CD would be effective in raising happiness, probably because the subliminal message had put them in a sad mood subconsciously and they needed the attitude raising effects of the CD.
Based on these findings, the Bush ad should have worked, but only for people who were already motivated to find Al Gore's flaws or think of him as a rat. It is scary to think that our subconscious can be toyed with to a certain extent by advertisers, but if nothing else there results show that the worst thing that will happen is we will confirm or act on our original disposition.