Subliminal Advertising – Fact or Fiction?

There is often confusion in the workplace of what the word ‘subliminal’ means in the world of marketing. In essence, it is unintentional learning that happens below a conscious level and it relates to perception.


Marketing Strategy encompasses three core elements: segmentation, targeting and positioning. Positioning involves branding (tangible and intangible assets) and closely connects with perception. It also covers both the conscious and unconscious aspects of perception, so there is a tenuous connection with the word ‘subliminal advertising’ as the marketing mix (includes communications) is the tactical delivery of the marketing strategy.

The three phases of consumer perception include: sensing, organizing, and reacting; and marketers use this insight to create perceptual maps

Perceptual maps | Augmentable Marketing

Our 5 Senses

Through our five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste and touch), we are inundated in the Digital Age with an overwhelming amount of information. The human body sends 11 million bits per second to the brain for processing, yet the conscious mind seems to be able to process only 50 bits per second.

Information transmission rates | Augmentable Marketing

During an average day, we touch our mobile phone over 200 times and receive over 10,000 brand/advertising messages (online and offline), however, our attention is limited and attentionis a primary commodity marketers want to buy!

Attention is the purposeful allocation of information-processing capacity toward understanding some stimulus.

Consumers and buyers seek simplicity of message to enhance speed of processing, however, you need to get their attention first. In an overstimulated physical, digital or mixed reality environment, it is important to use appropriate techniques to enhance ‘buyer attention’ opportunities based on creating a ‘Just Meaningful Difference’ (JMD). These could include:

  • Strong stimuli: for example, loud sounds or large outdoor images.
  • Contrast: for example, a website image with movement or a black and white advert in a colour magazine.
  • Learned response: for example, have you reached for your phone when the sound of a phone ringing was played on a radio commercial?

Subliminal Advertising

Subliminal Advertising is defined as embedding ‘hidden’ messages within adverts…

Such techniques include cinema adverts flashing words at a speed the conscious mind is unable to read (e.g. “eat popcorn”) to try and encourage people to buy popcorn during a movie, or use of auditory messages below normal hearing levels. The effectiveness of subliminal advertising has never been proven, and the original advertising agency research was exposed as a hoax; it was intentionally misleading and designed to help the agency win new advertising clients! The BBC sent Phil Tinline to investigate. For more information, read the peer-reviewed article by the Journal of Historical Research in Marketing on the history of how we came to believe in subliminal advertising (A Virtual Social H‐Bomb). Available free to members of the Chartered Institute of Marketing (one of the fantastic benefits of membership – contact CIM Knowledge Services)!


Based on Consumer Behaviour and peer-reviewed research, a more accurate term used by advertising agencies today and marketing psychologists is ‘Subliminal Persuasion’ as consumers are influenced at a level below conscious awareness during their everyday lives. So what’s the difference? Subliminal advertising is ‘invisible’, whereas, subliminal persuasion is ‘visible’ although you do not pay conscious attention to the stimuli (note some marketing articles and content portals use the words ‘subliminal advertising’ when they mean ‘subliminal persuasion’)…

Subliminal Persuasion has been intentionally used by the advertising industry since the days of the Mad Men to build brands and create buyer preference. 

Due to public concern, ethics and misunderstanding around the word ‘subliminal’, a better term for marketers based on the Psychology of Marketing would be PWA (Perception Without Awareness) which I define as:

unintentional learning that occurs at an unconscious level”

The available evidence suggests that information perceived without awareness both biases what stimuli are perceived with awareness, and influences how stimuli perceived with awareness are consciously experienced. Recently, I was involved with training marketers from Google, Facebook, O2, and Sainsbury’s and they loved the following trick Derren Brown played on an advertising agency (if you are in marketing you are going to enjoy this!), the tables turned…


Finally, I thought you might find the below interesting from my friends in the world of advertising. Whilst viewing, consider how these optical illusions relate to the idea that perception is reality, and why they achieve ‘cut through’ for attention:

Special thanks Kelvin Golding FCIM for writing and allowing us to share this great post.