Subliminal messaging is a common term referring to subliminal advertising, where an individual's purchasing choices are influenced by subliminal stimulus, and related beliefs. The common characteristic of subliminal messaging is the belief that subliminal stimulus, defined as stimulus that is not consciously detectable, drastically influences a person’s decisions and actions. Subliminal messaging is derived from subliminal perception, the study of how sub-sensory stimulus influences the mind (Merikle 2000, 497-499) which psychologists study and recognize as a legitimate science. However, subliminal messaging, interpreted as the use of subliminal stimuli in the media to invisibly manipulate a person’s choices and actions, can only be classified as pseudoscientific.

Definition and Background

The idea of subliminal messaging has its roots in the idea of subliminal perception. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries psychologists studied whether information can be perceived subconsciously. Since there were no ways to measure brain activity at the time, psychologists conducted experiments by presenting subjects with stimulus that cannot be consciously detected, such as visual stimulus placed at an extreme distance or sounds so soft that people claim they can’t hear. When the subjects were asked to identify what they thought the stimuli was, they were found to be surprisingly accurate. Studies such as this concluded that information can be subconsciously processed by an individual. (Merikle 2000, 497-499).

The principle that information can be subconsciously perceived was powerful because the idea offered could be extended to make the claim that people can be covertly manipulated by subliminal information. This over-extension of subliminal perception is the foundation of what the public deems to be subliminal messaging. Moore (1988) presents the general idea of subliminal messaging as the idea that a person unaware of subliminal messaging, upon receiving it, is “especially vulnerable to the directive’s influence” (Moore 1988, 292).

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Since its inception in 1957 by the works of James Vicary and Vance Packard, the public quickly learned and accepted subliminal messaging as being legitimate. Moore (1988) observes that public acceptance of subliminal messaging has remained relatively high from its origins in the late 1950s well into the late 1980s (Moore 1988, 292-293). This widespread belief can also be seen in the way modern advertisements are constructed, since these beliefs continue to be broadcasted by the media today (O’Barr 2005). Of the people who believe in subliminal messaging, subliminal messaging is largely believed by “parents, educators, and politicians” (Moore 1988, 293), likely paranoid about subliminal indoctrination of children as they are by far the most vulnerable to manipulation. Public opinion on subliminal messaging, however, is largely negative (O’Barr 2005) because it is routinely associated with manipulative advertisers (Moore 1988, 293).

Is Subliminal Messaging a Legitimate Science?

James Vicary`s Popcorn Experiment

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One of the most commonly known examples of subliminal messaging is James Vicary’s movie theater “experiment” in 1957. In his press release, he claims that 45,699 people were exposed to subliminal projections telling them to “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola”, causing a 57.5 percent sales increase for popcorn and an 18.1 percent increase in coca cola sales. But Vicary provided no explanations for his results or any other details about his study to the public, claiming that it is part of a confidential patent. When Rogers (1992) interviewed the theater that supposedly conducted this experiment, the manager declared that there was no such test ever done (Rogers 1992, 12-17). Not having an explanation for Vicary’s results or methods makes it impossible to reproduce his results. Taken in context with evidence that no experiment even took place, Vicary’s results can be considered completely fraudulent. Vicary later retracted his claims in a television interview with Fred Danzig in 1962, but Vicary’s original claims spread rapidly and lead to widespread acceptance of subliminal messaging, even today (O’Barr 2005).

Vance Packard's "The Hidden Persuaders"

In 1957, Vance Packard also published a best seller called The Hidden Persuaders. In this book, Packard explicitly states that there are “large-scale efforts being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes”. Packard then goes on to claim that psychoanalysis is used “to guide campaigns of persuasion” (Packard 2007, 31), and this is one of the first major incidences in which subliminal messaging was claimed to be manipulative. Packard supported his claims with evidence provided by Ernest Dichter, Ph.D., head of the Institute for Motivational Research. Packard quotes Dichter as saying that product promotion must target “deep in the psychological recesses of the mind” to succeed (Packard 2007, 53).

Dichter’s consultations for a number of corporations are described as being legitimate studies that support the theory. In a well-known study done for Chrysler, Dichter observed that men were attracted to convertibles, so by putting convertibles in the window car dealers can subconsciously manipulate a man into the showroom. He argues that this is because men subconsciously associates convertibles with “youth, romance, adventure”, and when he goes in, he will choose to buy a sedan because he subconsciously associates it with “a plain girl who, he knew, would make a fine wife and mother” (Packard 2007, 97).

But Rogers(1992) later compares Dr. Dichter’s qualifications to Colonel Sanders’ (of KFC) military standing. He observes that his title is merely a “mnemonic moniker” used by people like Vicary to attract credibility (Rogers 1992, p.12-17). While mocking a person’s credibility can be seen as a cheap way for people against a theory to attack it, Packard offers no details as to Dichter’s methodology, nor does he offer any quantitative results for this so called study. With no details, we cannot be certain of the methodology used to obtain his evidence, or even if this topic was actually studied at all. Since Packard’s claims are based on an unknown individual who used unknown methods that produce unjustifiable evidence, this particular body of evidence cannot be used to support subliminal messaging.

Wilson Key's Evidence for Subliminal Manipulation

After The Hidden Persuaders, Wilson Bryan Key published a number of popular books in the 1970s that supported the idea of subliminal manipulation of sexuality in advertisements. In Media Sexploitation, Key uses the example of a Ritz cracker with the word sex inscribed on it so that it is “unconsciously perceived” and he claims that subliminal sexual messages such as this can incite “an individual's unconscious sex drive”, which can in turn “change human behavior on a vast scale” (Key 1977, p.14-15). Key also makes claims that advertisements for sweet, indulgent foods are “loaded with subliminal triggers” to attract buyers and advertisers use techniques to incite “guilt feelings” about “body structures” in order to fuel merchandise consumption (Key 1977, p.38). As a whole, Key’s evidence for his own claims come from experiments in which his students are asked to look at pictures, write down their initial impression, and examine them for hidden motifs (O’Barr, 2005).

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However, these claims are entirely dependent how advertisements are interpreted, which is subjective to a person’s willingness to perceive things in a certain manner. The subjective interpretation of evidence in science is universally condemned; this alone is enough to discredit most of Key’s evidence. O’Barr (2005) also argues that these kinds of messages can be perceived by a trained eye, and cannot be subliminal by definition. We can then conclude that Key’s evidence is based on subjective claims laced with a false understanding of what subliminal stimulus, so his claims should not be taken seriously.

Subliminal Messaging as a Pseudoscience

Pseudoscience or Bad Science?

Subliminal messaging is often confused with the legitimate science of subliminal perception. Examined this way, it is fairly easy to pass off subliminal messaging as bad science, given that subliminal messaging is testable and people can obtain agreeable evidence through scientific fraud. However, bad science is not the same as non-science or pseudoscience, so it is important to first distinguish subliminal messaging from bad science.

Hansson distinguishes pseudoscience from bad science by suggesting pseudoscience has a “deviant doctrine” inherent in its methods. While he does not explicitly give a definition of what this deviant doctrine refers to, he does say that pseudoscience “Involves a sustained effort to promote teachings different from those that have scientific legitimacy at the time”. Hansson further elaborates on bad science, saying that “isolated breaches of the requirements of science are not commonly regarded as pseudoscientific” (Hansson 2012). In his view, bad science consists of isolated incidents which as a whole are not representative of a legitimate field, and often fraudulent results are “in conformity with the predictions of established scientific theories” because anything else would be deemed suspicious (Hansson 2012).

From here, we can argue that subliminal messaging is pseudoscientific. Subliminal messaging does not consist of a few isolated incidents in which experiments or results are altered. Given the mass of photographic evidence used by Key and the numerous claims by Dichter that support Packard’s claims, subliminal messaging can be called a collective effort to support the idea that subliminal manipulation can directly control choices and actions. Since this goes against basic principles of subliminal perception, which is legitimate, it agrees with Hansson’s view of pseudoscience as a form of rebellion against legitimate science.

Moreover, we can also argue that subliminal messaging is pseudoscience because it cannot be bad science, nor can it be classified as a legitimate science. Bad science, according to Hansson, consists of rare violations of scientific principles. Subliminal messaging is publically accepted (O’Barr 2005) and it is not consistent with established scientific views, meaning that it does not satisfy common characteristics of bad science. Subliminal messaging cannot be good science either because there are enough incidences of results contradicting the effectiveness of subliminal messaging in advertisements to put the field in disrepute. Subliminal messaging does not satisfy Hansson’s criteria for bad science, nor can it be treated a good science. With these considerations in mind, subliminal messaging can only be classified as pseudoscience because it can be considered a rebellion against science.

Popper's Falsification Criterion of Science

One of the first criteria that many scientists look at when demarcating science from non-science is falsifiability. Karl Popper examined this criterion in great detail and made a number of conclusions regarding falsifiability, which he put as follows (Popper 1963, 33-39):

1. It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory — if we
look for confirmations.
2. Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to
say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event
which was incompatible with the theory — an event which would have refuted the
3. Every "good" scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The
more a theory forbids, the better it is.
4. A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific.
Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.
5. Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is
falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more
exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.
6. Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test
of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful
attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of "corroborating evidence.")
7. Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their
admirers — for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by
reinterpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a
procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the
price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status. (I later described such a
rescuing operation as a "conventionalist twist" or a "conventionalist stratagem.")

Looking at subliminal messaging, it can be used to make very risky predictions about a person’s actions, behaviours, and is applicable to high risk marketing strategies. It can also be examined and verified through brain scans and techniques developed by modern psychology, making it appear scientific on the surface. However, the simple fact that subliminal messaging cannot be falsified is enough to justify it as a non-science.

Believers in subliminal messaging can argue that with MRI scans and modern psychology, subliminal messaging can be tested and potentially falsified if subliminal stimulus is found to have no effect in directly inciting a person’s decisions and actions. But this claim is incorrect because there is no way for us to isolate the effects of subliminal messaging alone. For instance, people can be more inclined to pick a certain brand of clothing based on its colour or its design. When subliminal messaging is employed, it is impossible to distinguish whether or not people are inclined to choose one brand over the other because of subliminal messages or because of one side being more aesthetically pleasing than the other. Regardless of how similar the products are, there will always be some other factor that can skew a person’s decision. For example, a person could have a tendency to pick the product shown to them first or they can pick the product that is located to their left. At this point, it would be impossible to distinguish between the effects of subliminal messaging and a placebo, rendering the theory unfalsifiable.

In addition, the presence of other potential sources of stimulus, such as noise, odours, and touch, can all incite other competing processes in the brain that make it highly difficult to distinguish the effects of the stimulus from each other. Even if we manage to resolve the tests down to analyses of every single atom in the brain, the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics will prevent the complete resolution of any confounding interactions in the brain’s natural chemical processes. This makes subliminal messaging unfalsifiable at first principles, so by Popper’s criterion, it cannot be science because its claims cannot be realistically examined.

Thagard's Criterion of Pseudoscience

Paul Thagard characterizes science by examining the practitioners of science and pseudoscience, as well as the progressiveness of theories. He writes that a theory is pseudoscientific if the theory is “less progressive than alternative theories” and practitioners don’t “develop theories to solutions of the problems, shows no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory in relation to others, and is selective in considering confirmations and disconfirmations” (Thagard 1978, 228). Here Thagard demarcates science from non-science using the fact that practitioners of science treat science as a self-correcting discipline which is open to review in light of new evidence, while practitioners of pseudoscience do not.

Let us examine these points individually. As far as the progression of subliminal messaging goes, the original claims made by Vicary and Packard in 1957, along with Key’s claims in the 1970s, are still used by marketers to attract customers. Today, the presence of companies that promise things like “instant success with women using subliminal techniques” (O’Barr 2005) is an example of how the original claims of subliminal messaging are unchanged. Comparatively, after subliminal messaging fell into disrepute, the field of subliminal perception has moved on to discover the more subtle ways that subliminal perception can influence a person’s mental state. Subliminal messaging has progressed very little from its originally incorrect claims, and as a result, can be considered pseudoscientific.

Thagard’s observations about subliminal messaging practitioners also show faults in the theory’s legitimacy. A key component of subliminal messaging theory is that subliminal messages can visibly affect a person’s actions. This claim was discredited when studies showed that a person with no intentions to undertake a certain action is unaffected by subliminal messaging. One such study demonstrated that the use of subliminal messaging can only cause a person to behave “strictly in line with current intentions and only when these intentions are activated” (Schlaghcken and Eimer 2004, p. 467). In response, there have been no modern publications addressing these claims, showing that advocates for subliminal messaging have made no attempts to develop the theory in light of legitimate scrutiny. But most prominently, believers in subliminal messaging still rely on the opinions of Vicary, Packard, and Key, all of which can be discredited. Selective use of illegitimate evidence to confirm subliminal messaging destroys its credibility, thus demarcating the theory as untrustworthy pseudoscience.

Harmful Effects of Subliminal Messaging

Widespread belief in the effects of subliminal messaging makes it appear to be a legitimate marketing tool when it is actually useless. As advertisements are a universal business tool, subliminal messaging is essentially a giant money pit for businesses. After Vicary released the results of his now discredited study in 1957, he made an estimated $4.5 million from corporations interested in subliminal advertising (Rogers 1992, p.12-17). Large scale beliefs in subliminal messaging are hereby able to cause serious financial harm to companies that believe in its effectiveness. In the past, fear of subliminal messaging also incited massive public outrage; the U.S. Congress even considered making subliminal messaging illegal (O’Barr, 2005). The fact that public belief in subliminal messaging can lead to government action makes it a significant threat to political and social stability, but the unjustifiable nature and ineffectiveness of subliminal messaging makes it an empty threat whose existence should be, ideally, ignored by society.


Subliminal messaging originated in the mid 20th century as a potential tool of manipulation. Since then it has been accepted and incorporated into the public belief system and is recognized as a powerful marketing tool today because of its widespread acceptance. However, the evidence used to convince people that subliminal messaging is, put mildly, downright untrustworthy. Support for the theory consists of an unpublished, discredited study, a popular book that relies entirely on the credentials of a specialist to promote unwarranted and unjustifiable claims, and another series of popular books which relies on subjective interpretation and misunderstanding of the subject to support its arguments. Demarcation criteria for science and pseudoscience show that subliminal messaging consistently contradicts legitimate science, is unfalsifiable, is not progressive, and cannot even be considered as bad science. With this overwhelming body of evidence, readers should seriously reconsider their perception of subliminal messages as potentially being scientific, because beliefs in subliminal messaging are not beneficial to anyone on Earth.


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