It’s been over fifty years since James Vicary’s famus hoax, where he claimed to have flashed subliminal messages to make movie theater audiences crave popcorn and soft drinks. Even after he admitted it was a complete fraud, certain marketers still cling to the notion that it is possible to implant suggestions in the mind of a buyer without him being aware of it, as if by will alone they can make this notion true. Having recently read Daryl Weber’s book on the subject, published just this year, it seems that the myth still has its proponents.
The problem is that arguing about subliminal marketing is like arguing about the existence of god. Those who choose to believe can always find signs and wonders to support their beliefs. Those who disagree are in the position to make the impossible argument that something that does not exist can be disproven, and the burden of having to do serious research to depose claims that require nothing more than a casual assertion that can be made without any diligence or effort at all.
My own position on the topic is entirely undecided. The assertion that it is possible to communicate to the unconscious mind does have some undeniable facts, though the connection between theory and practice seems a bit tenuous at times and there is insufficient research to prove a definite connection. And just as with arguments over the existence of the supernatural, I cannot accept something to be true simply because it is not proven to be false – but at the same time cannot dismiss the possibility, however specious and superficial the evidence.
The basis of subliminal or unconscious reception is quite sound: the human mind has a limited cognitive capacity and our conscious process of thought only focus on one thing at a time, though it may switch itself between multiple threads of thought. But at the same time we are aware of sense-data collected on the periphery, and this is necessary as a survival mechanism: our primitive ancestors may have been focused on foraging for berries in the underbrush, but would become instantly aware of movement that suggests a potential predator; and even modern man is capable of focusing on his cell phone while driving a car, trusting in his peripheral awareness of the environment to alert him when a collision is imminent, at least some of the time.
In order to have this awareness, we must be able to receive and process information on the periphery of our mental focus. We are not attentive and do not have a deliberate process of thought when we hear a hiss in the high grass – we are instantly distracted and poise to react as a matter of reflex without conscious thought, before we can analyze whether there is an actual threat. And by simple logic, anything that is outside conscious thought must be taking place in the unconscious mind. The unconscious mind must receive sense data, and must perform some primitive analysis, to come to the conclusion that there might be a threat and we should poise ourselves to react. None of this can be denied.
However, questions arise as to how often this actually occurs, how complex an analysis our unconscious mind is capable of making, and whether being alerted or distracted invariably results in an actual action being taken. These questions are critical to determining whether unconscious awareness is at all applicable to the higher orders of human behavior, such as making a decision to purchase and taking action on that decision. And this is where the theories of subliminal or unconscious marketing fall short.
While it cannot be denied that the unconscious mind can cause us to shift our mental focus from one task to another, it does not guarantee that we will perform that task. In his study of emotional reactions, Charles Darwin concluded that emotions “poise” us to take action, but it is the rational mind that determines whether that action is taken. When we sense danger on the periphery, we jerk our heads toward the suspected source, our hearing and vision becomes more acute, our legs tense and our body twitches to prepare to run away from it … but we do not actually run away until we have given focus to the event that caused us to become distracted.
More modern and scientific investigation suggests that there is a three-millisecond lead before the conscious mind takes over, which is the reason we twitch and jerk, but often do not take action when we are startled. Consumer purchasing is a far more complex sequence of behaviors than twitching when he hear a loud noise. It requires far more than three milliseconds to perform and as such is subject to conscious thought and deliberate decision-making. And it has not been shown by any form of science that the thought patterns that arise when startled persist beyond those three milliseconds.
However, I will give the cult of the subliminal this much: it seems entirely plausible that information we receive from the periphery of sensation, without a conscious process of thought, gives consumers a momentary impulse to take action (to make a purchase). But it does not seem at all plausible that the consumer will reliably act upon this impulse without further thought. There is evidence that simply planting the seed of an idea causes some small percentage of people to give a sales proposal more deliberate thought, and some of them will decide to proceed – and to that degree, there is some value in prodding a prospect and one might expect to achieve negligible to marginal results. This may be particularly profitable in some situations where the action can be completed in short order, but is by no means a solid basis for a theory of marketing in general.