The Art of the Subliminal Message

We have all heard about subliminal messages in Disney movies and chopped into David Fincher’s Fight Club. Many of us, however, don’t understand how they work or the power they hold over us. We sat down with a propaganda professor to get the skinny.

Click to view the print version.

Click to view the print version.

What if you were told that you were already conditioned to think a certain way? That your actions were bent upon the will of another? The theory behind subliminal messaging is that our minds pick up information behind the scenes, without us knowing about it until a trigger appears to bring forth said message. What may surprise you is that the process isn’t as hidden and subversive as people have been led to believe. Thinking about this, TRAVIS reeled in an expert in the field, Ian Matthews, professor of propaganda and persuasion at Seneca College to enlighten us on this facet of society.

“Subliminal messaging exists and is very powerful,” Matthews recently told me. “The irony is that, for the most part, it’s not hidden. It’s right in peoples’ faces in the form of TV commercials, billboards and radio jingles.”

They are called “subliminal messages” because they are designed to manipulate your mind and induce “automatic behaviour.” Some automatic, or unconscious behaviours we perform are breathing, blinking, walking, sleeping and, really, any habits we have sunken into that can be called automatic. When we watch TV and are presented with images in rapid-fire succession, the brain cannot register them all in any conscious way. The trick is: If those images associate with something else in our minds, they can have a significant impact on our decision-making. An example would be seeing a character in your favourite daytime soap (I’m partial to Days of our Lives) down the contents of a refreshing can of vanilla-flavoured Coca-Cola. It’s soon after that you find yourself with a not-too-difficult decision at the vending machine. A similar theory backs the use of themes and jingles in commercials, explains Matthews.

“Jingles work by conditioning and association. Just as Pavlov’s dogs were trained to salivate at the sound of a bell, you were trained to come inside for class when the bell rang.” Damn, he’s got a point.

Highly revered Canadian philosopher and scholar, Marshall McLuhan felt that subliminal messages had a much greater role to play. He theorized that exposure to mass media was subliminal at a civilian level. Advertising influenced the structure of that civilization and to a large effect, how people think.

“We are like fish in water, and as McLuhan used to ask his students: ‘Does a goldfish know it’s in water?’ Nevertheless, knowing how this works allowed McLuhan to predict the idea of the Global Village.[1] He did this back in the ‘50s, before the Internet and before most people had televisions. People thought he was either mad or a visionary, said Matthews.

The question most find themselves asking is where subliminal messaging stands today. How are we impacted today by Disney movies and Budweiser ads? Well, recent studies show increased exposure to a nation’s flag can increase patriotism and voter turnout. (Think American football games.) Product placement today exists in all forms of media, which undoubtedly influences our daily purchases.

A better question is whether there is a need to fight it at all. The human mind is eerily susceptible to the power of suggestion, so one is bound to be conditioned to like, say, Caramilk bars even with a concerted effort not to buy into commercialism. Remember, person-to-person advertisement is the most effective method, anyway.

By the way, have you seen Slumdog Millionaire yet?

Of course, there’s no way I could be affected by subliminal messages, so excuse me as I continue my crusade to bring back Vanilla Coke. Seriously, I could bathe in that stuff. Delicious.

text by andrewterefenko


[1] The Global Village refers to the theory of technological advancements in communication contracting the globe into a village. See: radio.

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