As I’ve discovered, these types of messages are, in fact, a real thing that actually work. But I still can’t wrap my head around HOW messages can be fed into a viewer’s mind without them even knowing it, let alone how the information can actually influence behavior. Or WHY in God’s name companies use sexual subliminal messages in particular to sell their products…
After doing some research, it makes a little more sense why companies decide to use subliminal messages. The author of Subliminal Manipulation, a blog that explores some of these same ideas, explained that when information has to pass through conscious perception, the viewer has the opportunity to critically analyze what they are seeing and act as an active media consumer, using their own skepticism, judgment, questioning and evaluation to consciously decide whether they will resist or accept the information to remember and be impacted by. When information reaches a viewer subconsciously, the chance that it will be rejected is taken out of the equation and the subliminal message gets the secret fast-pass to the brain with no conscious apprehension or critique to stop it from having an effect on the viewer. That info, like all the other info that the viewer has consciously chosen to keep and allow to influence them, is stored forever in the brain and has the ability to manipulate beliefs, values, judgement, attitudes and behavior, seemingly unconsensually!
And though I do not agree that this method of message transmission is very fair for the media consumer, who, because of the subliminal aspect, has no choice in the matter of what is received and allowed to make it’s impression on them, I can at the very least understand why companies would use it as a tactic for selling their product.
As for the sexual imagery and wording in many subliminal advertisements, it comes down to more than just an association of the product with pleasure. The sexual symbols in these types of subliminal advertisements are designed to unconsciously stimulate socially taboo emotions and thoughts in the viewer such as arousal and sexual excitement. By initiating these involuntary thought processes, the advertising company can assure that the viewer will become emotionally involved with and attached to the product through a desire that has been created by the subliminal message, one that can only be satisfied by consumption of that product in particular.
What is interesting is how the concept of taboos plays a part in the influence that the message has on the audience. Since many of the sexual images in subliminal ads are seen as taboo, such as a silhouette of oral sex hidden in the pile of ice cubes surrounding a Coke bottle for example, it is automatically, and thus subconsciously, repressed so that the viewer doesn’t even realize that their brain has seen something hidden in the ad. However, the brain has taken this image in, regardless of whether or not the viewer was aware. Information in the subconscious mind can make it’s way up to consciousness, but the brain filters through this information and only emerges what is seen as socially acceptable. Support for this idea was found in the British Medical Journal in 1957 which stated,
“Recent work in this field has been reviewed by N. Jenkins. Some of this work indicates that thresholds of awareness can be raised or lowered in response to the pleasant or threatening nature of the material displayed. This evidence suggests that the “decision” to see a stimulus, like a word, must be made at a high level [of awareness] and yet without conscious awareness… K. B. Stein found that some neurotics consistently raised their threshold for aggressive material, while others lowered it” (p 929).
As this article suggests, the brain evaluates material and responds to socially unaccepted or taboo material by keeping it in the subconscious. Since the erotic thoughts and feelings of sexual desire resulting from the viewer’s exposure to the Coke ad may not be seen as socially acceptable, they stay in the subconscious and are later expressed as desires and wants for the product that those feelings and emotions stemmed from. These wants and desires are what can influence the viewer’s actions, usually by prompting them to purchase the advertised product.
So essentially, the companies that advertise this way are taking advantage of the subconscious mind and are feeding the viewer sexual content which their brain automatically represses, but then reduces to feelings of arousal that are specifically tied to the product that produced this sensual reaction. To me, this form of advertising seems a little to similar to sexual assault.