The Risks of Subliminal Messaging in Digital Signage and Advertising


The idea of subliminal messaging in advertising initially emerged in the 1950s as a potential way to sell more Coca-Cola and popcorn to theatergoers. There wasn’t a lot of science behind the assertion that micro-messages delivered in milliseconds could influence human behavior in any way. Even so, the idea has resonated over the years, mostly due to its Dystopian connotations of “1984” that we are not in control of our destinies and are being manipulated by more powerful forces. That said, it has been tried in popular culture before, sometimes in commercial films. Subliminal images were used sparingly, but effectively in the 1973 movie The Exorcist. During a couple of sequences, one may see an extremely quick flash of a face in the dark; if you blinked you might miss it completely! Did these images, fleeting as they were, alter perceptions in the viewer? Hard to say. The science doesn’t seem to back it up either way.

Okay, enough about movies and back to advertising. The systematic use of subliminal effects in advertising is tricky and dangerous, mostly for the advertiser. If they should try a manipulative technique that is consciously noted, they can damage trust in the brand. However, making the image or message too quick could render it meaningless in even theoretically influencing behavior. In short, there’s no precise and provable way to use subliminal advertising to influence behavior in an Inception-like manner. My advice? Stay away from it. Why be called out for something that has not even been proven to work?

Now, suggestive messaging is out in the open. It can be analyzed and commented on by anyone. This is just the sheer magic of great content and creative—a collection of the proper choices for the audience intended. Your content designers need to make the right choices around branding, typography, imagery, color and other factors to create the magic of a compelling and influential design. What many people don’t realize about creative and design though is that there can be a high degree of science behind the choices. Colors, scents, sounds and other techniques have been objectively proven to drive behavior or mood, and we are surrounded by these techniques every time we go to a department store, movie theater or hotel.

Some ways you can make your environmental creative more compelling (shy of using dubious subliminal effects):

  • Use motion, but never frenetically. A static burger will appeal less than one that is slowly zooming in, or better yet, sizzling on the grill.
  • Enhance your digital signage with directional speakers, and use subtle sounds to create more impactful experiences and moods.
  • Use color to stand out, but also to change the mood. The psychology of color is deep and expansive, but still inconclusive in its own way. Studies do not agree on precisely which moods are brought out by which colors, and age, demographic makeup or ethnicity make it that much more confounding to choose correctly.
  • In the end, “test and learn” is the only way you can go to effectively optimize your creative and content choices.

About Author

VP, Chief Experience Officer

Advertising & Brand Council

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