Subliminal messaging in advertising: it can work

There's a lot of discussion about subliminal messaging and if it really works. We tested two ads with a subliminal message in the MRI scanner and found out that one of the ads activated positive emotions while the other didn't. Want to know why? Continue reading.

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Learning 11 - Hoe tover je een glimlach op het gezicht van jouw kijker?

Please note: what you're about to read and see may confuse you, but we assure you, it will all become clear eventually.

Let's start with an experiment. Take a look at these two Randstad ads. Although they both look similar, there is a subliminal difference between them. Can you spot it?

You are probably thinking that we're pulling your leg, because both videos look identical. However, we have proof that one of the videos activated slightly more negative emotions than the other. 

Consciously, it's almost impossible to see, yet our brain picks it up unconsciously.

Subliminal messaging and influence

In 1957, James Vicary conducted a legendary study. He showed that we can be unconsciously influenced by images that we cannot consciously process. This method of influencing people is called subliminal messaging.

During the experiment, specific sentences were subliminally edited into movies. As a result, people ate 58% more popcorn and drank 18% more cola. The experiment received a great deal of attention, was widely covered by the media and led to a worldwide controversy.

Because that study never took place. Vicary quickly admitted that he had never carried it out. Many other studies conducted after 1957 have shown that subliminal influences don't work.

Subliminal influences typically don't work, but, sometimes it can. For example, through subliminally showing facial expressions. This is exactly what was different in the Randstad videos.
Learning 11: Subliminal messaging Randstad reclame - neuromarketing

In the first video, an image with a negative facial expression has been edited into the ad and in the second video a facial expression of joy/surprise. If you watch the ads again, you'll see the faces at every scene transition.

Effects of subliminal messaging in the brain

We tested both videos with fMRI by having test participants watch the ads in the scanner. With fMRI, we measure the effects of subliminal messaging directly from the brain.

The first video with the negative facial expressions activated slightly more negative emotions than the second video. Thus, unconsciously, the sublime facial expressions did have an influence on the emotions of the viewers.

We've also observed this phenomenon in many other studies: the faces and facial expressions have a direct influence on the emotions of the viewer.

Important addition

In this example, the faces are hardly visible, so its influences on the viewers' emotions are small. In general, the more visible the faces, the stronger the influence.

This also means that the facial expressions of the actors in your ads have a lot of influence on the emotions of the viewers. You need to be careful here. Learning 3 shows the influence of negative facial expressions on the effectiveness of an ad.

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