Power of the hidden message revealed
Negative emotional contents are more likely to register in the subconscious
Monday 28 September 2009
Advertising men once used it to try to increase sales of popcorn, and Formula One teams have been accused of indulging in it to sell cigarettes. But it turns out that subliminal messaging – flashing an image or words on a screen for a fraction of a second – works best if it leaves the viewer in a state of fear.
An experiment by British researchers has found that even though subliminal messages are shown so briefly that the human eye cannot consciously read them, the brain is particularly good at picking up on the emotional meaning of a word if it is negative.
Scientists at University College London believe the results of the study, in which participants correctly identified when a subliminally transmitted word had negative connotations more than seven times out of 10, shows that humans are programmed at a sub-conscious level to respond to any stimulus that contains a potential threat.
Volunteers were shown a series of positive, negative and neutral words, such as "cheerful", "despair" or "box", for as little as 17 milliseconds – far too quick for the mind to perceive conventionally – and asked to decide whether or not each word had an emotional value.
Where the volunteers correctly identified a word as emotional – for example "flower", "peace", "agony" or "murder" – they were more efficient at picking out those with a negative meaning. In one test, where participants were shown each word for just 33 milliseconds, negative words were correctly spotted 77 per cent of the time, as opposed to 59 per cent for positive terms.
Subliminal messaging has long been a controversial area, with psychologists pondering whether the mind can be influenced by imperceptible stimuli. The idea was attractive to advertisers, who famously tried to increase sales of fizzy drinks and popcorn to a 1950s cinema audience by projecting the words "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat popcorn" on to the screen for a fraction of a second.
The claimed results – that Coke sales rose by 58 per cent and popcorn by 18 per cent – were later found to have been fabricated, and a repeat experiment by scientists found no effect on sales at all.
Professor Nilli Lavie, who led the UCL team, said the latest study had provided the first unambiguous proof that people can process emotional information from subliminal images. "We have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words," she said. "Clearly, there are evolutionary advantages to responding rapidly to emotional information. We can't wait for our consciousness to kick in if we see someone running towards us with a knife or if we drive under rainy or foggy weather conditions and see a sign warning 'danger'."
Although subliminal advertising is banned in Britain and elsewhere, the insertion of single-frame images has featured in mainstream media from a 1943 Daffy Duck cartoon which flashed the words "Buy Bonds" to the 1980s comedy The Young Ones.
The researchers believe their study, which may point to a sub-conscious "fast link" between primitive parts of the brain and those associated with decision making, has implications for the use of subliminal messaging in marketing. Professor Lavie said: "Negative words may have a more rapid impact. 'Kill your speed' should be more noticeable than 'Slow down'. More controversially, highlighting a competitor's negative qualities may work on a subliminal level much more effectively than shouting about your own selling points."
'At times I thought he was me'film
Review: One Direction, Fourmusic
Review: The World of Ice and Firebooks
Film More romcom than S&M
Review: The Imitation Gamefilm
Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars
TVNetflix gets cryptic
TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth
Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 To help fuel their propaganda machine against the poor, our government has now decided to redefine the word 'welfare'
- 2 Tower Bridge glass walkway 'smashed' by night-time visitor dropping bottle of beer
- 3 Anti-gay hate preacher accidentally tweets 4,000 followers cartoon clip of him 'confessing' to be a 'homosexual sodomite'
- 4 Woman opens professional cuddling shop – gets 10,000 customers in first week
- 5 Grayson Perry: London needs affordable housing because 'rich people don't create culture'
Christmas 2014: The three most intriguing celebrity panto appearances
Lee Evans announces his retirement from comedy on The Jonathan Ross Show
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars
Iggy Azalea responds to Eminem rape lyrics: 'I'm bored of old men threatening young women'
Beyonce '7/11' music video: Star bounces on bed and films daughter Blue Ivy in lo-fi homage to viral video
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
Rochester by-election: Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigns after posting white van and England flags tweet
France 'blocks' Russian sailors from boarding a warship
Revealed: How the world gets rich – from privatising British public services
Myleene Klass: Ed Miliband 'strikes back' by comparing UK's need for Labour's mansion tax to Hear'Say track