Subliminal Messages - Works in Progress: My E

Kailee Kleinschmidt
Dr. Koch
COMM 253
T and TH 2-3:15 pm
Final Paper
May 4 2010
Kailee Kleinschmidt
Dr. Koch
3 May 2010
COMM 253
Subliminal Messages
Shortly after the first picture motion camera was invented in the 1880‟s, subliminal
messages appeared and has ever since have been a controversial and interesting subject,
catching the attention of many different types of people. However, it was not until the 1950‟s
that subliminal messages really took the United States by storm and concerned its citizens
with the idea that they could be persuaded to do something without even realizing it. The
many different types of subliminal messages have been used in movies, television ads, and
can also be observed by playing audio tracks backwards. In my paper, I will cover many
different examples of each of these methods and the effect it had on the consumers who
experienced them. I will also delve into the history of subliminal messages from its
introduction in the 1890‟s to its hay day in the 1950‟s and forward to the effect that it has on
today‟s society.
It is hard to find information about the inventor of subliminal messages, but the first
uses of subliminal messages are available to the masses. In 1900, a psychology professor
named Knight Dunlap showed his students a Müller-Lyer illusion, which is the illusion of two
lines with arrows pointing out in different directions, making one line seem longer than the
other though it is not. At the same time, he flashed a shadow that he said influenced the
decision his students made on which line was longer. A little later, in World War II, the
tachistoscope was invented to train fighter pilots to recognize the difference between friendly
planes and enemy planes. The tachistoscope is, “a machine that flashes words, numbers or
images for varying instants of time on a visible screen. By flashing fairly large pictures of
friendly and enemy aircraft at slow speeds, while gradually increasing the exposure speed and
decreasing the size of the aircraft image, pilots could be quickly trained to recognize even
speck-like representations of different planes when flashed at only 1/100th of a second”
(Saunders, “Are We Already Learning in a Subliminal Way?”). This same method of flashing
an image for a split second once or multiple times was used for many, many years after the
tachistoscope was invented and was one of the biggest methods of subliminal messaging in
the 1950‟s.
The fifty years between 1950 and 2000 were the hay day for subliminal messaging and
this time frame is where you can find the most information about this particular phenomenon.
Probably the most well known event of subliminal messaging coming out of this period would
be the “DRINK COCA COLA and EAT POPCORN” messages used during the movie Picnic
in 1957. In Fort Lee, New Jersey at a drive-in movie, images of coca-cola and popcorn were
flashed at ultra-fast speeds throughout the movie. The experimenter, James Vicary, had the
belief that flashing these images would result in higher sales in each of the items. Vicary got
more than he bargained for when the backlash of the experiment led to angry consumers,
causing him to remove the subliminal images and admit he had tampered with his findings.
When subliminal messages are mentioned, the above experiment is what people often
immediately think of, but there have been other examples of subliminal messages and images
in other films as well. I will touch on a few more of those later on.
Another invention that appeared during the fifty year span that gave great impact of
this phenomenon was the “little black box” invented by Professor Hal C. Becker in 1979.
Becker‟s box was installed in around fifty department stores all over the country in order to
lower the amount of theft and inventory loss that the companies were experiencing. The way
the box worked was that anti-theft messages were played sped up in union with lovely
background music 9,000 times per hour. The messages were meant to make people in the
store thinking about stealing feel guilty and fear going to jail subconsciously. They said things
like stealing is bad and you will go to jail if you steal. Later, research showed that the
technique actually worked and the percentage of inventory lost went down and the amount of
thefts did as well.
This technique of speeding up spoken word in order to influence others in a
subconscious way has been used for years since the department store experiments. For
example, many self-help and self-improvement tapes of the day used this type of technique to
make people feel good about themselves and to give them encouraging words that would then
in turn give them more of a positive outlook on themselves and on life. Effective Learning
Systems says, “…audio programs with subliminal messages are designed to deliver positive
affirmations directly to the subconscious — bypassing the conscious mind, which may reject
these positive affirmations. This method is designed to allow the subconscious to more readily
accept positive thoughts and images, replacing the negative thoughts and images we've held in
our subconscious — often since childhood” (Effective Learning Systems, “Subliminal
Messages in Audio Programs”). Like this website says, subliminal messages in audio can help
people because they hear or see positive things subconsciously and thus can not consciously
deny them, allowing them to change the way they feel.
The general public does not always believe that subliminal messages can be positive.
In fact, in many cases, the average citizen has viewed subliminal messages as being invasive,
deceptive, and almost like a type of brainwashing. In 1973, there were television ads for a
game called Husker Du? played here in the States and in Canada with the words “get it”
flashed subliminally throughout the commercial. This was done for a similar reason as the
coke and popcorn experiment as it intended to get consumers to go out and buy the game.
There was such an uproar from the public that the FCC was forced to hold hearings which
ended in subliminal messages being banned in Canada and said to be “‟contrary to the public
interest‟ and „intended to be deceptive‟ (“Subliminal Stimuli”, Wikipedia) in the United
Another reason that many Americans are against subliminal messages is because of
the history of cases involving music. Many families have blamed hard rock music or heavy
metal for their children‟s unsettling behavior or even suicides they may have committed. In
1985, James Vance and Raymond Belknap‟s parents started a heated trial when they blamed
Judas Priest for their sons‟ suicides. They believed that one of the songs the boys had listened
to had told them to “do it” meaning to kill themselves. The judge eventually dismissed the
case when subliminal messages could not be adequately proven to appear on the album, but
he went on to say that these messages would not be protected under the First Amendment.
Many other bands have been attacked using the subliminal messages case such as Ozzy
Osbourne and other music deemed “heavy” or “hard”. In many of the cases, it seems as
though the parents or the accusers need some sort of reason to blame on their child‟s
unfortunate outcome, regardless if their story holds any truth or not.
One of the things that the judge in the boys‟ case mentioned was backmasking, which
is when a song is played backwards and can sometimes give you a different message, some
that you only notice subconsciously, than it would if you were to play it forward. There are
numerous websites you can go to that will give you samples upon samples of backmasked
songs such as,,, and so many
more. These websites will show you that it is not only heavy metal and hard rock music that
can be deemed to have subliminal messages, but also speeches, smoother songs such as
Santana, and even the Beatles. Some of these may seem like a stretch, like the people who
study these are simply looking for words to appear by backmasking, but that is up to the
listener to decide.
Aside from the movie Picnic, as I mentioned earlier, there has been a lot of
controversy surrounding plenty of other movies with speculation of subliminal messages
within in. It is believed that the movie, the Exorcist, was the first movie to actually use
subliminal techniques within the movie and not as ads. The film uses various sounds and
images in order to provoke a higher sense of fear in the audience experiencing it. The problem
with this film however, is that with the projectors used at the time of its initial release, the
images could not be truly subliminal as the frames did not run as quickly as they do today.
Because of this, the audience was completely aware of the sounds and images being shown to
them. Subconscious or not, the techniques used in the Exorcist were successful in adding
extra anxiety and terror into the audience.
Probably the movies that have received the highest amount of controversy and
backlash when it comes to subliminal messages are Disney. Like the backmasking, there are
websites upon websites dedicated to the subliminal messages and images that appear in
Disney movies. The controversy arises because a lot of these messages and images are seen to
be erotic or adult and Disney movies are usually meant for children. Because it is such a high
controversy, I will take some time to list a couple of examples from different Disney movies
that can still be found if you watch them today.
Sticking with the idea of backmasking, we come to our first film, Aladdin. It is said
that in the scene in the movie where Aladdin is singing “A Whole New World” to Princess
Jasmine, that, if you play the song backwards, a phrase will emerge that says, “good girls take
your clothes off” (, “Hidden Subliminal Messages in Cartoons and
Movies”). This, of course, is shocking to parents. You think that your child is watching a
scene about two people in love and how Aladdin is going to show her a world through
different eyes because of their love, and then Aladdin is saying that good girls take their
clothes off. Some other erotic and adult images that may seem a little disturbing to parents are
the phallic tower on the castle in The Little Mermaid and a scene from The Rescuers where a
topless model can be seen in the background. A little disturbing don‟t you think? But once
again, this is up for interpretation. Do we really hear it subconsciously or are people really
reaching for it?
The Disney movie that probably has the most subliminal messages and is the most
talked about when thinking about this phenomenon, is the Lion King. In many different
scenes it is said that different objects can spell out the word sex. There is a scene where Simba
plops down and the flowers and clouds are supposed to spell out the word sex, sex is formed
out of grass, leaves, rocks, trees, stars, and the word sex appears on Simba‟s forehead at the
beginning when Rafiki smears his head with the fruit juice. The word lie also appears in
numerous scenes in the movie in very similar ways. Is Lion King telling your children to lie
and have sex or once again are we really stretching for it? If we do not know it is there do we
see it subconsciously?
However, not all subliminal messages in Disney movies are meant to be disturbing,
erotic, and adult. Some of the subliminal messages that I found upon researching were
actually kind of entertaining and even funny. For example, in the movie The Hunchback of
Notre Dame, there is a scene where there is a cameo of Belle from Beauty and the Beast, a
man shaking out a carpet from Aladdin, and Pumba from The Lion King. Cameos also appear
in The Little Mermaid at the beginning when King Triton “…swoops down over the crowd.
After he passes across the screen, below him and to his left Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and
Goofy can be seen sitting in the crowd” (StraightDope, “Do Disney Movies Contain
Subliminal Erotica?”) and in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? during an onstage piano duel
between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck. These subliminal images only appear for a couple of
seconds, but it makes you think of the other Disney movies you have seen and it made me
happy personally to see characters from other movies appearing in this one.
Most of these subliminal messages and images appeared in the original release of the
movies or even only when it came out in theatres. After the controversy surrounding the
images emerged however, Disney decided to remove a lot of the subliminals so that they
would not anger anymore parents and so that they would not lose consumers in future
generations. They were not forced to do so by an outside force, but did so as a business
decision that was probably for the best.
That fifty year span between 1950 and 2000 has left us with a lot of information to
take in and a lot of subliminal messages, images, and backmasking to analyze. But what about
the last ten years of history? Certainly there has to be examples of subliminal messages in that
time period, right? Absolutely. In 2000, during campaign ads for candidate George W. Bush,
words were flashed on the screen and then they proceeded to fade into the background. One of
the words flashed was the word “bureaucrats”, but when the word faded into the background
the part of the word “rats” remained visible longer than the rest. The FCC looked into the
matter, but no penalties were ever assessed in the case (“Subliminal Stimuli”, Wikipedia).
In 2008 in Ontario, several slot Konami slot machines were speculated on having
shown a split second image of a winning hand before the game commenced. Concerned that
this subliminal image was persuading people to gamble more than usual, the government
forced the company to remove their slot machines and to fix them before they could be
returned to the casinos they had originally come from.
Advertisements are a big market for subliminal messages now a days. They have
always appeared in advertisements when the company decided to use them, but they have
carried on into our current time. Television advertisements have used subliminal images and
messages like I have touched on previously, but the advertisements I have not touched on yet
are those in magazines. Magazine ads are a huge market and reach many different consumers.
Thus, different types of subliminal messages and images could be used in the ads to reach
different target audiences.
Like the subliminal images used in Disney, many of the subliminals used in
advertisement can also be seen as erotic or adult. For example, there is an ad for Dingo boots
that has O.J. Simpson with three legs wearing three boots. The ad is supposed to show that he
is a football star and is always on the move and thus it is supposed to represent action.
However, the third leg and how it is placed in the ad can be taken as something a little more
provocative than that. Maybe it is a stretch, like I said for the Disney movies, but this ad
seems a little more obvious than that. Another advertisement for D.J. Flooring has a drawn
woman in a toga holding up a glass and touching her shoulder with the other hand. Seems
innocent enough right? However, if you turn the image over, it looks like a woman touching
herself. It makes me question if the picture was intentionally drawn this way in order to
subliminally do this.
But it doesn‟t stop there. In a Coca-Cola ad that simply says “Feel the Curves!” and
shows a cartoon image of a coca-cola bottle surrounded by ice cubes, you can see an image of
a woman getting ready to perform fellatio on a man. Another shows a burrito package where
the burrito has been cut and the ham is hanging out so that it looks like a certain part of the
female anatomy.
But like Disney, not all subliminal messages and images in advertisements are erotic
and adult. In the Silence of the Lambs advertisement which was also used for the cover of the
movie, there is an image of a bee with a skull on its back. Research showed me that both of
these images, the bee and the skull, are actually two pieces of artwork meshed together. The
bee is actually called the “Death‟s Head Hawkmoth” and the skeleton is a Dali portrait which
is actually made up of woman forming a skeleton with their bodies (“Subliminal Images and
Hidden Messages”, ArtistMike). Another one that I found kind of entertaining was the cover
and ad for the Pirates of the Caribbean movie. It shows a skull with crossed flames coming
from behind it. If you cut out the image, it forms the shape of the Mickey Mouse head. This is
ironic as it is Disney who made the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
Movies, television, advertisements, and music are great places to find examples of
subliminal messages. Being in contact with these sources of media can lead to you doing
things subconsciously without even realizing why exactly you are doing them. You say it is
because you want to, but are you really? Or is there some outside medium that has persuaded
you to do so? Subliminal messages are not just in the media though. You can experience
subliminal messages through one on one interaction with another human being face to face.
Research led me to an incredibly educating website that showed me ten different ways that
subliminal messaging is used in daily life to persuade people to do things. I am going to share
a few because I found them extremely important to my paper.
The first one on the list of persuasion tactics through subliminal messaging was point
of sale scripts. This is where people in a retail store will say certain things to you in order to
get you to spend more money than you intentionally wanted to spend. I know for a fact that
this tactic is used and works because I work in retail. We are told by our higher ups to use
“add-ons” which are lower priced items that we point out in hopes of adding more items to
that person‟s sale. Another way that we do this is by suggesting complimentary items that
would go nicely with something they have already picked out such as a nice shirt to go with
the shorts they picked up or a beautiful necklace to go with the blouse they have chosen.
The next tactic on the list is Doctor-Patient Drug Kick-backs which is where a doctor
will suggest a certain medication because the manufacturer has offered them perks. In-store
Sensory Manipulation is the next one. This can include playing specific music, providing
certain scents, and something that we do in the store I work in, rearrange the layout of the
store. My store likes to rearrange the store almost daily as to provide a fresh look and make it
feel like a new experience every time you come in to visit. Fourth, renting conversations,
which is pretty much word of mouth, spreading information about something new and
exciting through people who will spread the word quickly.
Next on the list is neuromarketing. Neuromarketing is literally taking subjects and
doing MRI‟s on their brains in order to find out what triggers and stays with their
subconscious. Sixth is chatbots and stealth voicemail which are robots used to imitate real
humans in things such as chat rooms to persuade you to do or buy things. Street stalkers are
the next ones on the list and these are people who go to events where a lot of people will be
flashing the latest products in hopes that people will see them and ask about them and inquire
where they got them from.
Wrapping up the list are planted news stories and government propaganda. Planted
news stories are exactly what they sound like. Companies and the government will plant
specific new stories in order to get the word out about something that may have otherwise not
been covered. Government propaganda is when the government uses the media to get
information out to the public. “When it's time to launch a war or promote an unpopular policy,
the government needs special help to sell the idea through the media. Opinion engineers are
paid to "manage" public perception of inconvenient facts, and turn them around for better”
(Mart, “10 Disturbing Trends in Subliminal Persuasion”).
It is kind of crazy when you think about it. Those ten things that happen almost daily,
we don‟t really think about them until they are presented to us right in front of our faces. I
know that I do a couple of them in my job and they really do happen, but I never thought
about street stalkers before. It really does make sense though. I am definitely one of those
people who will walk right up to someone and say, “I love your shoes! Where did you get
them?” Not that everyone is a street stalker, but it is an effective way to subliminally hook
Subliminal messaging ties into this course and into rhetoric because it persuades
individuals to do things and communicates with audiences. Although it is not as obvious or
conscious at all like most rhetorical tactics are, subliminal messages are persuasive and cause
people to think like rhetoric is meant to. There are many different types of subliminal
messages such as advertisements, movies, television, and backmasking and all of them work
in different ways in order to get across messages that will make you do things or purchase
things because you think you want to do it, not because some medium told you to.
Subliminal messages and images are interesting, educating, and sometime scary. They
give insight to a whole new side of media that most people do not think about, but do know
about. I have always had an interest in subliminal messages because I have always wondered
how it worked and have always thought it was incredible how showing a frame for a split
second can make you hungry, thirsty, or want to buy something. It is almost like
communicating without communicating. Subliminal messaging is the whispering mosquito in
your ear of rhetoric.
Work Cited
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