Subliminal Messages Shown to Have Little Efficacy

There’s been a lot of scandal surrounding the concept of subliminal messages, from their introduction to popular culture in the mid twentieth century to modern ideas about their presence in a number of major brand names and products. The idea that we might be controlled by companies or other agents by means of unnoticed items in advertisements and other forms of media is certainly a sensational one, but for the most part there’s a lack of evidence that we are quite so easily moved. There have been several studies performed on the nature and efficacy of subliminal messages, each with different pieces of wisdom to share about the possibilities of this particular form of mind-control. Recently, Martijn Veltkamp, a Dutch researcher, endeavored to add to the body of knowledge on the subject of subliminal messages with a study of his own, and the results may prove comforting for those concerned about the integrity of the mind and our relationship to it.

Veltkamp’s study showed participants a number of media items with suggestive words or comments thrown in, flashing in intervals that are generally accepted as not being long enough to enter the conscious mind. While subjects were sometimes persuaded to act by a certain message, Veltkamp found that these instances only pertained to cases where the subject wanted to act that way in the first place, or when it fulfilled a particular biological need. As an example, Veltkamp cites the tendency of a group of people shown “drinking” and “thirsty” messages to drink from a provided cup of water, but only after they’d been deprived of fluids for a while or had been trained beforehand to associate the words with positive thoughts and feelings.

The study helps to show that while subliminal messages may not be entirely useless, they are poorly understood by our popular representations, and afford only a small amount of efficacy in very controlled situations. Helping to bolster the idea that we are essentially able to direct and control our own thoughts and feelings, the study may prove helpful for the growth of psychodynamic therapies.

© Copyright 2009 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • derekt


    July 23rd, 2009 at 7:24 AM

    maybe subliminal messages don’t work, but how about commercial music? Anytime i hear the mcdonalds theme song I get hungry. in fact, just about every food commercial makes me hungry. sincerely, always hungry

  • Lacey


    July 23rd, 2009 at 7:41 AM

    Vicary eventually confessed in the sixties that his whole movie theater “experiment” was a marketing tactic. The reported increase in sales of Coke and popcorn at the movie theater was a lie. He got the publicity he wanted and has never been forgotten because of that.

  • soldy


    July 23rd, 2009 at 7:49 AM

    Is Veltkamp’s study telling us anything we didn’t know already? When I catch a glimpse of a billboard advertising a rest stop on the freeway, I want to turn off and go get a coffee. How much faster would subliminal advertising messages be hitting us than those billboards do?

  • HarrietR


    July 23rd, 2009 at 7:59 AM

    Ruin a conspiracy theorist’s day, why don’t you. The subliminal messages myth keeps them busy and paranoid. Don’t take away their fun Mr Veltkamp! Stories like those are why they get up in the morning.

  • Amanda


    July 24th, 2009 at 7:07 AM

    There is so much with regards to subliminal messages we dont see. A home renovation by a friend might send us straight to depression bay and every home decor shop may seem more tantalising. Children’s programs are interspersed with a chalkful of commercials. As a result kids wants have no end. So much but will they stop?

  • Liv


    July 24th, 2009 at 7:16 AM

    darn! And I almost had my husband convinced that subliminal messaging has to be the reason why my weekly splurges are happening at Target! It’s not me, it’s the messages in the music honey!

  • Fred


    July 25th, 2009 at 12:07 AM

    So many subliminal messages get to our system. If its jeans its got to be levis and if its a deo hey cant escape the pheromones of lynx

  • LaScala


    July 25th, 2009 at 5:22 PM

    Is that subliminal messages or successful advertising campaigns that do that, Fred? I always knew marketing men were ruthless. Using subliminal messages would be illegal. But think about product placement in movies compared to subliminal messages. Both are doing the same thing.

  • Janson


    July 27th, 2009 at 2:51 AM

    Well, I guess using subliminal messaging in tryin to lose weight is a waste of time then, hu? I really hate to hear that in a way. But, if the person wants to lose weight, wouldn’t this help?

  • Gary


    July 27th, 2009 at 11:05 AM

    Is it true that adding subliminal messages is illegal?

  • LaScala


    July 27th, 2009 at 3:03 PM

    My mistake, Gary. I said illegal and on further research can see I was wrong. Subliminal advertising messages are not illegal but regulated. These regulations brought in by the FCC and FTC in 1974 are cited in an email exhibited at the FTC website.

    Below is the referenced part of the letter.

    In 1974, the Federal Communications Commission issued a rule that the projection of subliminal images over television is contrary to the public interest. 39 Federal Register 3714, January 29, 1974. See also AP story Feb. 12, 1974. The FCC regulates on-air broadcasting. The advisory was prompted by an ad campaign that quickly flashed “Get It” on the TV screen during a toy ad. The FTC, which regulates deceptive advertising and unfair competition, issued a document in 1974 saying that subliminal messages on highway billboards may be unfair and deceptive, and said that they should not be used. At the time, these two advisories were apparently enough to deter such advertising. The FTC said that viewing a billboard from a car at 60 miles an hour is similar to viewing subliminal images on a screen.

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