Are you open to suggestion? Subliminal persuasion is back

Are you open to suggestion? Subliminal persuasion is back – in a big way for big bucks. But does it work?

Jo Anna Natale

Are You Open to Suggestion?

SUBLIMINAL PERSUASION used to raise eyebrows. Now it’s raising money–lots of it–for companies claiming that the hidden messages on their video and audio tapes can persuade people to break bad habits.

Subliminal communication is based on the idea that we can detect information presented below our threshold of awareness. People exposed to subliminal messages–flashed on a movie or TV screen, embedded in a magazine ad or audio or video tape–may not consciously see or hear anything beyond the obvious, but they are supposed to be aware of the message at an unconscious level.

Neither subliminal persuasion techniques nor the arguments for and against them are new. The current boom is, however, big news for companies producing and marketing the tapes and for the stores distributing them. Each month last year, for instance, between 50,000 and 60,000 tapes produced by Potentials Unlimited Inc. were sold through retail outlets for about $10 each–which comes out to at least $6 million in sales for 1987 alone. The company’s roughly 200 titles with subliminal messages are sold through bookstores.

Stephanie Konicov, Potentials Unlimited vice president and marketing director, acknowledges that there are skeptics but maintains that “many individuals obtain remarkable success with the tapes. The interesting thing is that I can find five experts who say ‘bunk’ and you can find five experts who say it subliminal persuasion works,” she said. “I understand both sides. The fact is, it’s a $10 product, and for $10, anybody can try it and decide whether it works for them.”

Potentials Unlimited is not alone in tapping the golden hidden persuasion mine. Jim Milliot, editor of Audio Publishing Report, estimates that sales of “spoken audio,” including self-help tapes, foreign language self-instruction tapes and books on tape, totaled $250 million last year. About $50 million of this tidy sum came from sales of subliminal message tapes–a market that jumped 10 percent in 1987 and is still going strong.

The potential of subliminal persuasion first grabbed public attention in the 1950s when one researcher claimed that the words “Eat Popcorn” flashed very quickly on a movie screen could persuade theater-goers to buy more popcorn. Other researchers claimed there was no good evidence that people detected such messages, much less acted on them. Besides that, the public balked at the idea of being tricked into buying popcorn.

In response to such criticism, use of subliminal persuasion dwindled in the 1960s but revived in the 1970s. In magazine ads, subliminal messages showed up as erotic images hidden in pictures. In horror films, moviemakers tried to maximize scare potential by flashing death masks and other potentially frightening images on screen. And, perhaps for the first time, people heard subliminal messages. To discourage shoplifting, department stores buried “I am honest” messages in their Muzak recordings, and to increase sales, real estate companies subjected their agents to tapes with hidden motivational phrases.

These days, the public isn’t criticizing use of subliminals–it’s buying them. Some resorts use subliminals to help vacationers relax. Computer programs flash subliminal messages during TV shows. And video and audio tapes that offer subliminal solutions for problems ranging from cellulite to stress are hot items at bookstores everywhere.

Why the switch? Some research has shown that subliminal messages can, in certain instances at least, lead people to change their behavior. For some people who have trouble losing weight or refusing cigarettes, for example, subliminal suggestions on audio and video tapes appear to offer help.

The tapes’ formats are similar. Many of them play soothing New Age music or the sound of waves lapping against shorelines, while the listener or viewer receives subliminal messages. On audio tapes, those messages, such as “I eat less,” “I am capable” or “I am calm,” are either speeded up or played at very low volume. Either way, they can’t be deciphered or heard. Videos flash messages so fast–they last about 1/30 of a second or less–that the viewer doesn’t consciously see them.

How well these messages work seems to depend on the person exposed. Some research indicates that subliminal messages can stimulate basic drives, such as hunger, but they don’t appear to work equally well on everyone, and stimulation doesn’t necessarily trigger action. In one study, for example, people were visually exposed to the word “beef” for 1/200 of a second every seven seconds. At the end of the experiment, the people in the test group reported being hungrier than did the experiment, the people in the test those who did not receive the messages. But when asked to choose from a menu, few chose beef.

In another study, researchers attempted to measure whether subliminal sexual images could influence how people react to a product. They invented subliminal images for two ads. One ad, for Chivas Regal, depicted a bottle of the Scotch whiskey. On the bottle, an image of a naked woman, appearing as a reflection, was embedded at a level too low to be detected easily. The second ad, for Marlboro Lights, showed two men riding horses through rugged countryside in which an image of male genitalia was embedded in the rocks. Another group saw the same two ads without the sexual images. Members of each group then evaluated the ads for credibility, attractiveness, sensuality and the likelihood that they might buy the product. Those who saw the whiskey ad with the hidden image rated it higher on all four scales than did people who saw the whiskey ad without the image. The sexual image in the Marlboro ad, however, did not lead to more favorable evaluations.

Other studies have shown that people have different thresholds: What is subliminal for one person may be plain as day for another. And some people may respond immediately to a subliminal message, while others have a delayed response or no response at all.

Enough research exists on subliminal perception to establish it as a psychological phenomenon, but psychologists say more is needed, especially with tapes. Further research could help establish how far below threshold messages can be presented and still be processed and what role defense mechanisms play.

Thomas Budzynski, a Seattle psychologist who uses subliminals in his practice, has developed audio tapes aimed at improving self-esteem. He admits, however, there are factors, such as how often people listen to or view tapes and how deep-rooted their problems are, that influence how well subliminal messages work.

Some researchers remain skeptical. Howard Shevrin, a University of Michigan psychologist, says it’s not obvious at all that people get anything out of the tapes. In fact, he says they may even be harmful if people turn to them rather than to more reliable sources of help for problems such as obesity and smoking.

Shevrin calls the notion, promoted by the tape companies, that the same subliminal stimuli will work in the same ways for everyone a “large untested assumption.” He argues that even if there is a behavioral change, it is nearly impossible to trace the change to the subliminal message on a tape.

In his current research, Shevrin uses subliminal stimuli specifically tailored to correspond to the individual’s subconscious conflict. He presents words both above and below conscious detection levels, and he then analyzes the response of brain waves recorded at the very moment each stimulus is delivered. Both subliminal and obvious signals cause brain-wave activity, he says, and a difference in the responses can be detected. The brainwave response may indicate that unconscious processing occurs, but it does not mean that a person’s behavior will change, either for the better or worse.

In short, Shevrin says of tape companies’ claims, “It’s a scam. Their catalogues refer to scientific research but omit specifics. When I write to ask for the evidence, they don’t reply. If the results were there, wouldn’t the tape companies be the first to cite them?”

The dearth of evidence, Shevrin says, belies claims by tape companies that subliminal messages can help people change behavior in any way they wish. He argues that subliminal messages should be treated as drugs are treated: “We don’t let drugs on the market until they’ve been tested for their claims and for their noxious effect.”

Most researchers are less regulation-minded than Shevrin. Even though the evidence for effectiveness in learning and behavioral change is inconclusive, there is no evidence that tapes can be harmful. As research continues, consumer, beware.

PHOTO : One of these ads contains a hidden femal nude. Unsuspecting viewers, researchers found, chose this ad over its unsexy counterpart.

COPYRIGHT 1988 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group