On Monday December 23, 1985, in the small city of Sparks, Nevada, Raymond Belknap and James Vance had spent most of the day drinking beer, smoking marijuana, and listening to heavy metal records.
Among the albums that Belknap and Vance are believed to have listened to that day was Stained Class, the fourth album by seminal British metal band Judas Priest. As the sun slowly set across the small desert city just outside Reno, Belknap and Vance, who were 18 and 20 at the time, decided to visit a nearby playground.
It was at that playground that the two young men shot themselves with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Belknap went first. After successfully killing himself with a single gunshot wound to the head, Vance took the shotgun from his friend’s hands and attempted to end his own life. Unlike his friend, Vance did not die immediately, instead sustaining serious facial injuries that left him disfigured. Vance died of complications stemming from the failed suicide attempt three years later.
Belknap and Vance’s families sued Judas Priest’s label, CBS Records, for $6.2 million (approximately $14.2 million in 2017). They argued in court that the pair had been driven to commit suicide by auditory signals concealed in Judas Priest’s cover of the Spooky Tooth song, “Better By You, Better Than Me.” The plaintiffs claimed that the song contained a subliminal message – “Do it” – urging listeners to take their own lives.
The suit was eventually thrown out, but not before putting the perceived dangers of subliminal messaging front-and-center in the minds of concerned parents across the country. Other performers, including Ozzy Osbourne and 2 Live Crew, would also find themselves defending their music in court on similar charges before the hysteria gradually faded from the public’s mind.
It isn’t just rock stars who allegedly dabble in what the judge presiding over Belknap/Vance vs. Judas Priest called “subliminals” and what the media called “backward masking” for years. Many advertising campaigns have leveraged this controversial practice to make their ads and branding even more persuasive. In this post, we’ll take a look at seven such cases of subliminal advertising.
First, though, let’s take a moment to explain what subliminal messages actually are.
What Is Subliminal Advertising?
Subliminal messages are visual or auditory stimuli that the conscious mind cannot perceive, often inserted into other media such as TV commercials or songs. This kind of messaging can be used to strengthen or heighten the persuasiveness of advertisements, or to convey an altogether different message entirely.
True subliminal messages cannot be observed or discovered by the conscious mind, even if you’re actively looking for them. This is because stimuli to which we respond every day – the things we see and hear around us – are above the threshold of conscious perception, unlike subliminal messages, which are below this threshold.
Image via Visme
What makes subliminal messaging so insidious is that even though we’re utterly unaware of the message hidden in whatever we’re watching or listening to, part of our subconscious mind cannot help but respond to this concealed stimuli – it happens entirely without our knowledge or consent.
How Are Subliminal Messages Used in Advertising?
Although the term “subliminal” has been widely used for many years, it wasn’t until 1957 that the practice became known beyond scientific and academic circles, when Vance Packard’s book, The Hidden Persuaders, brought the concept of subliminal messages to the mainstream.
The book detailed the results of a study conducted in the 1950s that claimed Coca-Cola had used subliminal advertising in movie theaters to drive sales of sodas and popcorn at concession stands. The study claimed that by splicing single frames of visual messages like “Buy Coca-Cola” and “Buy popcorn” into movie reels, sales of those products had increased by 57% and 18%, respectively.
Unfortunately for Packard, the study was completely bogus. It had been fabricated in its entirety, as its disgraced author James Vicary admitted years after its publication, in an attempt to part advertisers from their money.
Despite the shaky factual foundation of The Hidden Persuaders, the book popularized the concept of subliminal messaging and its potential uses. Coca-Cola might not have been engaged in a campaign of psychological manipulation aimed at America’s moviegoers (in that specific instance), but this particular application of subliminal messaging – leveraging the power of the subconscious mind to increase sales – is among subliminal advertising’s primary functions.
Subliminal messaging has also reportedly been used to further certain political agendas. During the bitter fight for the U.S. presidency between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000, Gore accused Republican campaign managers of including a subliminal message in an attack ad focusing on Gore’s proposed healthcare policies.
Gore alleged that, in the video, the word “RATS” appears onscreen for a fraction of a second before the ad shows a visual featuring the word “Bureaucrats.” Personally, I think it’s impossible to miss, especially if you’re looking for it:
Today, the use of subliminal messaging is banned in many countries. Unsurprisingly, the United States does not expressly forbid the use of subliminal messages in advertisements, though their use does fall under federal law enforcement jurisdiction.
Now let’s see some examples of subliminal advertising in action.
1. Playing Games with Husker Du
Husker Du (the board game from which the rock band takes its name) was released in the early 1970s and marketed as a family game by its maker, Premium Corporation of America. The company paid for a series of TV ads for the game to be created, which featured single frames that read, “Get it.”
An executive for Premium Corp. later admitted responsibility for the inclusion of the frames, which the FCC investigated following viewer complaints.
The incident prompted the FCC to declare that subliminal messaging in TV ads was “contrary to the public interest” and forbade the practice.
The board game might be a forgotten relic of a bygone age, but the incident is believed to be the first example of subliminal messages being utilized in TV ads, securing it a strange yet unique place in advertising history.
2. Marlboro’s Subliminal Barcode
Despite attempts to curb cigarette advertising around the world, Marlboro remains one of the best-known American brands. We may not see the famous “Marlboro Man” on TV anymore – tourism to Flavor Country has declined sharply in the past 20 years – but Marlboro is still among the world’s best-known cigarette brands, a coveted position Marlboro sought to retain through the use of subliminal ads.
In the late ‘90s and early 2000s, many professional sporting organizations and regulatory bodies expressed concern about the prevalence of cigarette advertising in Formula 1 racing. Until that point, virtually all of the world’s top drivers raced in cars emblazoned with cigarette brand logos, but the sudden ban on cigarette company sponsorship in Europe precipitated an exodus of cigarette brands leaving the sport.
To circumvent this inconvenient restriction, the marketing team at Marlboro came up with a dastardly ingenious idea; they would use subliminal visual messaging to convey the Marlboro brand without using the typographical logo of the company itself.
Marlboro accomplished this by using a barcode-style design that, at the high speeds at which F1 cars travel around the track, was almost as recognizable as the logo itself.
While clever, Marlboro’s attempts to get around the advertising ban were short-lived. The European Public Health Commission applied considerable pressure to European lawmakers, who ruled that the design was indeed too close to the banned Marlboro design.
Image via Campaign
Hilariously, Marlboro told The Wall Street Journal in 2010 that, “The barcode was never intended to be anything other than a neutral design, one that was not linked to the sale of tobacco products. It was never intended to be a reference to the Marlboro brand in any way.”
3. Seriously Suggestive Ads
Warning: The three following ad examples all feature strongly suggestive content that should be considered NSFW. The worst offending ads themselves are not shown, but readers may still want to exercise caution.
Benson & Hedges
Marlboro may have raised a few eyebrows with its supposedly neutral barcode design, but this was far from the first time that a cigarette company used subliminal visual clues to sell smokes.
In the late 1970s, British tobacco brand Benson & Hedges launched an advertising campaign in the United States. The campaign’s primary goal was to raise awareness of the brand’s new cigarette packaging; B&H was among the first tobacco brands to adopt cigarette packs that used hard card, rather than the thin paper packaging that cigarette manufacturers favored at that time.
Here's the ad as it appeared in print:
I'd call this one truly subliminal; it's hard to see the "hidden message" until it's highlighted. If you want to see a side-by-side comparison of the ad, complete with hidden visuals highlighted, you can see it here. (You were warned!)
The ad doesn’t leave much to the imagination once you’ve noticed it.
Although British distillery Gilbey’s lacks the name recognition of other brands of gin such as Beefeater and Gordon’s, Gilbey’s gin has been helping people temporarily forget their problems since 1857. Gilbey’s itself may not be the most famous distillery in the world, but Gilbey’s signature gin certainly left an impression on people back in the late ‘70s when it launched a controversial ad campaign.
Like many of our examples, Gilbey’s chose to experiment with subliminal advertising in an attempt to sell more bottles of gin. And, like many of our examples, it’s surprisingly easy to spot – once it’s been pointed out to you, of course.
Coca-Cola was also accused of similarly risqué ads in the mid-1980s, when a member of the public spotted what appeared to be a strongly suggestive image when they saw it on the back of a truck.
To avoid offending any of our readers, we’ve decided against including the ad in this post. If you want to see it for yourself, you can see it here.
Legend has it that the artist responsible for the artwork included the visual as a joke, and that Coca-Cola was unaware of it until the initial complaint. The incident prompted Coca-Cola to fire the artist and instigate legal proceedings against him. It also forced Coca-Cola to recall millions of items of collateral and promotional material.
Today, examples of this particular ad are highly sought-after by collectors of rare vintage advertising memorabilia.
4. Food Network’s Fast-Food Fracas
In 2007, during the broadcast of an episode of Food Network’s enormously popular cooking show, Iron Chef America, the image of the McDonald’s logo was flashed on-screen for a fraction of a second – short enough to slip by most viewers unnoticed, but long enough for more than a few eagle-eyed cooking fans to notice.
Both the Food Network and McDonald’s denied the accusation that they had colluded on a secretive subliminal ad campaign. Food Network spokesperson Mark O’Connor said that, “It was a technical error on our part and not a subliminal message as suggested by a website running the slow-motion playback.”
McDonald’s was even more blunt in its dismissal of the allegations, merely stating “We don’t do subliminal advertising.”
5. Wendy’s Family Values
Speaking of major fast-food franchises, our next example comes courtesy of Wendy’s.
When Wendy’s redesigned its classic, yet somewhat disturbing logo a few years ago, people immediately noticed a rather subtle detail – the apparent inclusion of the word “Mom” in the logo. As with Amazon’s A-to-Z or the FedEx arrow, it’s impossible to miss once it’s been pointed out to you:
This example of subliminal messaging is a little different than our previous examples. It doesn’t use an existing slogan or strapline in the message. Rather, it attempts to leverage word association to create a favorable mental image in the mind of the observer.
However, just because this particular example isn’t pushing the hard sell doesn’t make it any less creepy. Let’s face it – you couldn’t get much further away from delicious, home-cooked family meals or meaningful family relationships than a nationwide burger joint.
6. KFC’s 12th Secret Ingredient
Since we’re on the topic of creepy, overly familiar fast-food mascots, our final example of subliminal advertising comes from The Colonel, or rather, his restaurant franchise, KFC.
In 2008, a keen-eyed TV viewer caught something in a visual of KFC’s then-new Snacker sandwich:
Yes, that’s a dollar bill hidden in the lettuce.
This example proved particularly controversial at the time. For one, there’s the fact that the guy who claimed to be the first to notice the bill concealed amid the sandwich’s garnish is believed to have actually fabricated the entire incident to create business for his market research company – American entrepreneurship at its finest. Then there’s the fact that this wasn’t the first time KFC had experimented with this kind of promotion, having ran a similar campaign two years previously in 2006 for its Buffalo Snacker sandwich.
It’s unclear whether KFC has resorted to such trickery in the decade since its first foray into subliminal messaging, but since the effectiveness of subliminal advertising has called into question repeatedly, it’s also unclear whether it would be worth it.
KFC certainly has a sense of humor when it comes to its branding. Allen recently drew the attention of the WordStream content team to KFC’s Twitter profile – specifically, the accounts KFC is following.
KFC is following just 11 accounts: all five former members of British ‘90s pop sensation, the Spice Girls, and six guys named Herb.
Get it? 11 Herbs and spices?
What other examples of subliminal messaging have you come across? Do you think this kind of messaging can work?