Millions of people are turning to ‘subliminals’ for self-improvement, from boosting their mood to supposedly growing a few inches, but do these videos cause more harm than good?
There is a scene in Friends when Chandler tries to give up smoking by listening to a tape that repeats the affirmation: “You are a strong, confident woman who does not need to smoke.”
This is to say, using subliminal messaging is nothing new.
Often, as in Chandler’s case, it is used as a means of self-improvement. However, the evidence of whether this so-called subconscious programming actually works is murky.
More recently, the phenomenon has found a community on YouTube with a surge in “subliminal” YouTube videos – often made up of ambient music or jabbering – promising to help people change things about themselves.
Here’s what you need to know about this bizarre phenomenon.
What is subliminal messaging?
Exactly like it says on the tin, subliminal messaging comes in the form of cues such as words, pictures or symbols that are unidentifiable to your conscious awareness, according to Psychology Today. Subliminal stimuli happen so quickly, however, that it is literally “below the threshold” of your conscious mind.
Where does the idea of subliminal messaging come from?
The concept dates back to 1957. The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard introduced the idea of advertisers using subconscious messaging to influence consumers. That same year, James Vicary conducted a study during film screenings with words such as ‘Drink Coca-Cola’ and ‘Hungry? Eat popcorn!’ flashing across the screen for 1/3000th of a second (below the threshold of conscious perception) every five seconds. Vicary later claimed the messaging had lead to a 18.1% increase in Coca-Cola sales and a 57.8% jump in popcorn purchases.
While some remained sceptical over whether the techniques were as effective as Vicary claimed, the concept took hold. So much so that in 1974, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) banned subliminal advertising from radio and television broadcasting. It stated, “whether effective or not, [subliminal techniques] were contrary to public interest, and that any station employing subliminal messages risked losing its broadcast license”.
What are some examples of subliminal messaging?
Subliminal messaging can come in many forms, from audio messaging to advertising.
More recently though, there has been a surge in subliminal messaging videos on YouTube claiming to invoke changes from boosting your mood to helping you grow taller.
With more than 117,000 subscribers and a collective reach of more than 1.8 million views, Akuo Subliminals is one of the most popular YouTube channels of this type. His most popular video is Grow Taller In 10 Minutes, followed by Change Your Eye Colour To Sea Green.
Does subliminal messaging work?
In a nutshell, the jury is still out on this one.
However, with searches around subliminal messaging up by more than 100% in the past 12 months alone, the idea seems to be having a renaissance of sorts.
One study found that subliminal messaging worked, but is most effective when the message being conveyed is negative. Likely, this is due to evolution and humans being quicker to respond to danger signals, researchers found.
“There has been much speculation about whether people can process emotional information unconsciously, for example pictures, faces and words,” Professor Nilli Lavie, who led the study, said. “We have shown that people can perceive the emotional value of subliminal messages and have demonstrated conclusively that people are much more attuned to negative words.”
Researchers in another study found that subliminal messaging can be effective when it comes to motivating people – but only if the subliminal message matches a biological need and if the behaviour is associated with a positive effect.
In 2002, researchers at Princeton University published a study in which they subliminally added 12 frames of the word ‘thirsty’ and 12 frames of a Coca-Cola can into an episode of The Simpsons. They found those subjects were about 27% thirstier afterwards than before. Those who were not shown the frames were less thirsty after the show, but only marginally.
However, there are also caveats to keep in mind with these studies.
While there are some indications that subliminal messaging can have an effect, the lasting impact on behaviour remains unclear. A study showed that the effect of being subliminally primed only lasted less than five minutes. Some researchers also believe subliminal cues are more likely to nudge us towards our inclinations, rather than radically alter our behaviour.
Furthermore many of these experiments were conducted in controlled environments, where people were less likely to be distracted from the subliminal cues in front of them.
Is subliminal messaging safe?
Over the last few years, there has been increasing concern over whether some YouTubers have been hiding “dark hidden messages” in their videos, Vice reports.
In 2017, an online petition, signed by more than 740 people, claimed Mind Power, one of the most prominent subliminal YouTube creators at the time, had hidden some dark messages in her videos.
Some of these people claimed they had suffered “demonic dreams”, “weird sexual dreams” and “[a] few had actually visited the emergency room”. Mind Power was shut down in December that year. However, creator Amy Bass addressed the accusations in a blog post. “If you feel like you are being controlled then don’t be part of my group,” she wrote.
Last year, another subliminals YouTube creator, Rose Subliminals, also admitted to using negative affirmations in her videos before closing her account.
As far as wellness trends go, this one seems more like an episode of Black Mirror than reality.
Let’s hope its largely confined to the realms of fiction…