Subliminal Priming in Advertisement

Advertisement is there, to make people buy a specific product. There is a fine line between manipulation and influence. Subliminal Priming goes unnoticed in the consumer’s mind but can, in theory, influence the decision process. This is why subliminal priming is not a permitted advertisement strategy in some countries such as Britain or Australia which have specific guidelines in place. But what is meant by this?

The guidelines and concerns are the use of subliminal messages in moving advertisements such as TV Ads. In the following, I will elaborate on the theory behind subliminal priming, why it is subliminal and why it is not a tool to control people’s minds.

Subliminal Priming

Subliminal Priming or messaging describes stimuli that are processed subconsciously. Subconscious processing takes less energy than conscious thinking, while the main goal of our brain is to reduce energy consumption. The amount of information our sensory organs send to our brain each millisecond is therefore too much to be processed in the conscious mind.

Example: Our sensory organs are sending information to our brain at any point in time at a very fast and frequent pace. If we are sitting on a chair, we only feel the pressure of us sitting on the chair, if we focus on that set of information. All the information is constantly processed in our sensory memory and kept ready for conscious processing.

If we now watch a movie or a tv spot in which we concentrate on the story and what happens next in it, we will not notice anything else, that might be happening. If an Image is cut into the Advertisement or Movie, which has nothing to do with the story and is just seeable for a few milliseconds, we will not be able to consciously process that image. Even though we are unable to tell if we saw an image, our sensory memory still passes it on to the working memory where it is stored.

The decision process

When making a decision, we are running the different alternatives and the connected outcomes or consequences past our minds. We, humans, are programmed to be driven towards the known. Different theories and concepts describe this basic phenomenon in different forms and for more specific situations. The Mere-Expose effect is one of these theories and will be elaborated on in the end.

If we take the Image which we didn’t see but still saw, we are familiar with whatever the image showed us. Therefore it might influence us in the decision we are about to make because we are now driven towards that decision, maybe that product, that was shown to us in that specific image. Studies have found that decisions are influenced by previous subliminal messages such as this.

How far can we influence the decision of a human being?

In studies, scientists have found that certain parameters have to be fulfilled to influence the decision of a subject with subliminal priming.

→ Only positive behaviour could be activatedSome theories also suggest that subliminal stimuli can only affect behaviour if the subject already has a determination towards that one specific behaviour.

This means that the subliminal message acts as the trigger for an already determined behaviour.

→ People who are generally unreceptive to advertisement can not be influenced. If people fight those processes, they won’t work on them

→ The influence (subliminal Priming) has to remain unknown to the subject

→ Behavioural patterns or decisions that are based on a gut feeling are easy to influence. Decisions based on analytical thinking can not be influenced through processes such as this


Priming describes the process of trying to purposely guide the decision process to reach a specific outcome. This can take place with explicit or implicit stimuli or messages of any sort. The test subject has either consciously or subconsciously received stimuli or information that is meant to influence their decision-making.


Henning Plessner a social psychologist conducted a study in which the subject needed to focus on TV ads while reading stock prices out loud that were shown at the bottom of the screen. Later, the subjects weren’t able to explicitly tell what the prices of the different stocks were. In a test, where the subjects were supposed to rate the different stocks based on their gut feeling, they rated those stocks positively that were previously shown to them with a high stock price. This shows that the information where not consciously accessible but where subconsciously memorised and influenced the gut feeling. (Explicit vs. implicit information)

The real world

Your psyche is very complicated and many different subconscious processes are guiding your decision-making process.

Influencing somebody is using natural processes to lead the person towards a by you determined goal. Most importantly, the decision to make a purchase or to perform a certain action still lies in the mind of the individual.

Subliminal Priming does work. Our brain picks up more information than we can process. That information is partly stored in our subconscious but most of it gets wiped out of our memory. So technically we are influenced by stimuli that we do not know about and are subliminal. Communication is a very complex topic with so many variables that it is hard to isolate one concept and run tests for it. In the real world where we make decisions not between two clearly divided goods, products or whatever it might be, many influences on our decision-making process are both conscious and subconscious. Advertisement is a form of communication that tries to influence this decision-making process. Subliminal messaging in TV Spots might work hypothetically but with all the other stimuli in the real world, it is likely to be an inefficient method to influence people. Because even if people would be influenced and the subliminal priming worked, chances are the prime that should lead to a certain decision, will be overwritten by something else very quickly.

Mere-exposure effect

Subliminal Priming works, because we show the subject exactly what we want him/her to choose afterwards. Even though Subliminal Priming works in a controlled environment and is nearly impossible to control in the real world because of too many unpredictable factors, humans are, in their nature, very predictable.

Our brain is hardwired to repeat what we have already done and is driven towards things we already know. The Mere-exposure effect does describe that phenomenon. In later articles, I will further describe the Mere-exposure effect. So you might consider joining the TBA Family to get insights into new releases.

Besides the Mere-Exposure effect, the MAYA Concept tries to explain the same phenomenon with a more design-specific approach.




Psychologische Rundschau, 2009, Unbewusste Wahrnehmung, Andrea Kiesel

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