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Subliminal Advertising

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"So it's a subliminal. What they don't know won't hurt them."
Flavor text from the Braindance Campaign card in Netrunner

You probably think that because you're reading TV Tropes, we're going to do something subversive when explaining the topic of advertising that you're only supposed to notice subconsciously. You're a little uneasy, because you haven't spotted it yet, and you're worried that those Troper people could be up to... anything. It could leap out at you at any moment, causing you to snort your beverage of choice out through your nose in an embarrassing fashion.

Do calm down. Only the most paranoid people... No, only the most insane people would suspect we would in any way hide propaganda in this article encouraging you to fork us money. As always, you have no need to worry. The contributors would never stoop that low. Enjoy your stay!

See also Subliminal Seduction and Propaganda Piece.


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  • This even seems to happen within commercials, at least in the case of Vitamin Water. Most commercials featuring an athlete endorser will have a reference to another of the endorser's sponsors. For example: the jockey Shaquille O'Neal boxes out is wearing the Radio Shack symbol, and LeBron James references a case called 'Niky v. Oregon' (guess where Nike is based).
  • Hilariously parodied in this advertisement for Schweppes, starring John Cleese, which appeared on VHS copies of A Fish Called Wanda.
  • Spoofed in this commercial for Butternut Coffee from Stan Freberg.

    Anime & Manga 

    Comic Books 
  • In American Flagg!, subliminal messages in the popular In-Universe animated show Bob Violence were responsible for driving Chicago's "go-gangs" crazy and leading to armed attacks on the PlexMall once a week.
  • Used extensively by the secret agencies of MIND MGMT. There's an entire section of "Ad Men" whose whole job is to develop these. However, they're not used to actually sell anything; they're either used to communicate information to agents, deliver Trigger Phrases, or test for psychic powers in the general populace.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • A Lee Majors Film, The Agency about an ad agency which was running ads for a politician that showed that his competitor for the election had some undesirable quality, like being spawn of the devil or some such equivalent, while their candidate was patriotic and 100% American. This supposedly caused people to vote against the disfavored candidate The ads were run as part of fraction of a second subliminal ads during an unrelated product, like deodorant. This movie pointed out that subliminal ads, despite opinion to the contrary, are not illegal.
  • The Josie and the Pussycats film revolved around the recording industry hiding subliminal advertising in pop music. The film itself even had at least one:
    Josie and the Pussycats is the Best Movie Ever! Join The Army.
  • One of the ways the aliens in They Live! control humanity. You can only truly see what it says by wearing special glasses or contact lenses.
  • A mid-nineties Showtime made for TV movie titled Subliminal Seduction had this instead, as its primary plot. The movie was about a young executive at a computer game maker, and his wife, uncovering a subliminal advertising plot. The company was rolling out a game called Mouse Maze onto the market, which had a subliminal message to “Buy Rat Trap at Any Price”. Rat Trap being the follow up game to Mouse Maze. In order to keep their key executives in line, the company would insert subliminal commands for them to sleep with their secretaries, giving the CEO blackmail material.
  • In Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge, mall employee Buzz takes reporter Peter to an off-limits room with a mixing board and intercom, demonstrating that the mall muzak includes subliminal messages to spend more money and be trusting of the salespeople - the subliminal messages themselves have little bearing on the rest of the plot, though Buzz knowing where the room is and how to operate the equipment in general does come in handy later.

  • In Moving Pictures, CMOT Dibbler, with the skewed but determined logic that characterises the Discworld, reasons that if a single picture you don't even see can make people want to buy something, five solid minutes of it must be even more effective.
  • The Space Merchants makes passing reference to "compulsive subsonics" being used in audio ads until that was outlawed, "but we've bounced back with a list of semantic cue words that tie in with every basic trauma and neurosis in American life today."
    • In The Merchant's War it's made worse with the introduction of "Campbell areas", where anyone who enters one is subjected to remote limbic system stimulation, creating instant addiction to a particular product. The only cure is being subjected to counter-conditioning — basically associating the product with being tortured; the cure has a significant fatality rate.

    Live-Action TV 
  • The 1960s TV show Hazel did one about some guys that supposedly created irresistible subliminal ads, in which they ran a film where 'SP' would appear briefly, and the guy speaking to the crowd (who was selling some stock for a company called 'Brazilian') because, at the end of the message, would say, "And Buy Brazilian". So one guy who didn't know he was being marketed to for a stock, was buying Brazilian Nuts. The guys doing this get arrested for it. Which brings us to...
  • A Parody Commercial for the Psi Corps in Babylon 5 famously ends with a subliminal message: "The Psi Corps is your friend. Trust the Corps." It's not technically subliminal — The creators of the show researched what the legal definition was, and made sure it ran longer than that — but it's brief enough that, at the time, you could only actually read it if you had recorded the show and could go back to the recording and step through it frame-by-frame.
  • A subliminal in an episode of Brass Eye got Chris Morris in a spot of trouble; annoyed with Executive Meddling by Michael Grade, someone inserted a flash-frame caption reading "Grade Is A Cunt" into the show.
  • Firefly: Inverted in that the subliminal message is not an ad in itself, just imbedded within one - the "instructions" for River to go into Waif-Fu mode are implanted in a Fruity Oaty Bars commercial.
  • An episode of NCIS didn't have this as advertising, but it was part of the killer's MO. He'd send the team a video with images cluing them to the site of the next murder flashing up for a split second.
  • QI has a segment about subliminal advertising, starting with Stephen Fry asking the panel how he could get the audience to vote for him as Pope without even realizing it, and ending with:
    Stephen Fry: So, there you have it. Subliminal advertising doesn't — stephenfryforpope — work.
  • In the Columbo episode "Double Exposure", Dr. Bart Keppel is a marketing guru who specializes in this technique. At the beginning of the episode, he even uses his technique to kill executive Vic Norris by feeding him salty foods and then showing him a film containing subliminal images of a tall, cool glass of iced tea. The result is that Norris leaves to go to the fountain in the lobby, where Keppel surprises him and shoots him. In the end, though, he gets Hoist by His Own Petard when Columbo shows him a film containing subliminal images of Columbo searching his office and finding the key piece of evidence against him. When he goes to dispose of it, Columbo catches him in the act.
  • The first episode of Derren Brown TV special How to Control the Nation revolved around using hypnosis to glue the viewers at home to their chairs. Over the course of the show, some (fairly obvious) pictures of a man tied to a chair is flashed on screen. At the end of the day, the illusion depended on the fact that Darren "suggests" that the viewer sit back comfortably, relax their upper body, and place their hands in their laps (due to the law of the lever, it is essentially impossible to stand up from a reclining/sitting position using only your legs as leverage).
  • Parodied in Monty Python's Flying Circus in the Series 3 episode "Njorl's Saga". The title story receives emergency funding from the North Malden Icelandic Society, who proceed to derail it with advertising trying to persuade businesses to invest in Malden (a London suburb). At one point, during a fight scene in which the characters are carrying placards advertising the virtues of Malden for businesses, the words "INVEST IN MALDEN" flash on the screen repeatedly. At first, they only stay for a few frames, but each time they appear, they remain on screen for longer, until finally they flash on screen and stay there until a cut to the next sketch.
  • Parodied in a memorable Saturday Night Live sketch. Kevin Nealon plays an advertising executive who's been asked to look into Subliminal Advertising. After he does his research, he reports on his findings while quickly slipping in "raise" at certain points. When he finishes, his boss is suddenly compelled to give him a raise.
  • CSI: NY: A cigarette company executive in "The Ride-In" complains that one of their competitors had subliminally inserted a naked man into their commercials in order to attract female smokers.

    Print Media 
  • A MAD story from the 1950s demonstrates several uses for subliminal messages. In one of the examples, quickly flashing the message "Drink Coke" during a romance movie successfully encourages everyone in the theatre (including the movie's lead couple) to buy some Coke.

    Video Games 
  • Parodied in Psychonauts level "Lungfishopolis", where the stage is regularly interrupted by television broadcasts decrying the menace of Goggalor. Each of these are ended with a quickly worded, less audible set of instructions about kidnapping children.
  • Found in the Atari Lynx version of Rampage: There are no (Buy a Lynx) subliminal messages (Or two) in this game (Buy a Lynx).
  • Parodied in DLC for Portal 2, where Cave Johnson says that there is a pair of glasses that allows you to see subliminal advertising in every surface.
  • The "Subneural ad" advance, and associated unit, in Civilization: Call to Power

    Western Animation 
  • The Amazing World of Gumball: Parodied in "The Money." When Gumball begs his family not to sell out by appearing in a Joyful Burger commercial, Darwin tells him that advertising doesn't need to feel forced, as he takes a sip from a Joyful Burger cup and winks at the camera. Anais concurs with Darwin while discreetly stepping to the side, revealing a Joyful Burger poster on the wall behind her.
  • Gravity Falls: Played for laughs in "Boyz Crazy" when Stan tells Dipper that subliminal mind control messages are in music all the time.
    Stan: If you listen closely, even the music I play in the gift shop has subtle hidden messages!
    [Cut to the gift shop, where soft music plays as two tourists shop]
    Stan: [over loudspeaker] BUY MORE KEYCHAINS!! BUY MORE KEYCHAINS!! [The tourists cover their ears and run screaming]
  • In the Simpsons episode "New Kids on the Bleech", in which Bart, Milhouse, Nelson, and Ralph are recruited by one "L. T. Smash" (actually Lieutenant Smash) to form a Boy Band called Party Posse, the chorus in their music video has three exotic women singing in a made up language ("Yvan eht nioj!"). Lisa figures out the subliminal message by playing the video in reverse, where the lyrics were actually saying "Join the Navy!" The subliminal advertising was part of a three-pronged advertising plan: Subliminal, "Liminal" and "Superliminal", which apparently was shouting at random people.
    Smash: Hey, you! Join the navy!
    Carl: Uh, yeah, alright.
    Lenny: I'm in.
  • Parodied in Family Guy episode "Mr. Griffin Goes To Washington" when a clip of Lassie contains subliminal advertising of an cigarette company executive telling the viewers to smoke.
  • Dogstar: In "Persuasion", Bob Santino plants subliminal messages in his robog ads to cause people to regard the Dogstar as a threat and try to destroy it.

    Real Life 
  • The Real Life example that created this trope: In 1957, a market researcher named James Vicary (who later coined the term "subliminal advertising") performed an experiment at a movie theater in New Jersey. The words "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat popcorn" would be flashed on the screen for 1/3000 of a second at five second intervals. Vicary alleged that sales of Coca-Cola and popcorn increased at that theater by 57.8% and 18.1%, respectively. Although the results have never been replicated, and Vicary himself later admitted to faking his results, conspiracy theories pertaining to subliminal messages persist to this day, and have inspired countless writers and filmmakers.
    • A related concept is infrasound; sounds at certain very low frequencies which fall outside normal human hearing range, but which many humans can still perceive at a subconscious level. These sounds have been proven to cause feelings of fear, anxiety and a sensation of Being Watched, possibly because similar low-frequency sounds would be made by predators lying in wait for our proto-human ancestors.
    • Some studies have indicated that while such explicit instructions are generally ineffective, images such as those mentioned above actually work. So instead of saying "Drink Coca-Cola", they would just 'splice in' some subliminal images of a 'desert mirage' or other thirst-inducing imagery into an actual Coke commercial. Suddenly, their audience finds itself feeling very thirsty as they look at that bottle...
    • Studies have also shown that the subliminal image isn't any more effective than a regular old "Let's just show them a bottle of Coke for 30 seconds" advertising, which is far less likely to get you in trouble!
  • In 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation made an experiment with subliminal advertising: during a popular show called Close-up, they broadcast the message "Phone now" 352 times. Nobody called. When asked to guess the message, viewers sent close to 500 letters, but none of them had the right answer.
  • In 1978, a TV station in Wichita, Kansas ran a subliminal message telling the BTK killer to turn himself in. It didn't work.
  • There are now billboards that have a special speaker in them so that it'll only project sound to a certain spot on the street. This means you can quite happily be walking along until you reach that spot and suddenly it sounds like somebody whispered in your ear something like "Drink Coke" when nobody is near you.
  • A mid '90s Fanta commercial tried to push the idea that Fanta just tastes good and quenches thirst and doesn't make you cool, while simultaneously co-opting the youth culture of the time by having a trendily-dressed black teenager deliver the message. Just after he says "It will not make me popular", small text reading "Yes, it will" flashes on the screen.
  • An advertisement poster for Coca-Cola has an image of a woman about to perform fellatio hidden in one of the ice cubes. This one was so graphic, it DIDN'T make it past the radar and was recalled.
  • Australia's Network Ten was found to have breached a broadcasting code forbidding this following its coverage of the 2007 ARIA Awards, when the logos for Toyota Yaris, Chupa Chups, KFC, and Olay were rapid-cut into the nomination segments. Media Watch found another example in an episode of Ten's Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?
  • In an interview with Defunctland creator Kevin Perjurer, Disney Channel executives admitted to secretly marketing Finding Nemo as far back as a year and a half prior to the film's release by inserting "Fish Facts" that would be played during programming breaks in order to make viewers interested in the film.


Video Example(s):



Bart's boy band Party Posse has a new hit, "Drop Da Bomb," but its strange lyrics seem to have ulterior motives.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (14 votes)

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Main / SubliminalAdvertising

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