Are Subliminal Messages Ethical Or Not  

Categories: AdvertisingEthicsMind

Every single day we are bombarded with messages on various media platforms in the form of advertising, telling us what to eat, drink, wear, drive, smell, and basically how to think and live our lives. Billions of dollars are spent every year all over the world, targeting consumers of various demographics, to convince them to buy something or adopt a certain idea. The consumer knows he/she is being addressed and accordingly decides whether they are convinced or not. However, there is another form of advertising which raises questions regarding the ethics behind how it is done; subliminal messages are hidden messages that are defined as “a message passed to the human mind without the mind being consciously aware of it.

” (‘Subliminal Message Definition and Meaning | Collins English Dictionary’).

A very simplified way of doing this can be flashing words on the screen for a fraction of a second so that we don’t realize we’ve seen them, but our subconscious mind does.

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Subliminal messages aim at getting us to think we can be healthier, more successful, more attractive, wealthier and generally happier by adopting the message content. The ethical questions surrounding subliminal messages in advertising are many and the legality of using them is frequently raised due to hidden element which aims at manipulating our actions. Psychologists have always studied the subconscious mind to try and understand how it worked, however, “it proved even more intriguing to advertisers who saw an opportunity in influencing behavior for fun and profit.

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In 1957, an ad man named James Vicary claimed he could increase concession sales at movie theaters by flashing messages like “Drink Coca Cola” or “Eat Popcorn” for a frame at a time during a movie. Vicary claimed that popcorn sales at the theater went up 18%, while Coke sales shot up 57%.” (‘What Does Subliminal Message Mean? | Pop Culture by Dictionary.Com’). Although there was much debate about the truth of these claims, it gained a lot of interest and advertisers started to use subliminal messages in their marketing as they believed they could manipulate the consumer and that “people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are influenced by stimuli that are perceived without any awareness of perceiving.” (‘What Are Subliminal Messages? Explanation & Evidence’).

A lot of stigma is attached to using subliminal messages as it is perceived as something hidden and not transparent. But advertisers use these kinds of messages anyway, and realized that to be successful in using subliminal messages it had to be very subtle and not obvious to the consumer/viewer. “The great thing about these hidden messages is that, when done well, they can pay off big time and lead to some of the most memorable ads to date…You’ve probably heard of Baskin Robbins. You might even know the company sells 31 flavors of ice cream. But did you also know that Baskin Robbins uses subliminal advertising? In fact, the company used a subliminal message to promote the number of flavors it sells. Check out the logo below: The hidden message here is simple: Amazon sells everything, from A to Z.” (E Lincoln).

Baskin Robins and Amazon using subliminal messages in their logos can be seen as not really harmful. But should the use of anything subliminal in advertising be allowed. “In terms of ethical concerns, if subliminal advertising is real, more people think that the use of hidden messages in advertising is not ethical. According to some experts on subliminal messages in advertising, these can actually affect purchasing decisions, perceptions about brands/products, and response to visuals and suggestions. Due to this, subliminal advertising is like cheating and manipulating sales out of innocent consumers. And the fact that the subliminal messages are intentionally placed is one proof that there really is an intention to mislead and manipulate.” (D. Berry). There is a lot of controversy related to whether or not the use of subliminal messages is legal and each country has different laws which ban the direct use of these messages. The intention is to protect the public/consumer from being unknowingly manipulated into actions which will benefit others. “Subliminal advertisements are banned in Australia and Britain and those who are found to violate the ban are subject to severe consequences….

In the United States, however, advertising is a highly confusing hodgepodge of advertising techniques, making it harder for the industry to actively do much about the increasing use of subliminal in ads.” (D. Berry). On another level, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky asks, “Is the purpose of the TV ad to make you an informed consumer? The purpose of the ad is to delude and deceive you with imagery so you’ll be uninformed and make an irrational choice.” (Wright). It becomes even more of a critical question to ask regarding the ethics of using subliminal techniques when the results can be harmful to society. “Some of the most common subliminal messages promote sexual violence. Oftentimes, these messages can lead to horrible crimes — a chilling example is with serial killer Ted Bundy, who maintained that he was largely influenced by TV advertising which encourages brutality towards women.” (Wright).

In the US, where regulating the use of subliminal messages is very vague, politicians frequently use the technique to manipulate and take political advertising to a different level. By doing so, the process of honest communication which is based on integrity becomes contaminated and unethical. Another example of harm causing subliminal messages are those for example which are used to promote the use of cigarettes, which even targets children. Media Watch founder Ann Simonton found that advertisers “start targeting children at 9 months. They’ve noted that, by two years old, they can achieve brand loyalty and recognition.” (Wright).

The various and more conventional forms of advertising which we are used to, have always been a powerful tool for the persuasion of the consumer and these messages are clearly regulated by governing bodies in different countries which dictate that all messages should be truthful and not make claims that are either exaggerated or lies; the consumer then makes a conscious choice. However, the use of subliminal messages is another story and arguments surrounding whether the use of these hidden messages in advertising are ethical will continue to be controversial; the questions are because of the manipulative element in the subliminal messages being communicated to the consumer as it may cause them to make a choice which they are not conscious of; this can be described as deceptive and it is this element of deception that is not seen as ethical.

Works Cited

  1. D. Berry, Nelson D. ‘The Experts on Subliminal Messages In Advertising – It Is Good Or Bad?’. Selfgrowth.Com, 2020,
  2. E Lincoln, John. ’11 Examples of Effective Subliminal Advertising – Ignite Visibility’. Ignite Visibility, 2020, Accessed 1 May 2020.
  3. ‘Subliminal Message Definition and Meaning | Collins English Dictionary’. Collinsdictionary.Com, 2020, Accessed 30 Apr 2020.
  4. Wright, Carolanne. ‘Mind Control, Subliminal Messages and The Brainwashing of America’. Wake Up World, 2016,
  5. ‘What Does Subliminal Message Mean? | Pop Culture by Dictionary.Com’. Everything After Z by Dictionary.Com, 2020,
  6. ‘What Are Subliminal Messages? Explaination & Evidence’. Mindfit Hypnosis and Subliminal Message MP3 Downloads, 2020,

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Are Subliminal Messages Ethical Or Not  . (2022, Jun 03). Retrieved from

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