Subliminal advertising shares specific messages in subtle ways through various forms of media, including logos or graphics, TV ads, or music. It may seem like a sneaky way to get a message across — and, in some ways, it is — but it often works, so companies use it. It could even be an effective marketing strategy for your business.
However, subliminal advertising has also received criticism due to ethical concerns. It can target inappropriate audiences, such as ads for alcohol or tobacco products that appeal to children and teens or ads for pharmaceuticals that imply an off-label use. Studies have shown that consumers generally consider the practice manipulative and unethical, and in highly regulated industries with stringent advertising requirements, these types of subliminal messages can get advertisers into legal trouble.
Still, despite many consumers being aware that subliminal advertising is widely used, 77% of respondents to one survey said they would continue watching a television show if they were aware that the commercials shown contained subliminal messaging. The key to using subliminal advertising effectively is to stay well within widely accepted ethical boundaries, avoid appealing to inappropriate audiences, and design your messaging in such a way that consumers don’t feel as though they’re being intentionally duped.
Continue reading to learn more about what subliminal advertising is and explore nine examples of subliminal advertising that works.
What is Subliminal Advertising?
Subliminal advertising is advertising that contains words, images, or sounds designed to convey a message to an audience that the conscious mind can’t observe. In other words, subliminal advertising is the use of visual and auditory stimuli to influence the subconscious mind and drive consumer behavior, all while the consumer isn’t consciously aware of the message that’s being conveyed.
Brand identity elements, such as a company’s logo or the company tagline, can even contain subliminal advertising. These elements are used consistently in order to create brand awareness and get consumers to associate certain images and feelings with your brand.
While it’s intentionally designed to be manipulative, ethical subliminal advertising isn’t used for malicious or inappropriate purposes. Instead, it should subtly convey a key yet harmless message to your audience’s subconscious minds. Done right, your audience has your intended message in their minds after being exposed to the advertisement, even if you didn’t convey that message directly to their conscious minds.
9 Successful Examples of Subliminal Advertising
The following are successful examples of how subliminal advertising can work for businesses and how even the largest companies use it in their marketing.
1. Goodwill Logo
When you look at the Goodwill logo, you might first notice part of a smiling face, possibly alluding to the chain’s ability to make people in communities smile with access to low-cost donated items. Take a closer look, and you’ll see that the ‘g’ in ‘goodwill’ also doubles as a partial face. This simple tactic pulls the logo and brand concept together and has the power to evoke emotion from consumers.
2. Apple TV+
Apple TV+ offers exclusive programming for subscribers, and some of its shows and movies are said to have some hidden messages related to Apple products. A TiKTok video discusses one show in which one character hands another character an envelope with a Macbook inside, reminiscent of the famous moment Steve Jobs originally unveiled the Macbook by removing it from the same type of envelope. The clip is only a few seconds long, but it’s quite an Easter egg for Apple fans and something that could stick with consumers looking for an ultra-thin laptop.
3. Charlie Puth’s Music Video for “Light Switch”
In artist Charlie Puth’s “Light Switch” music video, there are a few seconds during which Puth’s character opens the Coinbase app on his phone to transfer cryptocurrency to an account. It’s subtle advertising that’s simultaneously in your face with the quick but up-close app screenshot, making it an excellent example of both product placement and subliminal advertising.
4. Amazon’s Logo
Photo by Amazon via Wikimedia Commons
Amazon hides a couple of messages in its famous logo. First is the arrow reminiscent of a smile, perhaps giving a nod to happy Amazon customers. There’s also the less obvious element of the arrow moving from the A to the Z, denoting that Amazon has everything you need, from A to Z.
5. Honey Nut Cheerios
In 2017, Honey Nut Cheerios removed its mascot, Buzz the Bee, from its cereal boxes, leaving behind a white outline of the famous bee. Its reason? It wanted to bring attention to the dying bee population, according to a press release. The marketing campaign hoped to encourage consumers to grow bee-friendly flowers by tying the important environmental cause into its product packaging.
6. Gillette’s Logo
Gillette is well-known for its razors for men and women. Its logo has a smart, subliminal way of showing exactly what the brand does best with its sharp slash through both the ‘G’ and ‘i.’
In 2012, the NFL ran advertisements for its app, NFL Mobile. One advertisement follows a man as he transforms from an ordinary businessman to a sports-loving, popular guy after downloading the NFL Mobile app. Although comical in nature, the underlying message of the ad is that using the app could help you become more desirable overall.
8. Subway’s Logo
Photo by Subway via Wikimedia Commons
Subway is known for being one of the healthier fast food options in the industry, but it also puts together its sandwiches fast. The arrows pointing outward from the logo’s letters hint at this. They mimic a subway’s entrance and exit points to let customers know that Subway is the place to visit when they need food on the go.
9. Marlboro and Formula One
Museo y Circuito Fernando Alonso: 2010 Ferrari F10 of Fernando Alonso by Morio, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Tobacco company Marlboro advertised on Formula One race cars, but not in the more obvious way it might have on television or social media ads. Instead, it added barcodes replicating those you’d find on a pack of Marlboro cigarettes to trigger reminders of its well-known box design. Although the tobacco industry may have been banned from more overt forms of advertising in Formula One, this was an easy and acceptable way to skirt the issue with clever marketing.
Subliminal Advertising is Just One Way to Grow Your Brand
Your company can also make subliminal advertising work for you by leaving subtle breadcrumbs for viewers in social media, TV, or print advertising. Still, this will be just one part of your overall marketing strategy. As your brand gains traction and your advertising and marketing efforts start to pay off, get more traction on social media by installing social media share buttons on your blog or website. Easy to install and free to use, share buttons allow your visitors to spread the word about your brand by sharing your content on social media with a simple click.