I clearly remember my first brush with subliminal advertising decades ago. During my fifth grade science fair, a classmate’s project posed this thoughtful hypothesis: Lots of ads have hidden sex and death messages that make you buy things without knowing it.

Bryan Dill’s display, consisting of leftover food and ripped out magazine pages, was either masterfully staged to appear as if he slapped it together that same morning…or he had slapped it together that same morning. I couldn’t decide which.

Exhibit 1: Hidden Sex Message
A plate of hair spray-crusted spaghetti, topped with meatballs seductively arranged to spell “SEX”

Exhibit 2: Hidden Death Message
Magazine ads scribbled up with arrows pointing to skulls airbrushed into bottles of liquor.

For the longest time, Bryan’s lackluster expose’ jaded my view of all things subliminal. After all, I didn’t drink liquor when things went south and spaghetti never put me in the mood. Wikipedia bolstered my long held position that “subliminal messages do not produce strong or lasting changes in behavior” and “conclude(s) that there is no effect beyond a placebo”. However, while writing this blog, I ran across multiple examples of global brands slipping zingers into their collateral. For me, this raised some uncomfortable questions, as it should for us all.

Why would these elite marketing firms risk their reputations to hide subversive imagery in their creative if it didn’t have impact, as Wikipedia claims? Why would global brand managers blow millions lacing their campaigns with useless subtleties. I dug deeper to find the connective tissue I must have missed.

Apparently, the subliminal experts in the Wikipedia community had neglected to mention University College London researchers have found “the first physiological evidence that invisible subliminal images do attract the brain’s attention on a subconscious level.” UCL researchers further stated “the wider implication for the study…is that techniques such as subliminal advertising…certainly do leave their mark on the brain.” and presented evidence that “negative” subliminal messages impact our subconscious more so than “positive” messages: Fear vs. security, violence vs. peace, anger/sorrow vs. happiness and so on.

Professor Nilli Lavie of UCL explains this phenomenon as an evolutionary survival mechanism hardwired in us all. For example, he says a public safety slogan “Kill Your Speed” would be more effective than “Slow Down” because it appeals to both our conscious reason and our primal instinct. Another recent study by Northwestern University supports UCL’s conclusions.

Does Bryan Dill’s “Hidden Death Message” theory still sound ludicrous? To me,it sounds like he was spot on. Perhaps he accidentally tapped into an unknown backdoor to the human psyche while throwing together his science fair project.

In a future blog, we will revisit Bryan’s meatball display.