How Subliminal Messages Work

Famous Subliminal Ads

Some people find subliminal messages in all kinds of ads.
George Rose/Getty Images

It's definitely true that images or words are sometimes embedded in ads, presumably to make us choose the product or, in the case of politics, to select one candidate over another. Other times, however, embedded images or words are pranks by someone involved in the ad's production. And sometimes, people believe they're seeing secret messages that are not actually there. Not too surprisingly, real subliminal messages are often sexual in nature. As they say, sex sells.

One example that was surely intentional occurred in the March 2003 issue of SFX magazine. A sensual photo of actor Jennifer Garner graced the cover. The magazine's regular typeface was altered, and Garner's head positioned just so, so that the periodical appeared to be a magazine titled "SEX." Similarly, Skittles peddled a not-so-subliminal sexual message with its berry explosion flavor. On the packaging, a red Skittle — its white "S" prominent — was tucked next to the word "eXplosion" [sources: Edwards, Greenspan].


Many people assert Coca-Cola's ads depicting an iced-over can of Coke hide the form of a naked woman in the ice, but that assertion is debatable. Ditto a political commercial that aired in 2000, when George W. Bush was squaring off against Al Gore. During the spot, the word "bureaucrats" flashes on the screen. Then, while Bush is discussing Gore's health care proposals, just the end of the word — "rats" — briefly appears. Democrats complained to the FCC, which declined to issue any penalties. The gaffe appeared to be accidental; the word was too obvious to be intended as subliminal messaging [sources: Psychologist World, Greenspan].

While it's long been claimed that numerous Disney movies have sexual images inserted into them, perhaps by animators as practical jokes, nothing was confirmed until 1999, when Disney recalled 3.4 million copies of the home version of "The Rescuers." Originally released in 1977, a topless woman twice appears in a window in the video as Bianca and Bernard, the mice stars, fly through the city in a sardine box. Disney claims the images were inserted by post-production personnel, not its animators [source: Los Angeles Daily News].

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More Great Links


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