Subliminal Marketing – Tool or Trash?

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“Eat popcorn’, ‘drink Coca-Cola’; these were the messages flashed for 1/3000 of a second in US movie theatres in 1957 that increased in-house sales of the items by 57.5 percent for popcorn and 18.1 percent for Coca-Cola. 

Except that it never happened. The ‘experiment’ by market research James Vicary was a ‘gimmick’. He was interested in how eye-blink analysis could indicate a person’s emotional tension when exposed to various stimuli, and the phenomena of impulse buying and word association.

While Vicary’s ‘experiment’ was proven to be nothing but talk (he never conducted any such research on a large cohort and admitted to the fact in 1962), it has stayed part of the psyche of consumers.


Subliminal marketing has been used for decades. The idea that there are hidden messages in advertising that compel people to make a purchase is real. It is not as nefarious as people like to make out. In fact, sometimes the message is just artists having a bit of fun, while other times it is a deliberate attempt to be very clever.


The international delivery company has a very clever logo – the ‘e’ and the ‘x’ make a subtle arrow pointing to the right, a subtle message to the audience that they are a delivery company.


Not all hidden messages are bold, sexual or intricate, some are just simple, as this one is, and once seen stick with the audience as a very clever secret between the customer and the company.



Toblerone is a Swiss chocolate bar brand currently owned by US confectionery company Mondelēz International, Inc. It was created in Bern, Switzerland in 1908 by Emil Baumann and Theodor Tobler.

The triangular shape of the Toblerone makes the product and its packaging unique.

However, it is the iconic logo that features an image of the Matterhorn with a bear resembling snow in the middle that makes this logo a subliminal masterstroke. The bear is symbolic of the city in which the chocolate came to life, as Bern is known as the ‘city of bears’ and features a bear on its city crest.


Vaio, a Japanese manufacturer of personal computers and smartphones, has a logo with a hidden message that not everyone would understand. The design, by Teiyu Goto, shows a stylized “VA” made to look like a sine wave, and “IO” to look like binary digits 1 and 0, which together represent the merging of analog and digital signals.


Once you see Mickey in the Pirates of the Caribbean skull and swords, it’s obvious just how clever the people behind marketing at the multi-billion dollar entertainment company really are.

These ‘easter eggs’, hiding Mickey in scenes of movies, is a common feature of Disney movies, with artists and creators often playing with the audience to see if people can find their hidden treasures.

Pepsi and Coca-Cola

In 2014, Pepsi decided it would be a fun Halloween jest to take a swipe at ‘Cola-Coca’, switching the letters in the Coca-Cola brand name just enough to avoid legal proceedings.

Sadly, they handed Coca-Cola a golden ticket. It was a fan, not the beverage company, who came up with a clever rebuttal and posted the doctored image on the internet. While Coke never endorsed the ad, or got involved in any way, both companies were leveraged through the viral nature of sharing on the internet.


Far from being ‘trash’, some advertising might be confronting for some people when they see the details. Hidden images, subtle suggestions and cheeky nods mean that some advertising is cast to the bin too soon.

Whitman’s Sampler

The confectionery, produced since 1842, is an assortment of boxed chocolates. The company’s advertising in the first half of the 1900s was romantic, as well as family-oriented.

This Whitman’s Sampler ad from April 5, 1963, is filled with innuendo. The shape of the woman over the man creates a clear ‘69’, there is a tower on the lower part of the newspaper in the man’s groin region, and the pearl necklace is a scarcely hidden nod.

The artistry is so simple, but once seen, it becomes clear that there is more than a message of ‘happy easter’ associated with the gift of giving these chocolates. In fact, the longer you look at this, and many of Whitman’s Sampler advertising from the time, the more you find.

Burger King

In 2009, Burger King launched an advertising campaign in Singapore to promote its new seven-inch sandwich.

The advertising is dripping with sex. It is not subtle and is somewhat ill-considered. ‘It just tastes better’ and ‘it’ll blow your mind away’ are weak tag lines with such an overt display of sexual dominance.

Aside from the somewhat borderline pornographic nature of the ad, which is tasteless when trying to sell food, the misogynistic attitude of the image is surely not a strong selling point for women. While the core market for this meat-laden sandwich might be men, offending an entire potential audience with such blatant disrespect is never a good idea. What was probably an attempt at funny that failed?

The model featured in the ad said online: “Burger King found my photo online from a series I did,” she writes, “and with no due regard to me as a person, profited off reducing me to an orifice for their penis sludge; publicly humiliating me in the process. Friends, family, coworkers, prospective employers who saw it assume I was a willing player.”
Coca Cola
The beverage giant makes it on the list again, this time as the ‘trash’. This 2016 advertisement as part of the ‘taste the feeling’ campaign is pretty blatant when seen, and it seems unlikely that any trained photo editor would miss it. Any of the images from the campaign are pretty sexualised, from the objectification of women to phallic images.

One such image features two women looking at a man on the beach, wearing a baseball cap backwards and spraying his coke into the air. Look at the cloud formation on the right. The umbrella and the woman’s shoulder clearly cut a penis shape into the white space. The spray from the drink across the unset is probably not a mistake either. The beverage company tends to release a lot of overtly sexual advertising content and despite complaints, it has not seemed to slow the roll of tasteless content.

Is Subliminal Advertising legal?

Depending on where you are advertising a product and what the subliminal message is intended to be, the answer to the question will vary.

Clever images hidden in white spaces, such as the FedEx arrow, are unlikely to offend the majority of audiences worldwide, whereas the objectification of women or men is likely to trigger reactions from most western audiences, and might even be illegal in some countries.



The clever addition of messages in logos or images is fun for audiences. People who see Mickey’s ears in Disney materials, or those who discover a whitespace message in the Toyota logo (you can check that one out for yourself – see if you can pick the letters in the symbol) can be fun and make your audience or customers feel more connected to your brand because you are ‘in’ on a secret together.

However, any form of subtle messaging needs to be done with care. The current climate is sensitive to objectification, using sex to sell products or services, and the under-representation of minority groups in advertising in general. It is these things that should be the focus of clever advertising before working on subliminal me

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