How and When to Use Subliminal Messages in Your Ad Copy

How and When to Use Subliminal Messages in Your Ad Copy

How and When to Use Subliminal Messages in Your Ad Copy

Marketers are always looking for that magic bullet — a way to get a leg up on the competition. To separate their business from everyone else’s and get a little more of that all-important bottom line.

For online marketers, sometimes it seems like that magic bullet is hiding inside a 30-minute video or hypnosis CD sent overnight mail by some sketchy guy in a foreign country.

(Hey, I’m not judging)

While there’s nothing like a magic bullet in marketing, something else comes pretty close — it’s called subliminal messaging. And it couldn’t be simpler to use. From what we know, you could be using it already without even knowing.

And no, I’m not talking about anything illegal or sneaky. In fact, there are several legal and proven techniques you can use to get people acting on your ads. But first, you have to know how it works, so let’s address that right up front.

What’s Subliminal Messaging? 

Subliminal messaging is a portent form of influence. It’s a practice of delivering your advertising message so underhandedly that the conscious mind cannot detect it.

It employs auditory or visual stimuli to influence your behaviour subconsciously.

The idea is to influence you without you knowing so that your brain processes the information and persuades the mind to act on it.

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Although mainly used in media, especially music, TV ads, and radio commercials, you can still apply this tactic to digital media, especially paid ads. 

How Subliminal Messages Work

Subliminal messages are not new; in fact, they’ve been around for over 50 years. 

One of the most famous examples of subliminal messages in action can be traced back to the 1950s

The idea was to put subliminal messages to the test and see if they could sway behaviour. Short messages stating “Drink Coca-Cola, Hungry? Eat Popcorns” were shown in a movie theatre every 5 seconds during a film.

As the movie progressed, so did the messages. The idea was to see if the messages could influence consumers when they were hungry and thirsty during a particularly dry scene in the movie when no food or drink advertisements were being displayed.

It worked! A lot of people went out to buy Coca-Cola and get popcorn. Coke sales increased by 18.1% and popcorn by 57.8% at the end of the experiment. 

However, later, the results were found to be fraudulent and fabricated. The experiment was carried out indeed, but the data was falsified. 

Subliminal Messaging – We’ve All Heard About it. But Does It Really Work?

From the experiment, it’s safe to say subliminal messaging isn’t capable of brainwashing people. What they do is improve behavioural performance. That means they only help the brain process important information and act upon it.

You can pretty much use subliminal messaging for anything under the sun – attracting people to buy your product or service, getting them to subscribe to your mailing list, increasing traffic to your website, and so on.

There’s a lot of evidence, with some dating back to the 1960s, suggesting that while we can’t be turned into robots by subliminal messages, they do work and influence behaviour.

7 Real-World Examples of Subliminal Messages

#1. FedEx’s Legendary Arrow

FedEx is an international courier delivery service company based in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s also famous for its advertising campaigns and iconic arrow logo.

On close inspection, you can see that there’s an arrow hidden in the white space created by the “E” and “X.” For years, marketers and advertisers have speculated on what this arrow is trying to say.

Some believe it’s saying to customers, “Go ahead,” or “It’s safe.” Others think it means delivery will be speedy and efficient. But what the advertiser intended when creating the logo is not so clear. 

But as it turns out, FedEx had a desire for speed in mind when creating the arrow logo. They wanted to indicate that they were faster than the competition. So, the arrows point in the direction of speed, suggesting “they’re raring to go.”

#2. Coca-Cola’s Shapely Soda Bottle

Coca-Cola’s glass bottle has one of the most recognizable bottle shapes globally. 

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The unique, hourglass shape of the bottle was intended to look feminine and attractive when placed on restaurant tables. 

It’s curvy and slender, calling to mind the silhouette of a woman’s figure.

#3. Tostitos wants you to share with your BFF

Tostitos is a brand of tortilla chips produced by the Frito-Lay corporation. It has an exciting marketing strategy. 

In their ads, they encourage people to buy Tostitos “because everybody loves a party.” They want you to share your chips with friends and family – which is a great way to increase sales.

And yes, it’s in their logo too. Look closely at their business logo, especially the letter T, I, and T. You can see that they symbolize open arms, sharing love, friendship, and Tostitos.

#4. Krispy Kreme’s Hidden Doughnut

Krispy Kreme is an American global doughnut company based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. 

When Krispy Kreme first came to Canada, they had an interesting marketing strategy. They wanted Canadians to think of doughnuts when they heard the word “Krispy Kreme”.

So, in one of their commercials, they ran an ad showing people saying, “Do you want to go grab some Krispy Kreme?” instead of “some doughnuts?”

They ran other ads like that, but then they later switched to the more literal “Do you want some hot, delicious Krispy Kreme doughnuts?”

#5. SFX Magazine Does, too

SFX Magazine is a British magazine dedicated to science fiction and fantasy. By obscuring the bottom of the “F” in their name, the magazine appears to be titled SEX.

That’s probably intended to grab attention unusually. Plus, it’s also a marketing technique that appears to work well with its target audience.

#6. Gilbey’s Gin’s Ice Cube Ads

Most of you remember when the British gin brand tried to take subliminal ads to the next literal level in the 1970s by putting the word “sex” in an ice cube.

That was part of their campaign for Gilbey’s London Dry Gin, to show that it can be drank “straight up” or with ice without losing quality.

They ran TV ads showing people making drinks at home and putting ice cubes into their glasses. The ice cubes looked like this:

The ads were seen as being so suggestive that they had to be changed for the American market due to possible censorship.

#7. Disney and Pirates of the Caribbean

Disney is famous for its subliminal messaging. Many people seem to forget that the “Pirates of the Caribbean” is one of the franchises. And they thought it would be better if they reminded them. 

You can see two torches behind Captain Jack Sparrow’s skull in the film’s poster. Disney intentionally chose this image because they thought it would remind people of Mickey Mouse, one of the films they’re best known for.

Why Use Subliminal Messaging in Your Ad Copy

Let’s get one thing clear. 

Subliminal messaging isn’t about manipulating people into buying something. It’s not a mind-control tool but a marketing technique targeting the subconscious.

In some cases, people might perceive it as being manipulative. But these days, everyone knows the difference between subliminal messaging and being outright deceptive. 

Subliminal messaging only works when it’s subtle and playful. When integrating it into your ads, you must ensure it doesn’t turn off customers. 

Subliminal messaging is used to remind people of the brand name, catch their eye, increase sales significantly or give readers an extra push to buy your product.

The whole idea is to help your target audience make the right choice — hopefully, your solution. 

In other words, it begins with you identifying your target audience and understanding what makes them tick. Then, it’s all about making subtle suggestions that only the subconscious mind can perceive.

You can use subliminal messaging to achieve the following: 

  • Boost brand awareness
  • Build an emotional connection with your audience
  • Remind people of your brand name
  • Get more traffic to your ads by helping them stand out from the crowd 
  • Improve aesthetics 
  • Boost sales

It falls in line with the idea of neuromarketing, which focuses on using marketing strategies to get more people to connect with your brand.

Done correctly, subliminal messaging will place your brand on top of the mind every time your target audience searches for your solution.

When to Use Subliminal Messaging

Subliminal messaging is best used in the following cases: 

  • During a product launch or new ad campaign 
  • When trying to increase brand awareness
  • When you want to remind people of your brand name 
  • When you need creative advertising ideas 
  • To improve the aesthetics of your ad copy
  • When you want to make an existing ad more memorable 
  • In the course of your marketing campaign, when competing for attention in a crowded space (such as social media)
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And other similar situations

There are several ways to go about using subliminal messaging at this stage. And don’t worry; it doesn’t require any special training. You don’t have to be a copywriter or hire one either. 

The Importance of Subliminal Messaging in Ad Copy

Advertisers will prioritize the product’s relationship with its utility and economic impact when drafting an ad copy. But subliminal messaging takes things a step further by focusing on establishing a relationship with each customer by triggering their subconscious mind. This way, your customers will start associating your product with the things they value most.

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When you look at subliminal messages in ads, you realize how integrated they are into the experience of every customer.

That said, here are four main reasons marketers use subliminal messages in their ad copy:  

  • Stimulates Actions: Customers may argue about making rational purchase decisions. But in reality, emotions play a huge role in whatever decision they make. Subliminal messages can help encourage actions by stimulating the right emotions into their subconscious mind.
  • Creates a Lasting Impression: Subliminal messaging is akin to planting a seed in suitable soil. It’s a powerful technique because your message stays with your target audience long after they read or hear it. Your brand will stay on their mind, whether subliminally or otherwise. The ad will create an impact without them even realizing it.
  • Can Persuade Customers to Change their Buying Patterns: Sometimes, people get used to using specific products, and it becomes too hard to convince them to switch brands. For example, your target audience may be loyal users of a particular product category, such as shampoo or energy drinks. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get them to explore other options. You can do this by making subtle suggestions in your ad copy to appeal to their subconscious mind.
  • Give Customers a Reason to Buy: Subliminal messaging does an excellent job of reassuring customers about the benefits they’ll get from buying your product. It can even go as far as encouraging them to make impulse purchases by tapping into various emotional triggers such as nostalgia, aspirations, and other sensations.

Advantages of Using Subliminal Messages in Your Ad Copy

The truth is, subliminal messages have an endless list of benefits for both marketers and consumers. We want to highlight the main ones here:

  • It Appeals to the Subconscious: How do you get a customer to buy your products or services without focusing on the advantages and disadvantages? Subliminal messaging is a great way to tap into the human subconscious. Since most of our decisions are based on sensory data, this can be a powerful tool in persuading customers while bypassing their rational minds.
  • Better ROI: The main aim of an ad is to build trust in the brand while convincing customers that your products or services are the best solutions there is. The whole idea behind subliminal messaging is to make it easy for consumers to associate your brand or products with the things they value most. It’s a powerful tool for marketers because it drives customers towards making the right decision (read: purchasing your products or services). 
  • Easier to Process: The human mind is bombarded with vast amounts of sensory data. A lot of this information can’t be processed consciously. That’s why subliminal messaging works so well, as it can be processed at a subconscious level, allowing customers to soak in the message you’re trying to convey. 
  • It Resonates with Consumers: Subliminal messages often use familiar things to trigger a connection. For instance, a new brand of energy drinks may want to associate itself with “wild youth” and the idea of freedom for its target audience
  • Creates an Impact: Although many people often dismiss subliminal messages as fluff, the truth is they have a significant impact on consumers. That happens because while we can’t always consciously process these messages, our senses are still working on picking up any sensory data, even if it’s in the background. Many subliminal messages are often subtle, making them even more difficult to resist.
  • Easier Marketing Collateral: You can use subliminal messages on your website, print ads, and even product packaging to get the best results.

Disadvantages of Using Subliminal Messages in Your Ad Copy

Unfortunately, there are a few disadvantages to using subliminal messages. They include:

  • Less Tangible: One of the biggest problems with using subliminal messages is that it’s hard to measure their effectiveness. You can’t track conversions or sales because everything happens subconsciously. 
  • Your Customers May Feel Cheated: Since you don’t tell your customers explicitly about using subliminal messaging in your ad, they may feel misled. At the very least, they’ll probably think there’s something fishy with your offer and sales pitch.
  • A Fine Line Creating Subliminal Messages and Stepping Out of Line: The biggest problem with subliminal messages is that marketers need to be careful about how they use them. That happens because these messages can push the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable and may even go as far as being considered unethical.
  • No Outright Persuasion: Subliminal messaging doesn’t outright tell customers what to do or think. Instead, marketers should use it as an enhancer to reinforce the offer and pitch.
  • The Risk of Being Misunderstood: Subliminal messages are often left to the interpretation of the consumer. That means every consumer is at liberty to draw their own conclusion. That can weaken your brand’s image, especially since it may not align with what you wanted to convey.

7 Types of Subliminal Messages

There are seven basic types of subliminal messages that marketers can use in their ad copy. They include:

#1. Backmasking

Backmasking is a technique used in audio recordings. It involves recording a message backward. When played forward, listeners only hear the regular recording. However, it triggers subliminal messaging that the subconscious mind can pick up when played backward.

#2. Hidden Messages

This type of subliminal messaging occurs in print ads, songs, or written content where marketers hide messages behind images or other people/objects included in the ad.

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#3. Borrowed Credibility

To strengthen their message, marketers can use subliminal messaging to borrow the credibility of famous figures or symbols well known by the target audience. For instance, many marketers include celebrities endorsing products they’re selling just because it adds another layer of credibility to the offer.

#4. Sub-audible Messaging

This type of subliminal messaging occurs when a message is recorded in a frequency that’s at least 15 Hz, below the lowest audible level. When played, listeners only hear a buzz or other extraneous noise.

#5. Connotative Language

This last type of subliminal messaging involves using words with connotations to trigger feelings and thoughts on an emotional level. For instance, words like “freedom” and “independence” are associated with wealth because they’re linked to money concepts in the consumer’s mind.

#6. Subtle Images

In this type of subliminal messaging, marketers use images to convey a hidden message.

#7. Mnemonic Imagery

This type of subliminal messaging uses people or objects in the ad that helps bring attention to the hidden message. For example, a business owner may place an image of a wallet next to his contact information to push the idea of paying for his product.

What Do Psychologists Say About Subliminal Advertising? 

According to Art Markman’s Writing for Psychology Today, subliminal messages influence consumers’ decisions. What they don’t do is turn them into zombies or robots like some people love to assume. Instead, marketers use them to influence the emotional state of their target audience.

Remember that you can’t force your customers to buy something they don’t really want. Subliminal messages work best when there’s a clear match between what your offer promises and what it delivers.

Subliminal messages nudge people in the direction they’re already headed. That means you can’t use it to sell something that goes against their values and beliefs.

To summarize everything, subliminal messaging only works to inform decisions and guide actions. If marketers overstep their boundaries by making customers feel like you’re forcing them to buy a product they don’t want, it’ll backfire spectacularly.

7 Best Practises for Using Subliminal Messages in Your Ad Copy

#1: Know and Understand Your Audience

Subliminal messaging is hard work.

Before you run out and start inserting messages behind images, take the time to study your audience.

  • What are their needs? 
  • What are their values? 
  • How do they behave?
  • What are the values? 
  • What do they value the most?
  • How do they behave? 
  • What are their interests?
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You have to ensure your messages are not only to their taste but also in line with their core values and pain points. 

#2: Don’t Be Tacky

Sex sells. 

But that doesn’t mean it can sell everything. 

In fact, good marketers try to avoid using sex to sell their products whenever they can.

Why? Because it’s a cheap trick that doesn’t really work after a point. In addition to that, it’s easy to cross the line from sexy and attractive to tacky and weird with just one mistake.

#3: Don’t Make It Obvious

As with everything in advertising, you have to be subtle.

Don’t push the idea of sex too hard, or your audience will suspect you’re trying to pull a fast one on them.

Be subtle as you possibly can, and you won’t have to worry about your messages being seen as tacky.

#4: Create a Match Between the Message and Offer

As we’ve mentioned earlier, the message has to match the offer.

In fact, if you can find a way to update your ad copy to better align with your product’s USP, it’ll make it much easier for you to attract customers without making them feel like they’re being tricked into buying something.

#5: Use a Vague Yet Positive Message

When you’re embedding your subliminal message, aim for vague and positive.

For instance, if you sell weight-loss products, a vague but positive message may be something like, “You can look as good as her.”

In this case, the use of the word “can” hints to your customers that they have the power to lose weight and look good. Meanwhile, the word “her” hints at their target female body type.

#6: Remember Your Target Demographic

Including images in your subliminal messaging is a great way to boost the effectiveness of our ad. 

However, as we’ve mentioned earlier, you have to make sure those images are subtle and in line with your target audience’s taste.

#7: Mind Your P’s and Q’s

Your message needs to be positive to get the results you’re after.

For instance, “You’re missing out” will make customers feel like you’re trying to trick them into buying something they don’t need.

But, “You’ve got this!” is more likely to make customers want to buy your product.

#8: Keep It Short and Sweet

The shorter the subliminal messages, the less room there is for error.

Plus, it’s easier to embed short messages because you don’t need as much time.

If possible, use simple messages with simple words to present your ideas.

7 Ways to Effectively Use Subliminal Messages in Your Ad Copy

Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of how to use subliminal messages in your ad copy.

#1. Leverage Subliminal Messages in Your Logo

Think of your logo as the face of your business.

When people see it, they should immediately associate it with your brand and everything you stand for.  

Because it’s your face, you want to make sure the subliminal messages in it send the right message.

You can do this by ensuring that it matches your USP and, most importantly, aligns with what your target audience values most.

That’s why it’s important to invest in a good logo design. You want the logo to not only look pretty; but also target your audience’s subconscious mind. 

#2. Use Sub-audible Messaging

Subliminal messaging isn’t just limited to text and images. It can also be integrated into sounds.

Sub-audibles are the best way to sneak a message into your ad copy. All you need to do is to lower the volume, speed, or depth of the sound so it can only be heard on a subliminal level.

Alternatively, try associating the sound with something your target audience values the most. For example, if you’re selling health and wellness products, try including chirping birds in your background music.

Or using a Christmas-themed jingle in your ad to drive sales during the holiday season.

You also want to use visual cues in conjunction with the sub-audible messages for social media ads since most people browse timelines with their sounds off. 

#3. Add Meaning to the Images You Use in the Ads

An average human being is exposed to over 2000 ads a day.

The average human has seven categories of sensory inputs: visual, auditory, taste, touch (surface and pressure), smell (odours and pheromones), vestibular (balance and movement), and kinaesthetic (proprioception).

On top of that, your target audience also has their attention split between multiple screens, including mobile devices, laptops, desktops, tablets, etc.

That makes sub-visual messaging the most effective form of subliminal advertising.

So, how can you integrate sub-visuals into your ad campaign?

You can do this by choosing the perfect images for your ads and sneaking in your subliminal messages.

For example, if you’re selling kids’ toys, don’t just use any image that vaguely shows a kid playing with one.

Instead, try using images that communicate the essence of your brand and encourage children to play more.

You can also use colour psychology to communicate your subliminal messages. Studies show that different colours trigger different emotions and feelings.

For example, studies show that red activates excitement, passion, and desire; blue triggers a sense of security and dependability; green makes people feel hopeful and confident.

Here’re some of the common colours and the emotions they trigger: 

  • Red: energy, physical needs, action, danger, strength, excitement, vigour, appetite, love, courage
  • Green: peace, harmony, freshness, fertility, health, tranquillity 
  • Blue: depth of feeling, responsibility, security, integrity, stability, dependability, calmness
  • Yellow: fun, cheerfulness, optimism, happiness, thought
  • Orange: warmth, hunger, friendliness, fun, hunger, comfort, freedom
  • Purple: mystery, magic, luxury, royalty
  • Pink: care, hope, romance, femininity, respect, hope, gratitude
  • Black: formality, power, strength, awareness, concentration 
  • White: purity, cleanliness, freshness, innocence 
  • Brown: stability, support

When used correctly, colour psychology can help heighten how people perceive your ad. It can also influence the audience’s subconscious and change how they feel about your brand.

As you can see, subliminal messaging isn’t just about using hidden messages. It can be as subtle as using the right colour to elicit the response you want.

#4. Using the Right Fonts

You have an unlimited number of fonts you can use in your ads. But with such a wide range of choices, it can be hard to decide which font matches the feel and look of your brand.

That’s where using the right fonts come in.

For example, if you’re selling children’s toys, you can use whimsical and fun fonts like: 

  • Castellar: a warm, elegant scrip
  • Albion: a fun and modern display font with unique letterforms
  • Impact: a bold and dramatic typeface that looks good on print and web ads 

When picking the right fonts for your ad, make sure you use fonts that create a sense of excitement. It also helps to go with more creative fonts, not the regular boring ones.

#5. Embed Your Message in a Song

Music plays a crucial role in how people perceive brands. In fact, a study conducted by the Neurosciences Institute found that music can affect a person’s memory, mood, and even physical performance.

A simple trick would be to overlay your message over a song. But don’t just record your usual radio jingle.

If you’re selling beauty products, try using soul or R&B songs to subconsciously bring out that hot new trend everyone’s talking about.

#6. Use Typography to Communicate the Message

Typography is the art of arranging text and letters to make written language legible and appealing.

The primary goal of typography is to make your text readable, but it can also be used to enhance the meaning of what you’re trying to communicate.

You can capitalize certain letters in a sentence or strategically obscure some of the letters just like SFX Magazine did.

You can also use all caps or italics to emphasize certain words in your ad. Italics are especially useful when you want to refer back to something you mentioned earlier in the copy.

#7. Get Rid of Distracting Elements

If you’re struggling to figure out how to write an attention-grabbing ad, then try stripping down your ad to its simplest form. 

For example, if you’re selling a luxury dress, show the person wearing the dress. Don’t clutter up your photo with other people or accessories. All you want is for people to focus on the dress and nothing else. 

About the Author

Tom Koh

Tom is the CEO and Principal Consultant of MediaOne, a leading digital marketing agency. He has consulted for MNCs like Canon, Maybank, Capitaland, SingTel, ST Engineering, WWF, Cambridge University, as well as Government organisations like Enterprise Singapore, Ministry of Law, National Galleries, NTUC, e2i, SingHealth. His articles are published and referenced in CNA, Straits Times, MoneyFM, Financial Times, Yahoo! Finance, Hubspot, Zendesk, CIO Advisor.


Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

Social Media




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