'Subliminal' frames in the Movies
Public concern over subliminal advertising arose initially because of the alleged actions of James Vicary. Vicary claimed to have increased the sale of a few products after presenting cinema audiences with subliminal material on screen. The outcry from an almost paranoid public was considerable. However no evidence to support the ability of such machinations to influence behaviour has ever been presented to the public. Other pages on this site indicate that academic studies using tachistoscopes and computers to present subliminal and semi-subliminal images, without any 'interference' from any other visual content, can influence a variety of subjective judgements. But, because of differences in the presentation medium, such studies do not support claims about the ability to change behaviour in the short term. Nor do they indicate that presenting subliminal material in a continuously changing context is effective. However, 'subliminal' techniques have been used in the movies, the most recent (circa 2002) being Fight Club. Before considering these, here is some more information re Vicary's claims.
Various authors have, in fact, suggested that Vicary's study was a hoax to drum up interest in his business. These include the editor of Advertising Organizations and Publications: A Resource Guide published in the year 2000. And Vicary's claims may well have been one of the most well rewarded scams in history. But let's get the cat out of the bag. What most writers have been concerned with is not the inclusion of subliminal material in movies, though these do exist as indicated below,. What they have primarily been concerned with has been the insertion of embedded messages in printed media. The Advertising profession deny the existance of 'subliminal' ads in print just as readily as the do the validity of Vicary's study. They are being disingenuous and, like the the editor of Advertising Organizations and Publications, hope that by ingnoring the topic that it will 'disappear'. Hopefully they might come clean and acknowledge that there are considerable variations in practice amongst practitioners - and that some unethical practitioners do make use of subliminal techiques. Once more web pages such as the present pages on this web site can be accessed by the general public as a source of evidence then denial seems a less than successful strategy.
Movies differ markedly from the printed page and this can and will affect they manner in which any 'subliminal' content is perceived. In addition to the complexity of the overall context in which Vicary claimed to have inserted subliminal messages ie an ongoing story line with numerous meaningful components, there are technical reasons why it is unlikely that he could have presented effective messages in movies.
Movie frames are presented at a minimal rate of one frame per twenty-fourth of a second. The gearing of cinema projectors actually doubles this, allowing the showing of each frame twice, so that viewers actually see forty eight frames per second. The rate at which visual images have to be presented to escape conscious attention is considerably less than the frame presentation rate. Therefore, even if an image or a message were presented on a single frame it would still be above the perceptual limit of most attentive viewers - unless is was also very faint. One should note, however, that it might have been possible for Vicary to present to an unsuspecting and naive audience a supraliminal message without there being able to perceive it. That is, he could have presented a message that was just above the limits of perceptual ability. But, because it was a new phenomemon and totally unexpected, it may not have been consciously noted even though it had been perceived.
Although above the subliminal borderline, and therefore perceptible, one frame of film does not appear for a sufficient length of time to permit a viewer time for a clear appraisal of the contents. The exception to this rule of thumb is when attention is already focussed on the specific area of the picture where the 'semi-subliminal' element will appear. This frame based, technical barrier, is a barrier to any film director intent on 'brainwashing' their audience. They will be unable to present truly subliminal material. But, accepting the limitation of the medium, certain film directors have perceived a role for semi-subliminal frames in their movies to provide viewers with an 'out-of-the-ordinary' experience. Or, in some cases, simply to hype up promotional activities. Some movies containing 'subliminal' frames are briefly discussed below. Information about any other movies including semi-subliminal content would be gratefully received and added to this page in due course.
Films such as Hitchock's Psycho made use of extremely slick editing to produce effects similar to those achieved using single frame presentations. But so far as I know he did not intend to insert semi-subliminal material into his films.
The Exorcist was seemingly the first film of note to bring 'subliminal' issues to the attention of the public. Reissued again in 1998, William Friedkin's film made use of numerous special sound effects to influence the emotional reactions of viewers. It also contained a number of what have been referred to as quasi-subliminal inserts to add to its 'fear quotient'. The term quasi-subliminal is equivalent to semi-subliminal and indicates that these inserts were not truly subliminal. And, of course, they never could be, given the rate at which frames are presented using standard projectors.
Another two films by Friedkin, Cruising, distributed in 1980, and a more recent erotic thriller, Jade, based on a script by Joe Eszterhas and distributed in 1998, also use similar semi-subliminal inserts. Cruising used the frames as a subversive means of evading censorship and those in Jade offered clues to a killer's identity.
Other films such as the mundane Agency and John Carpenter's alien invasion movie They Live, together with a number of spin-off books, have been based upon subliminal themes or contained semi-subliminal frames. For example, Alain Resnais' harrowing 1955 documentary Night and Fog, about The Holocaust, and Sidney Lumet's The Pawnbroker, about a concentration camp survivor, also made use of semi-subliminal inserts to great effect, the latter providing 'flashback memories' for Rod Steiger.
At least three Disney movies (Aladdin, The Lion King and The Little Mermaid) were reputed to have incorporated 'subliminal messages' before they were withdrawn and reissued, presumably after the offending messages had been removed. It has been suggested that 'movie hackers' introduced these semi-subliminal elements.
On the left is an extract from a frame reputed to come from the Lion King. The scattering of clouds is suggestive of the word Sex, or possibly, as one or two commentators have suggested, SFX.
Below right is an extract from another Disney film frame. In the background one can see a naked woman framed in the window.
An animated version of the Lion King clip and semi-subliminal images from other Disney movies can be seen by clicking here. The original site seems to have been closed down (or possibly the page name has changed). Conspiracy theorists might prefer to think that the page no longer exists because of the embarrassment such revelations and rumours cause Disney. Click on the link referred to and then follow through links to visual messages/visual embeds at the foot of the page. On the visual embed page you will find a further link to the Lion King clip and other interesting embedded material. The site also contains other pertinent information about other forms of 'subliminal' and subliminal communications.
Given the nature of Disney cartoon films, the age range of the majority of their audience, the infrequency of the embedded elements as they appear in the movies, and the lack of a sound rationale for displaying such a mixture of embedded elements, it seems highly implausible that these frames were part of a systematic attempt to associate sex with Disney cartoons. The hacker/joker suggestion is probably the most likely explanation.
For any embedded elements to have any possibility of 'working' and producing a meaningful association in the mind of viewers they would have to be repeated numerous times AND, moreover, be presented in conjunction with a specific feature of the movie or the Disney brand. Neither of these latter elements are present in the frame extracts. The inserts are at best idiosyncratic pairings of sexual material with cartoon characters and at worst the attempt of an amateur in the field of subliminal embedding who failed to adhere to one of the basic rules of subliminal embedding - ensure that your message/image is not readily apparent to perceptive individuals. If conscious recognition of the message or image occurs, as was obviously the case with the Disney movies for some of the audience, then this is most likely to nullify the intended message. Worse still, if viewers took exception to the message, as many parents did, then it could boomerang on those who produced them.
Other recent movies containing 'subliminal' scenes include Silence of the Lambs. To be more accurate Silence of the Lambs contains a 'doctored' scene in which some versions of the film contained a black tongue-like image superimposed on the mouth of 8*****. Don't expect to find this on DVD or video as these contain a different version of the scene referred to. Try older versions of the move and possibly videotapes of films presented on cable or TV. In due course a streaming video of the scene will be included on this page.
Whether this 'doctoring' was intended to enhance an emotional response to the scene or to make a 'comment on the actresses sexuality is uncertain. Another movie that has framed inserts as part of the story line - and a whole host, apparently, of additional embedded elements in other scenes - is Fight Club (see the various web sites that have arisen around this cult film).
Fight Club contains notable inserts mimicking an activity attributed to one of the lead characters, an insomniac. At night, whilst unable to sleep, he holds down a job as a movie projectionist. As an act of rebellion he splices frames of pornographic material into the movies he shows. The director of Fight Club did likewise, presumably for artistic reasons. However, if you wish to be cynical, it could have been simply to add a bit of 'spice' to the movie or generate some street buzz to complement advertising hype. Given the erotic nature of the nude inserts their presence may also have increased interest or arousal levels at crucial points in the film. Whatever the justification offered for the inclusion of these 'subliminal' frames in Fight Club, their use will help lead viewers, whether closely attending to the content of the movie or not, to conclude this is a 'sexy' movie.
Whilst Fight Club contains violence and sexual material it is not a pornographic movie in any reasonable sense of the term. But not to be outdone, the use of 'subliminal' content was matched by a recent pornographic movies. According to an AVN (Adult Vidio News) report in June 2001, Vivid Interactive made used of single frame inserts in at least one of their DVDs'. Since the film was devoted to sexual content Vivid's 'subliminal' frame was merely to advertise the brand. A 'subliminal' frame containing the injunction 'Buy Vivid ' was apparently inserted in the middle of a sex scene (no pun intended - honest!).
'Subliminal' content in other electronic media
There are numerous reports of subliminal messages in media other than film. Unlike film, truly subliminal messages can be embedded in auditory material on CD, tape, etc. That is, the messages can be below the level of perceptual ability. As a result of the (false) beliefs surrounding the efficacy of subliminal communications a whole business has developed around the reputed benefits of embedding subliminal sounds or messages in the sound tracks of records and CDs. But, despite some high profile court cases, such as that involving the rock band Judas Priest, in general concerns about the ability of embedded messages in records, CD's etc. to influence behaviour are completely unfounded.
Unlike the field of printed advertising, where there has been little empirical research, the use of embedded messages in audio tapes have been extensively investigated in experimental studies. The conclusions drawn from such research is unequivocal and clearly indicates that any effects due to embedding audio messages into tapes, CD's and other soundtracks are the result of the placebo effect i.e. the effects are due to the expectations of the listener and not due to the embedded messages. Any effects are unrelated to whatever is embedded in the soundtrack. This is clearly demonstrated in studies misleading users as to the contents ot the tapes they will be listening to. If they believe they are listening to tapes containing subliminal messages about weight loss even though the taped messages focus on giving up smoking, some listeners still lose weight and so on. Changes are due to the beliefs of the listener, not the content of the tapes. The British Psychology Society has produced a short and readable review of the research literature and additional commentary plus links to a complete article on the subject can be found on the Judas Priest page.
Tv commercials have also occasionally been reported as containing subliminal elements and a number of these have resulted in court cases in countries and states where legislation debars the use of such material. In the UK the author has collected a few examples but, due to the time constraints involved in viewing such material, probably underestimates the extent of their use. However, given the relative rarity of TV commercials compared with printed ads, a reasonable estimate would barely reach into double figures over a period of years.
With public knowledge of subliminal techniques and the ease with which it is possible to video TV commercials and play them frame by frame the likelihood of 'subliminal' communications escaping attention is probably limited. This awareness - allied with an inappropriate definition of subliminal advertising , however, did not seem to be sufficient to prevent a furore when Republicans producing the RATS party political broadcast in 2001. That it appeared to be botched and resulted in a lot of adverse publicity may have been due to the incompetence of those who produced the programme. However, one might also consider two alternative notions if the furore resulted from a strategic decision on the part of the advertisers responsible.
First, that this message was intended to be perceived as there was nothing remotely subliminal about the appearance of the word RATS on screen. Such a message would appeal to supporters of Bush even if it was likely to fail to influence other viewers. One might also consider that the message was calculated to create a publicity 'buzz' or, less likely,to detract from other more subtle messages (conspiracy theorists take note and investigate further).
Ad agencies are pretty good at producing distracting elements in their ads when they wish to do so and can easily direct the attention of viewers away from pertinent information. See for example the introductory AAAA ad: the caption draws attention to sex when the 'subliminal' content was, in fact, negative mood inducing 'faces'. And the series of ads for Seagram's capitalising on the same type of distracting technique.
A second, more likely, explanation relates to the problem of definition noted above. If the RAT was not subliminal - and clearly it was not - then additional information reported on the Internet indicates it may simply have been part of a collage of images. If this were the case, and ones definition of subliminal was broader than the standard psychological definition ie incorporating any element that might be overlooked ( rather than designed to be presented below the level of perceptual recognition ) then, when stimuli such as RATS are recognised, one will undoubtedly cry 'Subliminal!' from the rooftops. The furore about the RATS was seemingly based on the latter (flawed) definition of what constitutes a subliminal image.
To support such an interpretation one need only refer to Abby Aaron, on the Little Miss Soapbox web site. Abby reported that not only was RATS easily visible when one looked, there was a large number of other words whizzing around the screen during the course of the Bush political party broadcast. Criticism has apparently focussed on only one of many words, any or all of which could have formed associations with other information on screen. As not all of these words seemed to be related to specific parties, the likelihood that there was an expectation that viewers would form a mental association between Bush's opponents and RATS is low. However, that is not to say that those who produced the broadcast were not aware of the 'match' between RATS and other elements of their programme. However, although any observant person with partisan loyalty would no doubt have had a laugh at the association they might also have failed to recognise that other people would recognise the same association but react differently. The Bush camp justifiably got egg on their faces because of this oversight.
Just to pique your curiosity, other political party broadcasts in other countries have managed to produce broadcasts that contained much more subtle elements. So far they have managed to keep their activities from the public gaze. Watch the new.htm page for further revelations sometime in late 2002.
Concerns have also been expressed about the incorporation of subliminal messages into video games, computer programmes, DVD's and multimedia programmes. These concerns may become more pertinent in the future as technology improves and advertising agencies experiment with embedded and semi-subliminal material on the Internet and interactive TV. Yahoo for example made use of their logo, together with other information, to produce an internet banner that closely resembled a subliminal al. .
The Yahoo ad was set to show two frames, one for the minimal period of time on screen that can be set using animation timers. This is followed up with a second frame containing additional information. Neither frame made sense on its own. Only when one caried over information from one frame to the next did it make sense - preconsciously or subliminally.
The Yahoo ad is, once again, not truly subliminal, but it was clearly presented in a manner that would make it difficult to perceive unless one was paying close attention. [Thanks to Clint Garwood for drawing this to my attention. ] Perhaps it was not intentionally produced to manipulate the judgements of viewers - but I doubt it. If the intention was simply to attract attention and without presenting a composite message about Yahoo why should one key element of the message be spread over two images in such a manner that only preconscious processing of the content would lead one to 'recognise' it. The ad was clearly semi-subliminal in nature and its core meaning only likely to be recognised preconsciously by most viewers.
Currently, as is the case with movies, it is not technically possible to present visual material on a standard TV screen or a computer monitor below the visual limits of the viewer. Any material embedded in a TV commercial (or programme) or Internet ad is thus potentially visible to the attentive viewer. The embedded material would be semi-subliminal at best, as is the case with the adverts illustrated on the dozens of other pages featured on the subliminalworld web site. However, one should note one disturbing aspect of TV presentations. Normal images are gradually 'built up' on screen, line by line. There are, in fact, two sets of lines presenting two, overlapping, half images. It is not beyond the bounds of imagination to imagine embedded messages being presented on only half of the screen content. Psychological studies presenting two separate images to the two separate visual fields (left side of each eye and right side of each eye) lead to the conscious recognition of only one or other of the two images. Nevertheless, the second, unrecognised, image still manages to influence the judgements of the viewers. A similar phenomenon with split screen images could produce conscious recognition of only one of these images. To ensure that the 'subliminal' message was not recognised there would also have to be some degree of distraction or else the 'subliminal' image would need to be rather faint. Various studies, however, show that even faint, vitually illegible images, can influence viewers judgements. See the Experts.htm page for more information and the bibliography pages for references.
1) At a later date some additional multi-media material including examples of TV commercials and relevant court cases will be added to this page.
2) If you would like to try out your own personal copy of a Subliminal Message programme then check out the Download Page. The programmes are recommended just for fun. If you perceive any benefits from using them this will be most likely be because of the placebo effect, common in medical practice, rather than from the processing of 'subliminal' messages. Simple as the injunctions and statements included in these programmes may seem, they are considerably more complex than the 'simple' emotive images embedded in the ads and packaging illustrated on this site and thus much more difficult to process without conscious attention.
Quick Links to other sites referred to in the discussion material on this page and others with relevant information.
Last Revised: 3rd January, 2003