Marketing as a multidisciplinary science deals with a variety of areas. If we wanted to define the exact aim of marketing, most of us would say things like facilitating the purchase of goods or sales promotion. This is, actually, not far from the truth. To achieve these aims, marketing strategies use a number of tools and techniques most of us have never heard of, nevertheless, have surely been exposed to and influenced by. A truly interesting technique is the use of subliminal messaging.

I guess most of our readers are familiar with the Columbo series, starring Peter Falk. I am sure, devoted fans didn’t miss the episode entitled ’Double exposure’ in which both the murderer and our beloved detective, sporting the emblematic trench coat ,chose to use this particular type of influencing technique.

What is this all about? The intended information is carefully designed and presented in a way – mostly, by marketing experts – that ensures perception without awareness. Imagine the very common everyday situation when you start humming a tune. Most of the time you are completely unaware of how or why that particular tune penetrated your mind. How come? It might have been a ring tone of the mobile of a passer-by or a tune he or she was humming or it may have been sung on the radio or TV in the background you were barely listening to; a tune you heard a few seconds or minutes ago without even noticing it.

Is subliminal messaging actually, scientifically proven? The very first scientific proof was presented by James Vicary in 1957. This gentleman claimed that by flashing up in movie screens messages like: „Hungry? Eat popcorn!” and „Thirsty? Drink Coca-cola!” he could significantly increase the sales of Coke and popcorn. Vicary later withdrew his statement and according to some sources such research had never actually been carried out.

As the influencing potential of subliminal messages generated wide-scale disapproval they have come to be referred to as ’perception without awareness’.

The remaining question is, whether these messages are harmful for us, whether they actually determine our behaviour and whether we can and should protect ourselves against them.

Let’s recall the last time you went shopping. Do you remember all the ads you saw on the way? What about the ads you were exposed to when passing by all the other shop windows? Dow you remember the music you were unconsciously hearing while looking for goods in the mall or information you heard through the loudspeakers? How about the welcoming fragrances emanating from shops you went by? No idea? This is natural, as these are everyday messages we are totally unaware of receiving. Nonetheless, they have a huge impact upon our lives.

Have you ever pondered upon why you opt for a particular brand? When we pass by milk products displayed on refrigerated shelves in a supermarket, we inevitably fall for some treats. Is this because they are healthy options? Obviously, not. Until we finally reach the refrigerated section in a supermarket we have been bombarded by ads of similar products of the same or of a similar brand or have passed by several placards or ads on the way. Although we are not consciously paying attention to these placards and ads, the number of instances we are exposed to them finally, create the feeling of familiarity. We end up thinking we not only know but also trust the given brand. Thus, it is not by chance that trade signs developed back in the past. A watchmaker’s shop is not a place we very often visit, nevertheless, when we need to, just by recalling the trade signs or other signs on the door we will immediately remember, searching subconsciously for the information, which street or area of town to go to, to find the shop.

How can these messages influence our health? By now, you may guess that with these hidden messages marketing experts aim to target our everyday, routine activities. A few decades ago, nearly every positive film hero had a cigarette dangling from his mouth - our favourite brand, of course. The aim, here, was not to give direct information about the product itself, but simply to manipulate the unaware audience towards, unconsciously, wanting to relate to its’ idolised hero by inevitably adapting his habits. Today, such advertising of tobacco products is strictly banned by law. What about stars of our favourite series? What cars do they drive? What drinks do they prefer? Which fast food restaurant do they go to? What brand mobiles or laptops do they use? What is their daily routine? Where do they go to get some exercise, to have lunch? What sports do they fancy?

All these are pieces of hidden information we are not intended to be aware of but are carefully manipulated to let them influence our everyday behaviours without knowing. Some people consider this dangerous, what’s more, even immoral. Others may think, eventually, it’s the individual that makes his or her own choices and decisions. It’s your decision, your choice.

It is a fact, though, as I have pointed out earlier, that the prior aim of any marketing strategy is to enhance consumption and the sales of products. Another fact is that it is ultimately, our decision whether it is a bar of chocolate, or a kilogram of oranges that lands in our shopping trolley. Nonetheless, if we become aware of the power subliminal messages may have upon influencing our choices, we may have a better chance to choose healthier options and to ignore tempting unhealthy alternatives.

The question may arise, whether we all are equally affected by these hidden messages? We obviously, respond differently. Videos listed below clearly demonstrate, via some harmless but thought-provoking examples, how vulnerable we really are:

Károly Berényi , university assisstant lecturer

Department of Public Health Medicine