The Unconscious Mind May Not Lie, But Does It Buy?


Sigmund Freud brought the idea of the unconscious mind to public attention in 1915. Then came Carl Jung, who explained how the unconscious mind – and emotion – influences behavior. And ever since, consumer psychology and marketing have been inextricably linked

Merriam-Webster defines the subconscious mind as “existing in the part of the mind that a person is not aware of.”

In a recent Psychology Today article, Peter Noel Murray writes: “Jung’s concept is that we can experience events below the threshold of consciousnesses and that they can be absorbed subliminally. Thus, we are unaware of their importance to emotion and reason. When stimulated, they can move up from the unconscious to influence conscious thinking and behavior.”

But perhaps not to the extent we believe. Take the legend, once considered proof positive that targeting the subconscious worked: In the mid-1950s, market researcher James Vicary coined the term “subliminal advertising” to explain the results of his movie screen experiment. The words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” were flashed on the screen at high speed. According to Vicary, the conscious mind couldn’t assimilate the messages, but the subconscious mind could. Apparently, it worked, as the audience members made a beeline for the theater snack bar to load up on the salty and sugary treats. Vicary offered “proof” that sales had increased dramatically after the flashed messages.

But Vicary later admitted to falsifying the results, and many believe he never even conducted the experiment.

So, are millions of advertisers wasting money playing to their customers’ subconscious minds? Not necessarily. Chances are that the final buying decision will most likely involve both the conscious and the unconscious minds, just to make sure it’s the right call.