The Usability Of Subliminal Messages English Language Essay

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This study focuses on the usability of subliminal messages as an unconscious method in vocabulary teaching. The experiment carried out, discovers whether subliminal messages are effective in teaching a language or help learners to acquire a language. Because of some limitations confronted in this study, it is recommended for further information to cover more participants in a more detailed way and the participants should be exposed to materials used in experiment a little more time in order to shed more light on the usability of subliminal messages in vocabulary teaching.

Keywords: subliminal, subliminal messages, vocabulary, teaching, learning, education, stimuli


1.1 Background

1.1.1 History of Subliminal Messages

Subliminal messages and perception are considered to have common linkage to the idea of mind control and the origins of this concept appear at the very early eras. Mind control is where an individual or group of individuals can be controlled without their awareness. It is perception below the individual's/group's threshold. It is also the idea that people can be made to do things they would not ordinarily do. (Cane, 1996)

Two basic ways are conceptualized as visual and audial in the way of creating subliminal messages. Since around the 5th century B.C., the early Greeks created the science of rhetoric in order to affect people. By synthesizing pieces of mind-convincing data into syntactic structures, people can be manipulated by the language they make use of. A person can be persuaded one way or another (without perhaps knowing) if they see or hear certain parts of information (i.e. words, fragments, or sentences) located strategically. Considering the fact that social psychology achieved notable experimental findings and processing information, examination of subliminal perception has existed throughout the history. Examinations and studies about subliminal messages and mind-control continue to be conveyed in order to understand the limits and capabilities of these techniques.

One of the traces of modern usage of audial subliminal messages can be seen in BBC Radio broadcast in 1920s. Since the people of the age thought the radio as a sinister device, BBC tried to use subliminal messages in their broadcast in order to change people's thoughts and they succeeded in doing so. They released the track seeming completely innocent but it had something tricky, which could be revealed when it was played backwards. That tricky subliminal message was "This is not a noose, no really it's not". Society can easily figure out the efficiency of the BBC's subliminal message because BBC continues broadcasting. As Cane stated the BBC believed the subconscious could pick up backward messages in ordinary speech.

Apart from audial subliminal message, an experiment of using of visual messages appears in the field of advertisements, which pioneers today's usage of subliminal messages as an advertisement tool. A marketing researcher named James Vicary embedded flashing sentences as "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Eat Popcorn" into a movie. The statistics showed an increase in the sale rates by 18% in coke and by 58 % in popcorn. Elliston concludes that subliminal messages can be used in every possible field from governmental subjects to educational topics. In recent years, the concept of subliminal perception has been used to define any situation in which unnoticed stimuli are perceived. Subliminal messages can be seen in today's advertisements if we investigate elaborately.

1.1.2. Subliminal messages and education

Education is a supraliminal concept. What has been intended to teach is provided directly by a curriculum with the help of teachers. There are no predetermined subconscious methods in any subject or topic of educational institutions. According to the results gained through the usage of subliminal messages in different areas, one can come to the conclusion that outcomes of these researches can be attributed to education field.

Innovations and inventions are generally served as a means of gaining prosperity for people. The destiny of subliminal message technique is evaluated in the same way. Since the first usage of subliminal messages, it has been used to manipulate the people and affect their choices. It has served to mankind as an advertisement tool. But there were some researches conveyed about the using of the subliminal messages in education. One of them is conveyed by Silverman in 1970s in the field of Business Law education. Silverman states that the results of the present study, in combination with parallel results from other studies, indicate that the subliminal presentation of certain messages, when combined with the procedure detailed in this study, may enhance the effectiveness of the teaching process. Detailed scrutiny of this study will be dealt with in the Literature Review part.

1.2 Purpose and Rationale

For a lot of language learners vocabulary learning is a demanding and challenging process. They have to deal with lots of vocabulary learning methods, therefore; they easily get confused and bored. These reasons lead them to avoid learning a language and maybe give up. Based on recent researches people can learn a lot of things through unconscious methods without noticing it. One of these methods is subliminal messages.

Subliminal message method is generally used for advertisement purposes but using it in education, specifically vocabulary teaching in language education, could be beneficial for language learners. Through this method, learners hardly do anything to learn vocabulary items consciously, which encourages them. Officially subliminal message method is not used in education systems. The main purpose of this experiment is to monitor whether subliminal message method works in vocabulary teaching or not. If the method is proved as a teaching method, another question will be raised, which is permanency of the learning.

1.3 Limitations

The targeted experiment will be held in four weeks but time can be a limitation for the conductors. The managements of the state's schools in which the research will be conducted, can be restrictive towards the aims of the experiment. In such limitations, participants of the experiments can be replaced with another group of students who shows the desired aspect of the study.


Subliminal message concept has been tried to be explained throughout the history. One of the researchers of this field, Kenneth (1977) clarifies its meaning as in the following: "Subliminal messages are messages that are shown at a speed so rapid that their contents cannot be consciously detected. These messages register subconsciously and can have ameliorative, neutral, or negative effects depending on their contents."

In his article "Subliminal Scares", Elliston (1999) explained the situation in 1950s as "For the average American, there was plenty to be afraid of in the 1950s. Rock 'n' roll. "Reefer Madness." The atom bomb. "Red" China. The Soviets and their spacecraft Sputnik. As people in the United States struggled to make sense of a rapidly changing world, a controversial breakthrough in broadcast technology called "subliminal projection" pushed the national paranoia index through the roof." As parallel to this view Kenneth (1977) stated that in 1950's, a sensation of subliminal advertisement on television created something of a furor.

In 1976 Kenneth conducted an experiment using subliminal messages with an educational purpose. In the experiment, sixty students were chosen for their willingness to participate in an experiment including subliminal stimuli. The structure of the experiment was carefully explained beforehand to meet the requirements of informed assent. Specifically, participants were given the following as the instruction:

"As part of the study, students will be shown a message on a screen at a speed so rapid that they will be unable to consciously detect it. They will see only a flicker of light. The message, however, will register subconsciously. Research has shown that when certain messages are viewed in this fashion they can have a beneficial effect. We will be studying the effects of three different messages in order to see if they can improve academic performance. After the study is completed, each student will be told the message that he was receiving."

After the process, each student enrolled in one of two introductory business law courses taught by the experimenter during the six week summer session at Queens College. Students were promised one point between the two. On the midterm examination, the results were no longer significant, although they indicated a trend at the .11 level similar to the results from the first exam. On the final examination, the differences were no longer significant and no discernible trend was apparent. This seems to suggest that the experimental messages, in addition to improving grades, had some effect on reducing students' test anxiety, at least during the first portion of the course.

Student evaluations of both course and instructor were significantly higher for all groups as contrasted to prior classes. In short, students did better, they got more out of the course, and they enjoyed the process. As a result of the experiment, Kenneth concluded that after three weeks of exposure to subliminal messages, students gain better grades.

Packard (1957) pointed out the delusive nature of the new methods: "Large-scale efforts are being made, often with impressive success, to channel our unthinking habits, our purchasing decisions, and our thought processes.... Typically these efforts take place beneath our level of awareness; so that the appeals which move us are often, in a sense, hidden." In his book The Hidden Persuaders, Packard explained the new techniques of advertising to thousands of American.

At the same period with publishing date of Packard's Book, Vicary (1957) declared that he had invented a subliminal projection machine which is capable of flashing unnoticeable messages within big-screen movies. Many people reacted suspiciously when first hearing of the technique, asking "What's the point of an ad you can't see?" But Vicary claimed that he have conducted a six-week test run at a theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey that caused a noticeable increase in sales. The messages "Eat Popcorn" and "Drink Coke" flashed on the screen every five seconds during the feature films, appearing so briefly that they were not consciously perceived by the viewers. Vicary said that the subliminals increased sales of cola by 18% and of popcorn by 58%. Though Vicary did not produce many details or records of his experiment, the notion that subliminal communication could affect people's thinking and actions spread quickly. (Even today, forty years later, no subliminal experiment has replicated the success Vicary claimed to have had with the technique.)

According to the session carried out by The National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters with the participation of 300 members, "A very serious problem is the reaction of the public to having subliminal advertising thrust upon them. There may well be grave concern over the idea of advertising which affects people below their level of conscious awareness, so that they are not able to exercise conscious control over their acceptance or rejection of the messages." (Elliston, 1999)

In his book named "A Brave New World", British author Aldous Huxley who wrote some popular future-looking works, viewed subliminal persuasion as a potential threatening development. He pointed out his preoccupations about subliminal persuasion as in the following sentences in an American TV Program: "I feel very strongly that we mustn't be caught by surprise by our own advance in technology. This has happened again and again in history with technology's advance, and this changes social conditions and suddenly people have found themselves in a situation which they didn't foresee and doing all sorts of things they didn't really want to do." (NY Times, 1958)

Y.E Gratz (1984) expresses his thoughts in "The Ethics of Subliminal Communication" with the help of a journal as "We are immersed by media messages. Just how many are subliminal, no one knows. But, as an article in the Wall Street Journal advises, if a message is drummed into us enough, whether consciously or unconsciously, it is likely to have an effect. The potential for both good and bad seem to be present in the area of subliminal communication. As people become more and more aware of this type of communication, the effectiveness, if any, may become non-existent."

What was reported on the field of subliminal messages always created an uneasy perception among the people who felt disturbed by the hidden manipulation of slogans. According to the outcomes of a survey conducted in 1958, about 42 percent of the participants had knowledge of this technique. Half of them thought subliminal message method was unethical whereas other half considered this technique harmless. Surprisingly, 69 percent of the people who has the notion of subliminal messages being harmless admitted that they would watch the TV programs with the knowledge of these programs' using subliminal messages.

Ralph Haber (1959), the Yale researcher who conducted the survey, concluded that "the fact that half the people who had heard of subliminal advertising thought there would be nothing wrong with it, in spite of the tenor of recent mass media attack on it, shows that the man on the street is not so frightened of subliminal advertising as are the more intellectual writers." But sufficient number of people was frightened by the concept of mind controlling invasion that it was only a matter of time before the nation's leaders would be forced to deal with the issue.

Previous research on this topic is limited in the World. However, there have been unofficially conducted many research about this topic around the world. As seen so far, using subliminal messages in marketing or affecting people mind in order to sell stuff to them is very common. But using it for educational purposes is limited. This study aims to use something made use of with misleading purposes in order to teach students, which is like using atomic bomb not for destroying but for obtaining energy.