Subliminal Advertising

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

You probably think that because you're reading All The Tropes, we're going to do something subversive when explaining the topic of advertising that you're only supposed to notice subconsciously. You're a little uneasy, because you haven't spotted it yet, and you're worried that those Troper people could be up to... anything. It could leap out at you at any moment, causing you to snort your beverage of choice out through your nose in an embarrassing fashion.

Wish we could help you with that anxiety.

See also Subliminal Seduction.

Examples of Subliminal Advertising include:


  • This even seems to happen within commercials, at least in the case of Vitamin Water. Most commercials featuring an athlete endorser will have a reference to another of the endorser's sponsors. For example: the jockey Shaquille O'Neal boxes out is wearing the Radio Shack symbol, and LeBron James references a case called 'Niky v. Oregon' (guess where Nike is based).

Anime and Manga


  • A Lee Majors Film, The Agency about an ad agency which was running ads for a politician that showed that his competitor for the election had some undesirable quality, like being spawn of the devil or some such equivalent, while their candidate was patriotic and 100% American. This supposedly caused people to vote against the disfavored candidate The ads were run as part of fraction of a second subliminal ads during an unrelated product, like deodorant. This movie pointed out that subliminal ads, despite opinion to the contrary, are not illegal.
  • The Josie and The Pussycats film revolved around the recording industry hiding subliminal advertising in pop music. The film itself even had at least one:

Josie and the Pussycats is the Best Movie Ever! Join The Army.

  • One of the ways the aliens in They Live! control humanity. You can only truly see what it says by wearing special glasses or contact lenses.


  • In Moving Pictures, CMOT Dibbler, with the skewed but determined logic that characterises the Discworld, reasons that if a single picture you don't even see can make people want to buy something, five solid minutes of it must be even more effective.

Live-Action TV

  • The 1960s TV show Hazel did one about some guys that supposedly created irresistable subliminal ads, in which they ran a film where 'SP' would appear briefly, and the guy speaking to the crowd (who was selling some stock for a company called 'Brazilian') because, at the end of the message, would say, "And Buy Brazilian". So one guy who didn't know he was being marketed to for a stock, was buying Brazilian Nuts. The guys doing this get arrested for it. Which brings us to...
  • A Fake Commercial for the Psi Corps in Babylon 5 famously ends with a subliminal message: "The Psi Corps is your friend. Trust the Corps."
  • Serenity. Inverted in that the subliminal message is not an ad in itself, just imbedded within one - the "instructions" for River to go into Waif Fu mode are implanted in a Fruity Oaty Bars commercial.
  • An episode of NCIS didn't have this as advertising, but it was part of the killer's MO. He'd send the team a video with images cluing them to the site of the next murder flashing up for a split second.
  • QI has a segment about subliminal advertising, starting with Stephen Fry asking the panel how he could get the audience to vote for him as Pope without even realizing it, and ending with:

Stephen Fry: So, there you have it. Subliminal advertising doesn't -- stephenfryforpope -- work.

Video Games

  • Parodied in Psychonauts level Lungfishopolis, where the stage is regularly interrupted by television broadcasts decrying the menace of Goggalor. Each of these are ended with a quickly worded, less audible set of instructions about kidnapping children.
  • Found in the Atari Lynx version of Rampage: There are no (Buy a Lynx) subliminal messages (Or two) in this game (Buy a Lynx).

Western Animation

  • The Simpsons parodied this in one episode where people suddenly had the urge to join the Navy after watching a music video ad of 3 exotic women singing in a made up language ("Yvan eht nioj!"). Lisa figures out the subliminal message by playing the video in reverse, where the lyrics were actually saying "Join the Navy!"
    • Further parodying it in the same episode as the subliminal advertising was part of a 'three pronged' advertising plan: Subliminal, "Liminal" and "Superliminal", which apparently was shouting at random people "Hey you! Join the navy!"
  • Parodied in Family Guy episode "Mr. Griffin Goes To Washington" when a clip Lassie contains subliminal advertising of an cigarette company executive telling the viewers to smoke.
    • "smoke...smoke...Are you smoking yet!?"
      • "Smoke." "Not now, Jerry."

Real Life

  • The Real Life example that created this trope: In 1957, a market researcher named James Vicary (who later coined the term "subliminal advertising") performed an experiment at a movie theater in New Jersey. The words "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat popcorn" would be flashed on the screen for 1/3000 of a second at five second intervals. Vicary alleged that sales of Coca-Cola and popcorn increased at that theater by 57.8% and 18.1%, respectively. Although the results have never been replicated, and Vicary himself later admitted to faking his results, conspiracy theories pertaining to subliminal messages persist to this day, and have inspired countless writers and filmmakers.
    • So instead of subliminal advertising it is subliminal scaring in horror movies. As a scene is supposed to become more frightening, more gruesome frames are added for more frightening scenes (such as unnerving a deadly animal) for the serial killer breaking in, they instead use animals being slaughtered instead.
    • Some studies have indicated that while such explicit instructions are generally ineffective, images such as those mentioned above actually work. So instead of saying "Drink Coca-Cola", they would just 'splice in' some subliminal images of a 'desert mirage' or other thirst-inducing imagery into an actual Coke commercial. Suddenly their audience find themselves feeling very thirsty as they look at that bottle...
  • In 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation made an experiment with subliminal advertising: during a popular show called Close-up, they broadcast the message "Phone now" 352 times. Nobody called. When asked to guess the message, viewers sent close to 500 letters, but none of them had the right answer.
  • In 1978, a TV station in Wichita, Kansas ran a subliminal message telling the BTK killer to turn himself in. It didn't work.
  • There are now billboards that have a special speaker in them so that it'll only project sound to a certain spot on the street. This means you can quite happily be walking along until you reach that spot and suddenly it sounds like somebody whispered in your ear something like "drink coke" when nobody is near you.
  • A mid 90s Fanta commercial tried to push the idea that Fanta just tastes good and quenches thirst and doesn't make you cool, while simultaneously co-opting the youth culture of the time by having a trendily dressed black teenager deliver the message. Just after he says "it will not make me popular", small text reading "yes it will" flashes on the screen.
  • An advertisement poster for Coca-Cola has an image of a woman about to perform fellatio hidden in one of the ice cubes. This one was so graphic, it DIDN'T make it past the radar and was recalled.