Working Below the Surface to Sell

Visual Theory

“Subliminal” marketing has a bad connotation, but using sensory and psychological cues can boost your business.

Say ‘subliminal marketing’ and people get nervous. Ever since James Vicary claimed that he vastly increased movie theater concessions by flashing the message “Hungry? Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” for fractions of a second in between the frames of a movie, people have been nervous about being influenced by messages they can’t see.

Of course, Vicary later admitted that the study was a hoax, but concern about it was enough for the Federal Trade Commission to get involved, forbidding U.S. marketers to “embed advertising with so-called subliminal messages that could affect consumer behavior. However, most consumer behavior experts have concluded that such methods aren’t effective,” according to the commission’s website,

However, savvy marketers realize that a successful selling process often has sensory cues as well as promotional and personal interaction, says Nancy Harhut, chief creative officer of Wilde Agency, which combines social scientists’ insights about human behavior with digital and direct marketing best practices in order to get people to act.

“When I talk about advertising, I often quote the statistic that 95 percent of purchase decision making takes place in the subconscious mind,” she says. “Social scientists and behavioral economists say that we’ve developed these behaviors over time as a way to conserve mental energy because we can’t really weigh every bit of information in every day-to-day decision.”

Such sensory cues can be used everywhere from your marketing to your place of business. By using stimuli beyond traditional print, broadcast, and merchandising initiatives, you can help customers and prospects act while giving them a more satisfying experience overall, especially in a few important areas.

Store Layout and Decor

In a world where more bricks-and-mortar businesses are increasingly facing online competition, your place of business can be a true competitive advantage. The recent PwC report Total Retail 2015: Retailers and the Age of Disruption, found that 60 percent want to see and touch items before purchasing them, while quicker access to products (20 percent) and enjoying the setting of a retail store (13 percent) were also important to consumers. Pay attention to your place of business, and make it a place where people want to visit and stay.


Ambient elements can also make a difference. One 1998 University of Florida study found that, while using music in advertising wasn’t enough on its own to get customers to buy, it could actually change their mood while they were listening to a commercial. A 2013 study found that simple scents like vanilla or chocolate can increase customer spending.


Harhut says that, on price lists, it’s a good idea to list the most expensive item first. That becomes the “anchor” against which everything else is measured, she says.

“Everything else gets evaluated against it, so if you put your most expensive one first and then list the one that’s less expensive, it looks like a better deal,” she says.


Fear of missing out—commonly called FOMO—is a real thing. Harhut says we don’t want to end up paying for a bad decision in money or missed opportunity. So, while it’s a good idea to discuss benefits in your marketing, a few indications of how you help avoid missing out or incurring a consequence can also be helpful—even if it’s done subtly.

“Instead of saying ‘Take advantage of our product,’ you would instead say, ‘Don’t miss your chance to use our product.’ It’s a subtle difference, but it’s enough to activate that notion of loss aversion,” she says.

By paying attention to sensory, emotional and environmental cues, you can further build your brand image in the mind of your customer in an ethical, effective manner. Paying attention to the entire brand experience is simply good business that further builds customer trust.

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