Subliminal Marketing Psychology

Subliminal marketing is a psychological tactic used in almost every piece of marketing we see. It’s there to communicate underlying messages via deep connotations and stereotypes that exist in society, and the goal is to tap into the audience’s mind, create a relationship and reinforce a sale.

When you visit a business based website and see groups of people dressed in suits, smiling, that’s subliminal marketing using psychological messages.

sublimenal psychological marketing
 Suits & Smiles
Magazine covers

When you buy a magazine with a pretty airbrushed woman on the cover, that’s subliminal marketing.

When you see a tv advert for a new car driving through countless empty roads, that’s subliminal marketing.

sublimenal psychological marketing
 subliminal marketing

It comes in every form of advertising from print to web, packaging to logos and magazines to movies. You could say that it’s graphic design at its best.

We don’t actually take the time to look and study every advert because they’ve become apart of our daily lives but emotional marketing also has another subliminal level, one where the strategy quietly delves into a taboo subject and questions can be raised.

Subliminal psychological marketing is also:

  • A way of targeting someone you wouldn’t normally advertise to.
  • A way of surpassing immoral associations whilst you’re actually making those associations with the brand

You may not notice the controversial aspect of an advert because they were far too subtle. In these case’s it can create conspiracy theories and intrigue. This clever design and strategy can be a form of subliminal marketing itself, making viewers seek out the advert and actually ask themselves “Is the subliminal element actually there?”

Maybe the human mind works too hard, maybe it was a just a coincidence, or maybe not.

Judge for yourself with the advert below.

Subliminal psychological marketing for Captain Morgan:

First Glance Psychological impact:

This is an advert I found pretty much at random (American music magazine) because it looked like it had room for discussion. At first glance it seems like a photo of your typical bar scene advert with graphical elements composited over the top. 

sublimenal marketing
Captain Morgan advert from a black music culture magazine in the late 90’s

The magazine it was placed in had over 100 pages and at least 50 of them were adverts so the idea is that the reader will casually skip from page to page taking a quick glance at the advert before moving on. All the elements suggest that Captain Morgan means “Good Times”.

On a subliminal level:

Is it just me or is the whole advert just a little sinister!

sublimenal marketing
Red signifies the brand and maybe something else?

If your were to specifically take out Captain Morgan and his hat, the advert would have a different happier, casual and lighter feel but the branded elements themselves bring in an eerie approach.

Is Captain Morgan clearly drawn in and positioned to look devious:

  • Smothered in Red
  • Devilish grin, goatee, moustache and eyebrows.
  • Peering downwards from the top
  • Hiding behind the page
  • Ripping down the page
  • Voyeuristic
  • Entering the real world and temptingly holding the bottle in an almost pouring gesture
  • Practically pouring the drink into the glass from behind
  • Looks like Hook (our biggest connotation with a pirate)
  • Wearing a pirate bandanna (a criminal)
Captain Morgan advert
The Captain is a bit devilish

The psychology behind the red hat

  • Placed on the lady and not the men – Does this mean that the advert is argeting females, or is it making them a target?
  • The hat has been composited into the photo because the hat has had no effect on the lady’s hair
  • She wore the hat on her own accord (its her hand on top of the hat). But is she putting it on or trying to take it off?
Captain Morgan advert
The woman is the focus of the advert, but to who? Men or other women?

Psychology of the Scene

  • 2 guys, one girl (usually and typically it would be even numbers but this 2/1 ratio suggests singletons)
  • A brick wall has been placed into the background to give an urban feeling almost that of an outside alley
  • Adjacent to that is a draping curtain to signify privacy
  • The positioning of both backgrounds creates an encapsulated environment almost like being hidden into the corner under the concealment of the cloak and dagger-like curtain.
  • The three people in the scene sitting pretty close together with the lady in the middle being practically squashed in between
  • The photo is at a slant suggesting a principle of movement and maybe even dizziness but Old Captain Morgan is of course standing straight, tall and sober.
  • The photo has been saturated to a low sepia to produce a darker scene
  • The only vivid colours are those of the woma, drink and brand

Although at first glance it’s a relaxed setting with smiles all around, on closer inspection we see that:

Captain Morgan advert
A darker impression emerges.
  • The girl seems to have a tensed smile whilst looking down at the drink maybe suggesting some hesitation and awkwardness.
  • The guy on the left seems harmless enough except for his positioning which is pretty much in the girls face almost like a brick wall.
  • The guy on the right seems to be very happy all on his own, pretty much disengaged from the group.  As over joyed as he is, he’s fisted hand suggests something a little more tense.  He leans back to let Captain Morgan in and in terms of composition he seems to be more involved with Captain Morgan then the couple on the left.
  • Lastly there’s the fourth person being you!
  • Let’s not over look the out of focus glass at the bottom suggesting that you, the viewer is also there watching everything; (even Captain Morgan) which no one else sees.

Psychology of the Copy – The Captain was here.

Written in red with hand-written typography, the message is small and ambiguous.  It can be seen as friendly and fun or a little creepy. It’s short, simple but highly interpretable in several ways.

Captain Morgan advert
Text in past tense but the moment is still happening. ie. The captain has not gone anywhere, we can see him.


This could all mean nothing except that Captain Morgan is the bringer of good times but upon inspection you cannot deny the alternate messages and mood that’s been created.

  • Is Captain Morgan the devil with an ulterior sinister motive?
  • Is this advert targeted at males or females? Or Both?
  • Are all the people is the advert happy or actually a little uncomfortable if not unstable and not in control of their actions.

You decide!

There is a long list of subliminal messaging material which cause intrigue whether it be good or bad.

One of the most famous being Walt Disney splicing sexual scenes into Disney Cartoons.

sublimenal marketing
Walt Disney animated movie featuring sexually graphic scenes. Can you spot it?

On a better note, Disney Pixar tend to place characters from upcoming movies into their current movies

sublimenal marketing
 Monsters inc feat toy story ball

The Jamaican Beer “Red Stripe” increased sales by 50% within one month after being featured in the film “The Firm”

product placement in marketing

And heres a few more:

graphic design & psychology
 turn your head upside down for this one.
graphic design & psychology
 spot the dollar bill
graphic design & psychology
 The Marlboro Bar Code

Next time you see an advert, packaging, a magazine or even a movie, look for hidden messages within the graphic design principles to spot the hidden psychological messages.


Read more on how to infuse psychology into your marketing


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