How does subliminal conditioning affect me?


In advertising, the attractiveness of models is used specifically to sell a product. As early as 1968, Smith and Engel showed in an experiment that men thought a car was much faster, more stylish and more attractive when a beautiful woman could be seen with the car. When the men were subsequently informed about the positive effect the woman had on the judgment of the car, they did not believe that the woman's mere presence could have influenced their opinion. Nevertheless, it is certain that the positive feelings when looking at the woman were associated with the car unnoticed and thus influenced the judgment. This phenomenon has been known as classical conditioning since the beginning of the 20th century. Ivan Pavlov accidentally discovered in an experiment with a dog that it is possible to establish an association between two stimuli that were originally unrelated to each other.

There are various conditions that should also be met in advertising so that the attempt to influence with the help of classic conditioning is effective:

  • The neutral stimulus should be presented in temporal and spatial proximity to the unconditioned stimulus (contiguity) so that a strong association can arise between them.
  • It is also important that the neutral stimulus (e.g. the car) is presented before the unconditioned one (e.g. the woman), i.e. announces it. If the conditioned stimulus (e.g. the car) is often not presented to the unconditioned (e.g. the woman), the conditioned reaction can even be canceled.
  • Classical conditioning is most effective when the neutral stimulus is new. In this case, there are still no other associations that can interfere with the conditioning process.
  • The connection between neutral and unconditioned stimulus becomes stronger the more often they are presented together.

All in all, apart from the last point, these conditions are rarely implemented in advertising. For example, it often remains unclear which product is being advertised until the end of the commercial ("mystery ad"). In addition, in advertising, care must be taken to ensure that the unconditioned stimuli with which the products are associated differ. If the similarity is too great, generalization occurs, so that similar stimuli are reacted to with the same learned behavior. This effect is undesirable with competing products, as one's own product should stand out from others and free riders should not have the opportunity to exploit the positive image of other products (discrimination).

The effect of classic conditioning in everyday life can be illustrated using the example of credit cards. With credit cards, there is a positive feeling immediately after the purchase (contiguity). The negative aspect of the costs incurred is not taken into account and only becomes significant later when the invoice is received. In 1986, Feinberg conducted an experiment to investigate the influence of credit cards and the feelings associated with them.


Feinberg, R.A. (1986). Credit cards as spending faciliating stimuli. Journal of Consumer Research, 13, 348-356.

Felser, G. (1997). Advertising and Consumer Psychology: An Introduction. Heidelberg: spectrum.

Felser, G., Kaupp, P., & Pepels, W. (1999). Buyer behavior. Cologne: Fortis Verlag.

Kardes, F. R. (1999). Consumer Behavior and Managerial Decision Making. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Moser, K. (1990). Advertising psychology. Munich: Psychological Publishing Union.

Smith, G. H., & Engel, R. (1968). Influence of a female model on perceived characteristics of an automobile. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, 3, 681-682.

Staats, A. W., & Staats, C. U. (1958). Attitudes established by classical conditioning. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 57, 37-40.