Not to be confused with backward masking.
For the film, see Backmask (film).
Backmasking is a recording technique in which a sound or message is recorded backward onto a track that is meant to be played forward. Backmasking is a deliberate process, whereas a message found through phonetic reversal may be unintentional.
Backmasking was popularised by The Beatles, who used backward instrumentation on their 1966 album Revolver. Artists have since used backmasking for artistic, comedic and satiric effect, on both analogue and digital recordings. The technique has also been used to censor words or phrases for "clean" releases of explicit songs.
Backmasking has been a controversial topic in the United States since the 1970s and popular during the 1980s and 1990s, when allegations from Christian groups of its use for Satanic purposes were made against prominent rock musicians, leading to record-burning protests and proposed anti-backmasking legislation by state and federal governments.
In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, a device allowing sound to be recorded and reproduced on a rotating cylinder with a stylus (or "needle") attached to a diaphragm mounted at the narrow end of a horn. Emile Berliner invented the familiar lateral-cut disc phonograph record in 1888. His design overtook the Edison phonograph in the 1920s, partly because Berliner's patent expired in 1918, leaving others free to use his invention.
In addition to recreating recorded sounds by placing the stylus on the cylinder or disc and rotating it in the same direction as during the recording, one could hear different sounds by rotating the cylinder or disc backwards. In 1878, Edison noted that, when played backwards, "the song is still melodious in many cases, and some of the strains are sweet and novel, but altogether different from the song reproduced in the right way". The backwards playing of records was advised as training for magicians by occultist Aleister Crowley, who suggested in his 1913 book Magick (Book 4) that an adept "train himself to think backwards by external means", one of which was to "listen to phonograph records, reversed". In the movie Gold Diggers of 1935, the end of the dancing pianos musical number "The Words Are in My Heart" is filmed in reverse motion with the accompanying instrumental score incidentally being reversed.
The 1950s saw two new developments in audio technology: the development of musique concrète, an avant-garde form of electronic music, which involves editing together fragments of natural and industrial sounds; and the concurrent spread of the use of tape recorders in recording studios. These two trends led to tape music compositions, composed on tape using techniques including reverse tape effects.
The Beatles, who incorporated the techniques of concrète into their recordings, were responsible for popularizing the concept of backmasking. Singer John Lennon and producer George Martin both claimed they discovered the backward recording technique during the recording of 1966's Revolver; specifically the album tracks "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "I'm Only Sleeping", and the single "Rain". Lennon stated that, while under the influence of marijuana, he accidentally played the tapes for "Rain" in reverse and enjoyed the sound. The following day he shared the results with the other Beatles, and the effect was used first in the guitar solo for "Tomorrow Never Knows" and later in the coda of "Rain". According to Martin, the band had been experimenting with changing the speeds of and reversing the "Tomorrow Never Knows" tapes, and Martin got the idea of reversing Lennon's vocals and guitar, which he did with a clip from "Rain". Lennon then liked the effect and kept it. Regardless, "Rain" was the first song to feature a backmasked message: "Sunshine ... Rain ... When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads" ( listen; the last line is the reversed first verse of the song).
The Beatles were involved in the spread of backmasking both as a recording technique and as the center of a controversy. The latter has its roots in an event in 1969, when WKNR-FM DJ Russ Gibb received a phone call from a student at Eastern Michigan University who identified himself as "Tom". The caller asked Gibb about a rumor that Beatle Paul McCartneyhad died, and claimed that the Beatles song "Revolution 9" contained a backward message confirming the rumor. Gibb played the song backwards on his turntable, and heard "Turn me on, dead man ... turn me on, dead man ... turn me on, dead man ...". Gibb began telling his listeners about what he called "The Great Cover-up", and to the original clue were added various others, including the alleged backmasked message "Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him, miss him", in "I'm So Tired". The "Paul is dead" rumor popularized the idea of backmasking in popular music.
After Gibb's show, many more songs were found to contain phrases that sounded like known spoken languages when reversed. Initially, the search was done mostly by fans of rock music; but, in the late 1970s, during the rise of the Christian right in the United States,fundamentalist Christian groups began to claim that backmasked messages could bypass the conscious mind and reach the subconscious, where they would be unknowingly accepted by the listener. In 1981, Christian DJ Michael Mills began stating on Christian radio programs that Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" contained hidden messages that were heard by the subconscious. In early 1982, the Trinity Broadcasting Network's Paul Crouch hosted a show with self-described neuroscientist William Yarroll, who argued that rock stars were cooperating with the Church of Satan to place hidden subliminal messages on records. Also in 1982, fundamentalist Christian pastor Gary Greenwald held public lectures on dangers of backmasking, along with at least one mass record-smashing. During the same year, thirty North Carolina teenagers, led by their pastor, claimed that singers had been possessed by Satan, who used their voices to create backward messages, and held a record-burning at their church.
Allegations of demonic backmasking were also made by social psychologists, parents and critics of rock music, as well as the Parents Music Resource Center (formed in 1985), which accused Led Zeppelin of using backmasking to promote Satanism.
One result of the furor was the firing of five radio DJs who had encouraged listeners to search for backward messages in their record collections. A more serious consequence was legislation by the state governments of Arkansas and California. The 1983 California bill was introduced to prevent backmasking that "can manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the Antichrist". Involved in the discussion on the bill was a California State Assembly Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials Committee hearing, during which "Stairway to Heaven" was played backwards, and William Yaroll testified. The successful bill made the distribution of records with undeclared backmasking an invasion of privacy for which the distributor could be sued. The Arkansas law passed unanimously in 1983, referenced albums by The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Electric Light Orchestra, Queen and Styx, and mandated that records with backmasking include a warning sticker: "Warning: This record contains backward masking which may be perceptible at a subliminal level when the record is played forward." However, the bill was returned to the state senate by Governor Bill Clinton and defeated. House Resolution 6363, introduced in 1982 by Representative Bob Dornan (R-California), proposed mandating a similar label; the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation and Tourism and was never passed. Government action was also called for in the legislatures of Texas and Canada.
With the advent of compact discs in the 1980s, but prior to the advent of sound editing technology for personal computers in the 1990s, it became more difficult to listen to recordings backwards, and the controversy died down.
Though the backmasking controversy peaked in the 1980s, the general belief in subliminal manipulation became more widespread in the United States during the following decade, with belief in Satanic backmasking on records persisting into the 1990s. At the same time, the development of sound editing software with audio reversal features simplified the process of reversing audio, which previously could only be done with full fidelity using a professional tape recorder. The Sound Recorder utility, included with Microsoft Windows from Windows 95 to Windows XP, allows one-click audio reversal, as does popular open source sound editing software Audacity. Following the growth of the Internet, backmasked message searchers used such software to create websites featuring backward music samples, which became a widely used method of exploring backmasking in popular music.
In January 2014, the first backmasked video was released as part of a Grammy Awards promotional campaign. A customized video player allowed the user to watch a piece of film accompanied by a music soundtrack both forwards and backwards. The backwards content contained a hidden visual story and the words 'music unleashes you' embedded into the reversed audio track.
See also: List of backmasked messages
Backmasking has been used as a recording technique since the 1960s. In the era of magnetic tape sound recording, backmasking required that the source reel-to-reel tape actually be played backwards, which was achieved by first being wound onto the original takeup reel, then reversing the reels so as to use that reel as the source (this would reverse the stereo channels as well). Digital audio recording has greatly simplified the process.
Backmasked words are unintelligible noise when played forward, but when played backwards are clear speech. Listening to backmasked audio with most turntables requires disengaging the drive and rotating the album by hand in reverse (though some can play records backwards). With magnetic tape, the tape must be reversed and spliced back into the cassette.Compact discs were difficult to reverse when first introduced, but digital audio editors, which were first introduced in the late 1980s and became popular during the next decade, allow easy reversal of audio from digital sources.
In the 1973 film The Exorcist, a tape of noises from the possessed victim was discovered to contain a message when the tape was played backwards. This scene might have inspired subsequent copycat musical effects. Although the Satanic backmasking controversy involved mainly classic rock songs, whose authors denied any intent to promote Satanism, backmasking has been used by heavy metal bands to deliberately insert messages in their lyrics or imagery. Bands have utilized Satanic imagery for commercial reasons. For example, thrash metal band Slayer included at the start of the band's 1985 album Hell Awaits a deep backmasked voice chanting "Join Us" over and over ( listen). However, Slayer vocalist Tom Araya states that the band's use of Satanic imagery was "solely for effect".Cradle of Filth, another band that has employed Satanic imagery, released a song entitled "Dinner at Deviant's Palace", consisting almost entirely of unusual sounds and a reversed reading of the Lord's Prayer (a backwards reading of the Lord's Prayer is reportedly a major part of the Black Mass). Seattle-based grunge band Soundgarden parodied the phenomenon of Satanic backmasking on their 1989 album Ultramega OK. When played backwards, the songs "665" and "667" reveal a song about Santa Claus. Marilyn Manson used this technique. For example, in the beginning of his song "Tourniquet" when played backwards, his voice is heard saying "This is my lowest point of vulnerability" as explained in his book The Long Hard Road Out of Hell.
Backmasking is often used for aesthetics, i.e., to enhance the meaning or sound of a track. During the Judas Priest subliminal message trial, lead singer Rob Halford admitted to recording the words "In the dead of the night, love bites" backwards into the track "Love Bites", from the 1984 album Defenders of the Faith. Asked why he recorded the message, Halford stated that "When you're composing songs, you're always looking for new ideas, new sounds."Stanley Kubrick used "Masked Ball", an adaptation by Jocelyn Pook of her earlier work "Backwards Priests" (from the album Flood) featuring reversed Romanian chanting, as the background music for the masquerade ball scene in Eyes Wide Shut. At the end of "Before I Forget" by Slipknot, lead singer Corey Taylor's voice can be heard saying "... You're wasting it" which is in reference to how Rick Rubin, the producer of their album Vol. 3: The Subliminal Verses, wanted Taylor to change the chorus vocal melody because he felt it wasn't catchy; however, Taylor stood his ground and the chorus stayed unchanged.
One backmasking technique is to reverse an earlier part of a song. Missy Elliott used this technique in one of her songs, "Work It", as did Jay Chou ("You Can Hear", from Ye Hui Mei),At the Drive-In ("300 MHz", from Vaya), and Lacuna Coil ("Self Deception", from Comalies). A related technique is to reverse an entire instrumental track. John Lennon originally wanted to do so with "Rain", but objections by producer George Martin and bandmate Paul McCartney cut the backward section to 30 seconds.The Stone Roses have made heavy use of this technique in songs including "Don't Stop", "Guernica", and "Simone", which are all backwards versions of other Stone Roses tracks, sometimes overdubbed with new vocals that sound somewhat similar to the initial track when backmasked. Meanwhile, Klaatu used the reversed vocals from "Anus of Uranus" (from their first album, 3:47 EST) as the vocals for the song "Silly Boys" (on their third album, Sir Army Suit). The lyrics for "Silly Boys" on the lyric sheet from Sir Army Suit are accordingly printed backwards.Danish band Mew's 2009 album No More Stories... contains a track, "New Terrain", which, when listened to in reverse, reveals a new song, entitled "Nervous".
Artists often use backmasking of sounds or instrumental audio to produce interesting sound effects. One such sound effect is the reverse echo. When done on tape, such use of backmasking is known as reverse tape effects. One example is Matthew Sweet's 1999 album In Reverse, which includes reversed guitar parts which were played directly onto a tape running in reverse. For live concerts, the guitar parts were played live on stage using a backward emulator.
Humorous and parody messages
A common use of backmasking is hiding a comedic or parodical message backwards in a song. The B-side of the 1966 Napoleon XIV single "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!" is a reversed version of the entire forwards record, entitled "!aaaH-aH ,yawA eM ekaT oT gnimoC er'yehT". The forward version reached #3 in the US charts and #4 in the UK.
WWE wrestler Al Snow had a theme song that had backmasking in it. The song was mostly instrumental, but at one point a clearly audible voice can be heard saying a line of gibberish. When the song is played backward, the gibberish is actually saying "I AM IN CONTROL". The message played on Al Snow's character as an unstable mad man.
The Beatles song "Free as a Bird" was originally composed and recorded in 1977 as a home demo by John Lennon. In 1995 a studio version of the recording, incorporating contributions from Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, was released as a new single from The Beatles Anthology 1 project, 25 years after their break-up and 15 years after Lennon's death. In a humorous self-parody and tribute to Lennon, the surviving Beatles inserted a backmasked clip of Lennon saying "Turned out nice again" at the very end of the song.
Pink Floyd dropped a backmasked message into "Empty Spaces":
- ... Congratulations. You have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to Old Pink, care of the Funny Farm, Chalfont ...
- Roger! Carolyne's on the phone!
The first line may refer to former lead singer Syd Barrett, who is thought to have suffered a nervous breakdown years earlier. The first known instance of Pink Floyd having a backwards message is on the song "Bike". When played backward, it produces a nonsense poem.
In "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Nature Trail to Hell", from 1984's "Weird Al" Yankovic in 3-D, Yankovic's backmasked voice declares that "Satan eats Cheez Whiz" ( listen). Another early example can be found on the J. Geils Band track "No Anchovies, Please", from 1980s album Love Stinks. The message, disguised as a foreign-sounding language spoken under the narration, is, "It doesn't take a genius to tell the difference between chicken shit and chicken salad." Belgian act Poésie Noire included a satirical backmasked message on their 1988 album Tetra saying "You fucking asshole, play the record in the normal way".Tenacious D includes the backmasked message "Eat Donkey Crap" at the end of "Karate" from their self-titled first album.
Electric Light Orchestra and Styx, following their involvement in the 1980s backmasking controversy, released songs that parody the allegations made against them. ELO, after being accused of Satanic backmasking on their 1974 album Eldorado, included backmasked messages in two songs on their next album, 1975's Face The Music. "Down Home Town" begins with a voice twice repeating (in reverse) "Face the mighty waterfall". And the opening instrumental "Fire On High" contains the backmasked message "The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back! Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!" ( listen). In 1983 ELO released an entire album, Secret Messages, in response to the controversy. Among the many backmasked messages on the album are: "Welcome to the big show" (2x); "Thank you for listening"; "Look out there's danger ahead"; "Hup two three four"; "Time After Time"; and "You're playing me backwards". Styx also released an album in response to allegations of Satanic backmasking: 1983's Kilroy Was Here, which deals with an allegorical group called the "Majority for Musical Morality" that outlaws rock music. A sticker on the album cover contains the message, "By order of the Majority for Musical Morality, this album contains secret backward messages", and the song "Heavy Metal Poisoning" does in fact contain the backmasked Latin words "Annuit cœptis, Novus ordo seclorum" ("[God] has favored our undertakings; a new order for the ages")—part of the Great Seal which encircles the pyramid on the back of the American dollar bill.
Iron Maiden's 1983 album Piece of Mind features a short backwards message, included by the band in response to allegations of Satanism that were surrounding them at the time. Between the songs "The Trooper" and "Still Life" is inebriated drummer Nicko McBrain doing an impression of Idi Amin Dada: "'What ho', sed de t'ing wid de t'ree bonce [said the thing with the three heads]. Don't meddle wid t'ings you don't understand," followed by a belch.Prince's controversial song "Darling Nikki" includes the backmasked message, "Hello, how are you? I am fine, because I know that the Lord is coming soon."The Waitresses' 1982 EP I Could Rule the World if I Could Only Get the Parts included a backwards masking warning on the cover and a message masked within the song "The Smartest Person I Know": "Anyone who believes in backwards masking is a fool."
Some messages chastise or poke fun at the listener who is playing the song backwards. One such message was included by "Weird Al" Yankovic in "I Remember Larry", from the 1996 album Bad Hair Day, on which Yankovic lightly chastises the listener with the backmasked remark, "Wow, [you] must have an awful lot of free time on your hands" ( listen). Similarly, the B-52's song "Detour Through your Mind", from the 1986 LP Bouncing off the Satellites, contains the message, "I buried my parakeet in the backyard. Oh no, you're playing the record backwards. Watch out, you might ruin your needle." A similar message comes from the Canadian band Frozen Ghost from their 1987 self-titled debut album: "You are ruining your needle!"
Meanwhile, Christian rock group Petra included in their song "Judas' Kiss", from the 1982 album More Power to Ya, the message, "What are you looking for the devil for, when you ought to be looking for the Lord?"Bloodhound Gang's 1996 controversy-begging track "Lift Your Head Up High (And Blow Your Brains Out)" mocked the Judas Priest controversy directly, and included the backmasked phrase "Devil child, wake up and eat Chef BoyardeeBeefaroni". The band Mindless Self Indulgence released a song titled "Backmaskwarning!", which contains the forward lyrics "Play that record backwards / Here's a message yo for the suckas / Play that record backwards / And go fuck yourself". The backwards messages in the song include, "clean your room", "do your homework", "don't stay out too late", and "eat your vegetables".
Devo's hit song "Whip It" has Mark Mothersbaugh saying "Hey come over here!" when the song is played backwards.
Backmasking was also parodied in a 2001 episode of the television series The Simpsons entitled "New Kids on the Blecch." Bart Simpson joins a boy band called the Party Posse, whose song "Drop Da Bomb" includes the repeated lyric "Yvan eht nioj." Lisa Simpson becomes suspicious and plays the song backward, revealing the backmasked message "Join the Navy", which leads her to realize that the boy band was created as a subliminal recruiting tool for the United States Navy.
The Futurama episode Calculon 2.0 also has a scene where an installation disc is played backward on what looks like an old fashioned gramophone player, with the words "rise from the dead in the name of Satan" coming from it.
Critical or explicit messages
Backmasking has also been used to record statements perhaps too critical or explicit to be used forwards. Frank Zappa used backmasking to avoid censorship of the track "Hot Poop", from We're Only in It for the Money (1968). The released version contains at the end of its side "A" the backmasked message "Better look around before you say you don't care. / Shut your fucking mouth 'bout the length of my hair. / How would you survive / If you were alive / shitty little person?" This profanity-laced verse, originally from the song "Mother People", was censored by Verve Records, so Zappa edited the verse out, reversed it, and inserted it elsewhere in the album as "Hot Poop" (though even in the backward message the word "fucking" is censored). On the same album, a modified backmasking can be heard in "Harry, You're a Beast" with Madge saying, "Don't come in me, in me" repeatedly before she starts crying. In at least one bootleg version of the album, these words are very clear.
Another example is found in Roger Waters' 1992 album Amused to Death, on which Waters recorded a backward message, possibly critical of film director Stanley Kubrick, who had refused to let Waters sample a breathing sound from 2001: A Space Odyssey. The message appears in the song "Perfect Sense Part 1", in which Waters' backmasked voice says, "Julia, however, in light and visions of the issues of Stanley, we have changed our minds. We have decided to include a backward message, Stanley, for you and all the other book burners."
A further use of backmasking is to censor words and phrases deemed inappropriate on radio edits and "clean" album releases. For example, The Fugees' clean version of the album The Score contains various backmasked profanities; thus, when playing the album backwards, the censored words are clearly audible among the backward gibberish. When used with the word "shit", this type of backmasking results in a sound similar to "ish". As a result, "ish" became a euphemism for "shit".
In Britney Spears' 2011 song "Till The World Ends", Spears says "if you want this good shit". However, on the official version, "shit" is reversed, creating the "ish" sound; therefore, the official version says "if you want this good ish". Backmasking is also used to censor the word "joint" in the video for "You Don't Know How It Feels" by Tom Petty, resulting in the line "Let's roll another tnioj".
Artists who have been accused of backmasking include Led Zeppelin,The Beatles,Pink Floyd,Electric Light Orchestra,Queen, Beyonce,Styx,Judas Priest,The Eagles,The Rolling Stones,Jefferson Starship,AC/DC,Black Oak Arkansas,Rush,Britney Spears, and Eminem.
Electric Light Orchestra was accused of hiding a backward Satanic message in their 1974 album Eldorado. The title track, "Eldorado", was said to contain the message "He is the nasty one / Christ, you're infernal / It is said we're dead men / Everyone who has the mark will live." ELO singer and songwriter Jeff Lynne responded by calling this accusation (and the related charge of being "devil-worshippers") "skcollob", and stating that the message "is absolutely manufactured by whoever said, 'That's what it said.' It doesn't say anything of the sort." The group included several backward messages in later albums in response to the accusations.
In 1981, Styx was accused of putting the backward message "Satan move through our voices" on the song "Snowblind", from Paradise Theatre. Guitarist James Young called these charges "rubbish," and responded, "If we want to make a statement, we'll do it in a way that people can understand us and not in a way where you have to go out and buy a $400 tape player to understand us." The vinyl reproduction of Paradise Theater had laser etching on side one, spelling out Styx at the top, and two ladies facing each other on the sides. But on side two, the side with the song (Snow Blind) it had a black label with a small hole cut out where you could place the eraser side of a pencil, and play the album backwards to hear the backward message. In 1983, the band released a concept album, Kilroy Was Here, satirizing the Moral Majority.
A well-known alleged message is found in rock group Led Zeppelin's 1971 song "Stairway to Heaven". The backwards playing of a portion of the song purportedly results in words beginning with "Here's to my sweet Satan" ( listen).Swan Song Records issued a statement to the contrary: "Our turntables only play in one direction—forwards." Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant denied the accusations in an interview: "To me it's very sad, because 'Stairway To Heaven' was written with every best intention, and as far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that's not my idea of making music." Another widely known alleged message, "It's fun to smoke marijuana," in Queen's song "Another One Bites the Dust", is similarly disclaimed by the group's spokesperson.
Further information: Subliminal message
Fundamentalist Christian groups
Various fundamentalist Christian groups have declared that Satan—or Satan-influenced musicians—use backmasked messages to subliminally alter behavior. Pastor Gary Greenwald claimed that subliminal messages backmasked into rock music induce listeners towards sex and drug use. Minister Jacob Aranza wrote in his 1982 book Backward Masking Unmasked that rock groups "are using backmasking to convey satanic and drug related messages to the subconscious." Christian DJ Michael Mills argued in 1981 that "the subconscious mind is being successfully affected by the repetition of beat and lyrics—being affected through a subliminal message." Mills has toured America warning Christian parents about subliminal messages in rock music.
Some Christian websites have claimed that backmasking is widely used for Satanic purposes. The web page for Alabama group Dial-the-Truth Ministries argues for the existence of Satanic backmasking in "Stairway to Heaven", saying that the song contains the backward message, "It's my sweet Satan ... Oh I will sing because I live with Satan."
In 1985, Joe Stuessy testified to the United States Congress at the Parents Music Resource Center hearings that:
The message [of a piece of heavy metal music] may also be covert or subliminal. Sometimes subaudible tracks are mixed in underneath other, louder tracks. These are heard by the subconscious but not the conscious mind. Sometimes the messages are audible but are backward, called backmasking. There is disagreement among experts regarding the effectiveness of subliminals. We need more research on that.
Stuessy's written testimony stated that:
Some messages are presented to the listener backwards. While listening to a normal forward message (often somewhat nonsensical), one is simultaneously being treated to a backwards message (in other words, the lyric sounds like one set of words going forward, and a different set of words going backwards). Some experts believe that while the conscious mind is absorbing the forward lyric, the subconscious is working overtime to decipher the backwards message.
Serial killer Richard Ramirez, on trial in 1988, stated that AC/DC's music, and specifically the song "Night Prowler" on Highway to Hell, inspired him to commit murder.Reverse speech advocate David John Oates claimed that "Highway to Hell", on the same album, contains backmasked messages including "I'm the law", "my name is Lucifer", and "she belongs in hell". AC/DC's Angus Young responded that "you didn't need to play [the album] backwards, because we never hid [the messages]. We'd call an album Highway To Hell, there it was right in front of them."
In 1990, British heavy metal band Judas Priest was sued over a suicide pact made by two young men in Nevada. The lawsuit by their families claimed that the 1978 Judas Priest album Stained Class contained hidden messages, including the forward subliminal words "Do it" in the song "Better By You, Better Than Me" (a cover version of a Spooky Tooth song), and various backward subliminal messages. The case was dismissed by the judge for insufficient evidence of Judas Priest's placement of subliminal messages on the record, and the judge's ruling stated that "The scientific research presented does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude. There exist other factors which explain the conduct of the deceased independent of the subliminal stimuli." Judas Priest members commented that if they wanted to insert subliminal commands in their music, messages leading to the deaths of their fans would be counterproductive, and they would prefer to insert the command "Buy more of our records."
SkepticMichael Shermer claims that the emergence of the "Paul is dead" phenomenon, including the alleged message at the end of "I'm So Tired", was caused by faulty perception of a pattern. Shermer argues that the human brain evolved with a strong pattern recognition ability that was necessary to process the large amount of noise in man's environment, but that today this ability leads to false positives.Stanford University psychology professor Brian Wandell postulates that the observance of backward messages is a mistake arising from this pattern recognition facility, and argues that subliminal persuasion theories are "bizarre" and "implausible." Rumors of backmasking in popular music have been described as auditory pareidolia. James Walker, president of Christian research group Watchman Fellowship, states that "You could take a Christian hymn, and if you played it backwards long enough at different speeds, you could make that hymn say anything you want to"; Led Zeppelin publicist BP Fallon concurs, saying "Play anything backwards, and you'll find something." Eric Borgos of audio reversal website talkbackwards.com states that "Mathematically, if you listen long enough, eventually you'll find a pattern", while Jeff Milner recounts, "Most people, when I show them the site, say that they're not able to hear anything, until, of course, I show them the reverse lyrics."
Audio engineer Evan Olcott claims that messages by artists including Queen and Led Zeppelin are coincidental phonetic reversals, in which the spoken or sung phonemes form new combinations of words when listened to backwards. Olcott states that "Actually engineering or planning a phonetic reversal is next to impossible, and even more difficult when trying to design it with words that fit into a song."
In 1985, University of Lethbridge psychologists John Vokey and J. Don Read conducted a study using Psalm 23 from the Bible, Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust", and other sound passages made up for the experiment. Vokey and Read concluded that if backmasking does exist, it is ineffective. Participants had trouble noticing backmasked phrases when the samples were played forwards, were unable to judge the types of messages (Christian, Satanic, or commercial), and were not led to behave in a certain way as a result of being exposed to the backmasked phrases. Vokey concluded that "we could find no effect of the meaning of engineered, backward messages on listeners' behaviour, either consciously or unconsciously." Similar results to Vokey and Read's were obtained by D. Averill in 1982. A 1988 experiment by T.E. Moore found "no evidence that listeners were influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by the content of the backward messages." In 1992, an experiment found that exposure to backward messages did not lead to significant changes in attitude. Psychology professor Mark D. Allen says that "delivering subliminal messages via backward masking is totally and ridiculously impossible".
The finding of backward Satanic messages has been explained as caused by the observer-expectancy effect. The Skeptic's Dictionary states that "you probably won't hear [backmasked] messages until somebody first points them out to you. Perception is influenced by expectation and expectation is affected by what others prime you for." In 1984, S. B. Thorne and P. Himelstein found that "when vague and unfamiliar stimuli are presented, [test subjects] are highly likely to accept suggestions, particularly when the suggestions are presented by someone with prestige and authority." Vokey and Read concluded from their 1985 experiment that "the apparent presence of backward messages in popular music is a function more of active construction on the part of the perceiver than of the existence of the messages themselves."
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- ^Kittler, Friedrick. "The Gramophone". Adventures in CyberSound. Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Archived from the original on 2004-03-03. Retrieved 2007-03-01.
- ^Crowley, Aleister (1997) . Magick (Book 4). Weiser. p. 648. ISBN 978-0-87728-919-7.
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Do subliminal messages really work? Great question.
Everyone seems worried that advertisers can control their behavior through subliminal messages.
A scary thought? Sure.
A legitimate concern? That’s up for debate.
This post will demystify subliminal messages. You’ll learn the answers to some common questions, including:
- What are subliminal messages
- What are some types of subliminal messages?
- What are real-life examples of subliminal messages?
- Do subliminal messages work?
Want to learn more about subconscious influence? Download the first chapter of my book, Methods of Persuasion.
What Are Subliminal Messages?
Whoever came up with the definition for “subliminal” should be fired. That definition has led to some different interpretations — most of which are wrong. Hopefully this section will clear things up.
Subliminal messages are stimuli that lie below our threshold of conscious awareness. Because they fall below the absolute threshold level (ATL), we can’t perceive a subliminal message, even if we’re looking for it.
That’s important. Many people confuse subliminal influence with subconscious influence. But those two concepts are very different.
A stimulus can influence us subconsciously without being subliminal. If we can see or hear it — even if we don’t consciously notice it — it’s not subliminal. It’s considered supraliminal.
Consider in-store music. When researchers played music in a liquor store, they found a startling result. On days when German music was played, German wine outsold French wine. However, the reverse happened when French music was played (North, Hargreaves, & McKendrick, 1999).
Did people know that the music was influencing their behavior? Nope — they were subconsciously influenced. Did people hear the music? Indeed, they did. Thus, the music was supraliminal, not subliminal.
When it comes to subconscious influence, there’s no doubt that we’re influenced by supraliminal factors (Fitzsimons et al., 2001). Need more evidence? Check out the video explanation behind my “mind reading.”
However, subliminal factors are a different animal. We can’t consciously perceive subliminal messages, even if we’re looking for them. Needless to say, there’s a lot more skepticism toward subliminal influence.
Types of Subliminal Messages
Generally, there are three types of subliminal messages:
1. Subvisual messages – visual cues that are flashed so quickly (generally a few milliseconds) that people don’t perceive them.
2. Subaudible messages – low volume audio cues that are inserted into a louder audio source, such as music.
3. Backmasking – an audio message that is recorded backwards, with the intention of playing it forward to disguise the reversed message.
Regardless of type, subliminal messages often involve sexual cues. The reason? People claim that associating a stimulus with sex can enhance the appeal of the overall content. A pretty bizarre claim, I know. But is there merit to it? Keep reading…
Real-Life Examples of Subliminal Messages
People claim that subliminal messages have shown up in advertising, movies, and music. It’s a fascinating concept, no question. Unfortunately, most of the examples are purely coincidental. People will see meaning in anything if they’re looking hard enough.
Not to mention, a lot of the popular examples aren’t even “subliminal” at all. The cues are just supraliminal stimuli disguised within a visual.
Nevertheless, here are a few examples — subliminal and supraliminal — that have become popular.
Subliminal Messages in Advertising
You can blame the subliminal advertising chaos on James Vicary. In the 1950s, Vicary claimed to boost concession sales at a movie theater by flashing “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coke” during a movie.
Long story short: his claim was a hoax.
Despite Vicary’s confession, the damage was done. People became scared that mind control was possible, and the hoax gave advertising a bad rap.
Since then, people have been on the lookout for suspicious ads containing subliminal messages. Here are a few examples that sparked some attention:
Subliminal Messages in Disney
Advertisers aren’t the only people getting criticized. Movie editors from Disney — yes, Disney — have been criticized for putting subliminal messages in movies. Here are a few examples.
In this clip, does Aladdin vaguely say, “Good teenagers take off their clothes:”
…or how about this short clip from The Little Mermaid:
…and don’t forget about the famous star scene from The Lion King:
Subliminal Messages in Music
One famous example of subliminal messages in music can be found in Judas Priest. In 1990, the band was accused of putting backward messages of “do it” in a song. And those messages allegedly caused the suicide of two male teenagers.
The judge found no evidence, and the band was cleared of the charges.
Do Subliminal Messages Work?
If you’re familiar with my background, then you’ll know that I used to perform as a stage “mind reader.” In my mind reading show, I claimed to use subliminal messages to accomplish some of my routines.
But here’s the truth: I never used any subliminal messages in my show. In fact, I was ( and still am) very skeptical about the influence of subliminal cues.
In my live shows, I always gave a disclaimer that my routines were based on magic and sleight of hand, rather than psychology. And my routines involving “subliminal messages”? Well, they’re based entirely on trickery and plain ol’ BS.
But it sure looks convincing:
Does that mean subliminal messages don’t work? A few decades ago, researchers would have agreed that subliminal messages were BS. They found little, if any, support that they were effective (Vokey & Read, 1985).
In recent decades, however, the outlook has been slightly changing. Emerging research has shown that subliminal messages can influence our thoughts and behavior (see Kunst-Wilson & Zajonc, 1980 for one of the first notable studies).
For instance, new research has shown that subliminal messages in advertising can, in fact, influence our purchasing behavior. For example, participants in one study were significantly more likely to choose a Lipton Ice drink when they were subliminally primed with “Lipton Ice” (Karremans, Stroebe, & Claus, 2006). Pretty cool.
There have been other findings as well. Here are a few interesting ones:
Fitzsimons, Chartrand, and Fitzsimons (2008) found that people were able to list significantly more uses for a brick when they were subliminally primed with the logo from Apple (compared to IBM’s logo). Why? The subliminal exposure to Apple’s logo temporarily enhanced people’s creativity.
Murphy and Zajonc (1993) found that people developed a more favorable opinion of ambiguous symbols after they were subliminally flashed with smiling individuals. In fact, this effect was stronger when the exposure was subliminal.
Bornstein, Leone, and Galley (1987) found that people agreed more with a person after they were subliminally flashed with a picture of him or her.
Légal, Chappé, Coiffard, and Villard-Forest (2011) subliminally primed people with the words “to trust.” The result? Those people found a message about tap water consumption to be significantly more persuasive.
With all of these findings, subliminal messages sound pretty promising, right? Well, don’t get too excited. This emerging research also has some limitations:
Limitation #1: People Must Already Have a Need
For subliminal messages to influence behavior, people must already want to do that behavior. For example, researchers found that subliminal messages relating to thirst were only effective toward participants who were already thirsty (Strahan, Spencer and Zanna, 2002). For people who weren’t thirsty, the subliminal messages made no difference.
The takeaway? Subliminal messages can’t control your behavior. They can only guide your decision (e.g., choosing Lipton Ice versus some other beverage).
Limitation #2: Subliminal Messages in Self Help Tapes
In addition to advertising, another common area of debate involves self-help audios. There are a whole slew of subliminal audio programs that are supposed to help people lose weight, stop smoking, improve their memory, and the list goes on.
Do they work? Research shows that subliminal messages in self-help tapes are effective. BUT…they’re effective because of the placebo effect (Greenwald, Spangenberg Pratkanis, & Eskanazi 1991). The subliminal cues, themselves, are essentially useless.
Subliminal messages have garnered a lot of skepticism (and rightly so). Nonetheless, emerging research has given this field a new outlook.
While some aspects have been debunked (e.g., subliminal self-help tapes), researchers have been finding merit to other aspects (e.g., subliminal priming).
Can subliminal messages influence your thoughts and behavior? Yes, they can. However, subliminal messages can’t make you do something you wouldn’t want to do. So everyone can finally put their fear to rest.
Want to learn more about subconscious influence? Download the first chapter of my book, Methods of Persuasion.
Research Studies on Subliminal Messages
For all the ambitious readers, here’s a helpful list of academic articles about subliminal messages. Most of the articles are in PDF form:
Bar, M., & Biederman, I. (1998). Subliminal visual priming. Psychological Science, 9(6), 464-468.
Bornstein, R. F., Leone, D. R., & Galley, D. J. (1987). The generalizability of subliminal mere exposure effects: Influence of stimuli perceived without awareness on social behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1070.
Dehaene, S., Changeux, J. P., Naccache, L., Sackur, J., & Sergent, C. (2006). Conscious, preconscious, and subliminal processing: A testable taxonomy. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10(5), 204-211.
Dijksterhuis, A. (2004). I like myself but I don’t know why: Enhancing implicit self-esteem by subliminal evaluative conditioning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(2), 345.
Eimer, M., & Schlaghecken, F. (2003). Response facilitation and inhibition in subliminal priming. Biological Psychology, 64(1), 7-26.
Gläscher, J., & Adolphs, R. (2003). Processing of the arousal of subliminal and supraliminal emotional stimuli by the human amygdala. The Journal of Neuroscience, 23(32), 10274-10282.
Greenwald, A. G., Klinger, M. R., & Schuh, E. S. (1995). Activation by marginally perceptible (” subliminal”) stimuli: Dissociation of unconscious from conscious cognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 124(1), 22.
Fitzsimons, G. M., Chartrand, T. L., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2008). Automatic effects of brand exposure on motivated behavior: How apple makes you “think different”. Journal of Consumer Research, 35(1), 21-35.
Karremans, J. C., Stroebe, W., & Claus, J. (2006). Beyond Vicary’s fantasies: The impact of subliminal priming and brand choice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42(6), 792-798.
Krosnick, J. A., Betz, A. L., Jussim, L. J., Lynn, A. R., & Stephens, L. (1992). Subliminal conditioning of attitudes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 18(2), 152-162.
Mogg, K., Bradley, B. P., Williams, R., & Mathews, A. (1993). Subliminal processing of emotional information in anxiety and depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 102(2), 304.
Monahan, J. L., Murphy, S. T., & Zajonc, R. B. (2000). Subliminal mere exposure: Specific, general, and diffuse effects. Psychological Science,11(6), 462-466.
Murphy, S. T., & Zajonc, R. B. (1993). Affect, cognition, and awareness: Affective priming with optimal and suboptimal stimulus exposures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64(5), 723.
Pessiglione, M., Schmidt, L., Draganski, B., Kalisch, R., Lau, H., Dolan, R. J., & Frith, C. D. (2007). How the brain translates money into force: A neuroimaging study of subliminal motivation. Science, 316(5826), 904-906.
Seitz, A. R., & Watanabe, T. (2003). Psychophysics: Is subliminal learning really passive?. Nature, 422(6927), 36-36.
Stapel, D. A., & Blanton, H. (2004). From seeing to being: Subliminal social comparisons affect implicit and explicit self-evaluations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(4), 468.
Strahan, E. J., Spencer, S. J., & Zanna, M. P. (2002). Subliminal priming and persuasion: Striking while the iron is hot. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 38(6), 556-568.
Vokey, J. R., & Read, J. D. (1985). Subliminal messages: Between the devil and the media. American Psychologist, 40(11), 1231.
Winkielman, P., & Zajonc & Norbert Schwarz, R. B. (1997). Subliminal affective priming resists attributional interventions. Cognition & Emotion, 11(4), 433-465.
Zajonc, R. B. (2001). Mere exposure: A gateway to the subliminal. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(6), 224-228.