In the news today: a Japanese woman has just divorced her husband because…he didn’t like the Disney movie "Frozen."
This bizarre snippet of news inspires the question: why has this movie inspired such global acclaim, even bordering on obsession in some? Has Disney imbued it with hidden, subliminal messages?
The idea of secret messages in Disney movies is not a new one; there are endless articles and bloggers on the web claiming to have discovered hidden meanings – very often erotic – in squeaky clean Disney movies.The word "sex" spelled out in clouds in the Lion King is a chestnut that has done the internet rounds, disputed by Disney who said that it had been the intention of their special effects team to spell "SFX" to leave their "signature" on the film, but the public has been left to draw its own conclusions.
Either way, whether an erotic inferrence designed to make the movie more appealing, or a covert marketing opportunity, the message is still clearly there and evidence suggests that these type of messages can not only be unconsciously absorbed by our brains, but can have potent effects on our behaviour.
In "Frozen", viewers claim to have discovered endless hidden meanings, ranging from subtle connections to puberty which would appeal to pre-pubescent girls; gay themes that would make it attractive to homosexual viewers; biblical references to resonate with religious viewers that ironically jostle for position alongside overtly feminine sexual images and overtones, and, for good measure, a few climate change references to doff a cap at global warming and please the environmentalists.
No wonder the film is so popular.
But even if they do exist in "Frozen" or any other media, including advertising and recorded music, what exactly are subliminal messages, and how do they work?
As someone who makes his living using subconscious persuasion, psychology researcher and magician, Nick Kolenda, has looked into the phenomena and assessed a wealth of scientific evidence that examines its effects.
"Subliminal messages are stimuli that lie below our threshold of conscious awareness," explains Kolenda. "Because they fall below the absolute threshold level (ATL), we can’t perceive a subliminal message, even if we’re looking for it."
He outlines the three types of subliminal message on his website as:
Sub-visual messages – visual cues that are flashed so quickly (generally a few milliseconds) that people don’t perceive them.
Sub-audible messages – low volume audio cues that are inserted into a louder audio source, such as music.
Back-masking – an audio message that is recorded backwards, with the intention of playing it forward to disguise the reversed message.
The most famous case of "backmasking" must, of course, be the alleged Satanic messages contained in the rock group Led Zeppelin’s song "Stairway to Heaven" which led to various legal actions and state hearings, but which were ultimately ignored by the band.
However, Kolenda says that it’s easy to attribute meaning to anything if we look hard enough:
"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 for it."
Kolenda claims that in his own show, he tells the audience that he is using subliminal messages but in fact, he doesn’t; the power of suggestion accomplishes the task for him.
Yet the results of recent studies do give credence to the effects of subliminal messages, suggesting that ultimately, they can and do influence our behavior. Kolenda himself cites one such study, conducted in Paris in 2011, during which researchers found that subjects who had been subliminally primed with the words “to trust” were more inclined to believe a subsequent message regarding tap water consumption.
If our brains are so susceptible to hidden messages, the potential for subtle mind control could be limitless; subliminal forms of communication could be affecting our behavior on a daily basis without us ever knowing it.
But are some people more susceptible to subliminal programming than others?
Most research has indicated that in order to be received by the subconscious, the messages must first tap into a conscious need or desire. For example, researchers in a 2002 study found that subliminal messages relating to thirst were only effective in thirsty subjects; those who were not thirsty were unaffected.The problem is that humans typically have consistent needs, including thirst, hunger, companionship and sexual desire, so messages that tap into these requirements in order to promote goods, services or interest are almost certainly going to hit home.
The full extent of subliminal effects on our conscious behavior may never be known, but an ex-husband in Japan may well be re-watching "Frozen" in an attempt to see what he missed…