The Effects of Subliminal Cues on Information Seeking and Evaluation of Google Search Results

Bachelor Thesis, 2015

47 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of Content

List of Figures

List of Tables


1 Introduction
1.1 Background on the topic
1.2 Purpose of the study

2 Theoretical Framework
2.1 Subliminal Advertising
2.1.1 First Approaches
2.1.2 Definition of Subliminal Advertisement
2.2 Subliminal Perception
2.2.1 Research Background
2.2.2 Thresholds perspectives
2.2.3 Subliminal Stimuli
2.2.4 Introspective Measurements
2.2.5 The Masked Prime Paradigm
2.2.6 Effects of Subliminal Messages
2.3 Information Search
2.4 Evaluation on Google Search Result Pages
2.5 Hypothesis

3 Methodology
3.1 Design
3.2 Sample
3.3 Materials
3.4 Procedure
3.4.1 Recipient Variables
3.4.2 Independent Variable
3.4.3 Dependent Variables
3.5 Confounding Variables

4 Results
4.1 Descriptive Statistics
4.2 Inferential statistics

5 Discussion
5.1 Discussion of Results
5.2 General Discussion


11 References

List of Figures

Figure 1. Health vs. non-health related priming stimulus materials (logo)

Figure 2. Health vs. non-health related no-priming stimulus materials (logo)

Figure 3. Used words for the query box

Figure 4. Structure online survey

Figure. 5. T-test Evaluation of Online Advertisement in General

List of Tables

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics Gender

Table 1.2. Descriptive Statistics Education

Table 1.3. Pearson Correlation between Priming Variable, DVs & Outcomes

Table 2. Summary of Hierarchical Regression Analysis.


In this bachelor thesis, based on the findings by Karremans, Stroebe, and Claus (2006), the effectiveness of subliminal cues on choice behavior was transposed to the online search environment. To give a clear answer for this matter, possibilities but also dangers of online information seeking and subliminal perception have been investigated. Subliminal stimuli seem to have great potential for this matter since there is much similarity (Strahan, Spencer, and Zanna, 2002) between the factors that make subliminal stimuli effective and the online search environment (i.e. need for information and goal relevance). An online survey was conducted trying to investigate that goal priming effects subsequent evaluation, but only when certain conditions interact with persons’ attitudes. Half of 98 participants were subliminally primed with the Google ad-icon “Anzeige” and subsequently evaluate on online advertisement and search engines. The results indicated that priming positively influences the evaluation on online advertisement and search engines, regardless of participants’ attitudes towards online search.

Keywords: Subliminal Priming, Advertisement, Search Engines and Evaluation

1 Introduction

1.1 Background on the topic

Nowadays the World Wide Web has become an integral part of life and search engines have become a crucial tool (Yoo, 2014), which fulfill needs by finding information or shopping online (Pan et al., 2007a). Thus, search behavior follows an inner motivation to achieve a specific goal (Cutrell and Guan, 2007). At first sight, the decision-making in online environments seems to be very uncomplicated because users are only a couple of clicks, away from access to their information, needs, or purchase. But there is a lot more behind the fast clicks, because most users are not aware of how search engines work and know little about the implications of their algorithms (Gerhart, 2004; cf. Pan et al., 2007). Numerous studies have demonstrated that search engine result pages (SERP) have a significant impact on consumer choices, because of factors such as search result rankings (Joachims et al., 2007; Pan et al., 2007; Cutrell and Guan, 2007; Granka, Joachims and Gay, 2004). Major search engines (e.g., Google, Yahoo! and Bing) display search results in two categories: keyword search ads (or paid results, paid placements, sponsored links) and organic (or unpaid) results (Yoo, 2014). Depending on different factors (e.g., assigned keywords, “cost-per-click”), sponsored ads (e.g., Google Adwords) achieve high ranked results and attract more attention and thus could get more website visitors (Jansen, Zhang and Schultz, 2009; Jansen, 2011, p.1). But it also seems that the search results interface in general influence users’ choice (Yamin and Ramayah, 2013). Especially, Google’s popularity is due to the number of reasons such as wide coverage and user-friendly interface (Yamin, Ramayah and Ishak, 2013). In what manner does Google update and test new features regularly? For instance, since 2013 the yellow shading behind the sponsored listings has been removed and currently yellow ad-icons are displayed instead at the top of the right rail ads and a thin gray line separates the top set of ads from the organic listings (Marvin, 2013).

1.2 Purpose of the study

Beyond the finding that 75% of subjects showing no awareness on the manipulation of SERP (Epstein and Robertson, 2013), it may seem that research on the effects of subliminal priming provides a relevant venue for an understanding of users’ perception and evaluation of SERPs, search engines and also online advertisement. Research so far found that masked (e.g. briefly presented) stimuli influence behavior but only if those are need-related and when subjects are in the matching motivational state (Strahan et al., 2002; Moore, 1982). Despite the effects of online advertising, advertisers employed a direct-response model that emphasizes the number of clicks or conversions generated from the ads (Yoo, 2014). Yet, so far, no study has directly examined the effects of subliminal cues on online search environments. Hence, the purpose of this study consisted in measuring whether subliminal cues can be effective on online search environment. Under the masked prime paradigm the present empirical work aims at assessing whether multiple exposures to the same subliminal cue possibly have an impact on participants’ choice, intention, or even behavior.

The goal pursued in this study focuses on perception and evaluation of Google search user interfaces and aims at subliminally influencing primed participants so to let them subsequently evaluate search engines and online advertisement, but also advertisement in general. After reviewing the literature in the section Theoretical Framework in order to gain insights of previous approaches and to have a conceptual starting point on which to base the study, the Methodology section follows. In this section, precise details of the study which clearly represent the core of this thesis will be outlined. Accordingly, the Results section concerns the analysis of the statistical tools and outcomes of the study and will be applied in order to understand whether the hypothesis of the study should be accepted or rejected. The Discussion section will summarize and interpret findings and will assess implications for area.

2 Theoretical Framework

2.1 Subliminal Advertising

2.1.1 First Approaches

The field of subliminal perception and influence has been virtually nonexistent since the brief flurry of publicity and experiments in advertisement from 1957 to 1959 (Hawkins, 1970). Thus, the whole controversy on the effectiveness of subliminal messages started after James Vicary (1957) had announced to the public that he had increased sales of Coke and popcorn by manipulating people through the use of subliminal messages in his theater (cf. Moore, 1982). Vicary (1957) propagated that he could change buyer behavior by briefly presenting subliminal messages saying “Drink Coca Cola” and “Eat Popcorn” (Karremans et al., 2006, p. 792). These messages were claimed in his experiment in 1957, while New Jersey moviegoers were repeatedly shown advertisements for Coca- Cola and popcorn. During the movie “Picnic”, every five seconds the subliminal messages appeared on the screen for a mere 1/3000 of a second (Vokey, 2002). Although the duration of each flash was too short for anyone to consciously detect, James Vicary claimed that sales of Coca-Cola increased to 58 and popcorn to 18 percent (Block and Vanden Bergh, 1985, cf. Shimp, 2008). The data of his results were published in a scientific journal and had no control group (Broyles, 2006). Nevertheless, these claims were never supported by any evidence and several scientific replication attempts failed (Hawkins, 1970; Weir, 1984, cf. Strahan et al., 2002). After Vicary’s hoax had been uncovered he admitted that he had invented his results in an effort to revive his then- failing research firm (Gray 2000; Rogers 1992-1993; Rotfeld, 2001; cf. Broyles, 2006).

2.1.2 Definition of Subliminal Advertisement

The American Marketing Association defines advertisement as „any announcement or persuasive message placed in the mass media in paid or donated time or space by an identified individual, company, or organization.” (“Advertising”, 2014).

As mentioned, subliminal advertising is a very controversial topic within advertisement and based on the principle of subliminal perception (Theus, 1994).

Trappey (1996) defines subliminal advertising as a “technique of exposing consumers to product pictures, brand names, or other marketing stimuli without the consumers having conscious awareness: once exposed to a subliminal stimulus, the consumer is believed to decode the information and act upon it without being able to acknowledge a communication source” (p.517).

Aylesworth, Goodstein and Karla (1999) define subliminal advertising as “the use of words, pictures and shapes that are purposely inserted into advertising materials so that the viewers of the material cannot perceive the imagery at a conscious level, but rather at a subconscious level" (p.74). Both these definitions presume that the effects of subliminal advertising do not seem open to introspection (Blackwell & Halasz, 2007). Additionally, subliminally presented materials consist of pictures, words, shapes, or other marketing stimuli. Although brand representations would have a short duration time (approx. 50 ms) or are masked, consumers have some conscious awareness of its presence anyway (Hawkins, Best and Coney, 1995). In other words, both Trappey (1996) and Aylesworth et al. (1999) specify that stimuli should be presented at a subconscious level, rather than at a conscious level (Rogers and Seiler, 1994; cf. Blackwell & Halasz, 2007).

2.2 Subliminal Perception

2.2.1 Research Background

According to Kouider and Dehaene (2007), a broad array of research has focused on the issue of the depth of subliminal processing. The empirical study of subliminal perception effects has a long history and is still considered to be controversial (Eriksen, 1960; Dixon, 1971; Holender, 1986; Merikle and Daneman, 1998). But only within the last two decades the understanding of subliminal perception has gained advanced consideration (Merikle and Daneman, 1998). Previously, many results have been critically questioned because of the methodical weakness of work in this area with the final result that the whole area fell into disrepute (Henke et al., 1993).

The scientific framework of subliminal perception methods is based on a variety of approaches and a lot has been written about this phenomenon; hence it is not possible to state that there is only one clear definition on the concept of subliminal perception (Pratkanis and Greenwald, 1988). Therefore, it is helpful to understand the origins in terms of conventional subliminal processing and how subliminal stimuli influence behavior. In the next lines, the conceptual framework of subliminal perception and processing will be highlighted.

2.2.2 Thresholds perspectives

As proposed by various researchers (e.g., Cheesman and Merikle, 1984; Theus, 1994; Dijksterhuis, Aarts and Smith, 2005), the difference between conscious and unconscious processes can be explained by the “difference between activations of mental representations above a certain threshold and activations of such representations below that threshold” (Bowers et al., 1990; cf. Sun and Franklin, 2007, p. 155). The adjective “subliminal" finds its origin in Latin which means below threshold and is compound consisting of the prefix sub- and the root limen (Dijksterhuis et al., 2005, p. 80). Cheesman and Merikle (1984) distinguished between subjective versus objective thresholds. When activations pass the objective threshold but fail to pass the subjective threshold, it does not reach the conscious awareness (Dijksterhuis et al., 2005). An individual only becomes aware of the content of the activated representations, when activations pass both subjective and objective thresholds. Hence, it may seem as supraliminal (i.e. above threshold) of conscious stimuli. Otherwise, activations that do not pass subjective threshold level are mentioned as unconscious or subliminal stimuli. Although people may not be aware of the identity of subliminal stimuli, they could get influenced by them. All in all, subliminal perception is a perception without awareness (Merikle and Daneman, 1998).

2.2.3 Subliminal Stimuli

Pratkanis and Greenwald (1988) suggest a categorization of four stimuli which advertisers could use for creating subliminal messages: Sub-threshold stimuli are presented at energy levels too weak to be consciously detected from the subjective threshold. An example could be a brief flashing of words onto a screen that the audience is not aware of. Masked stimuli are almost invisible and obscured from detection. An example would be a briefly presented stimulus rapidly followed by a bright flash of light.

Unattended stimuli are presented peripherally or as an embedded figure so that it requires attention to a different location in the visual field. For instance, the “cocktail party effect” reveals that people are able to focus one's auditory attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of other stimuli (Cherry, 1953, p. 976). Finally, figuratively transformed stimuli are visual images transformed so that they can no longer be recognized. Accelerated speech in low volume auditory messages (Theus, 1994) or backwards recorded and into music inserted commands are some examples (Pratkanis and Greenwald, 1988).

2.2.4 Introspective Measurements

The primary goal of most research studies is trying to answer the question whether subliminal presented information can influence behavior (Moore, 1982; Merikle, 2000; Theus 1994 ). As previously suggested, subliminal perception is not an intentional and active process without any aim, even if the mental process is conscious. In addition, the research focuses on cases of unconscious perceptions in which the fact that something has been perceived affects the behavior (Theus, 1994).

In the first period of subliminal research history, in the mid-1800s (Theus, 1994), studies were initially performed with the use of introspective accounts (Dijksterhuis et al., 2005). Subjects were asked to report whether a stimulus was consciously perceived or not (Kouider and Dehaene, 2007). The assumption that all mental states are potentially accessible to conscious report was important in developing methods for measuring aspects of conscious experience (Kouider and Dehaene, 2007). Early empirical studies on subliminal perception were conducted in self-experiments (Peirce and Jastrow, 1884, cf. Dijksterhuis et al., 2005) or by showing cards with a letter or digit from an invisible distance (Sidis, 1898; cf. Dijksterhuis et al., 2005) by testing the response accuracy on guessing if the letter or digit was presented or not (Merikle, 2000). After experimental tasks, participants were asked to evaluate by expressing their responses. However, experimental methods of behaviorism by making predictions through observation and introspective measurement (subjective reports) brought disfavor because subjects in these studies were not able to differentiate between alternative stimuli (Dixon 1971; Kihlstrom 1987; Cheesman and Merikle, 1984). This leads to suggestive evidence for the fact that the stimuli nonetheless had an impact on their behavior (Farah, 1989; Marcel, 1983;

Stambrook and Martin, 1983; cf. Ramsøy and Overgaard, 2004). The existence of subconsciousness was questioned, in times when stimulus awareness typically was said to be non-existing (Ramsøy and Overgaard, 2004).

Only after the development of cognitive science, psychology underwent a dramatic shift in its attitude toward the psychological unconscious (Kihlstrom, 1987) and enabled an explanation for hypothetical constructs through the use of objective measures by so-called masking prime techniques (e.g. Cantor, 1981; Mischel, 1979; Neisser, 1976, cf. Bargh & Pietromonaco, 1982).

2.2.5 The Masked Prime Paradigm

The Masked Priming Paradigm was part of the current research (see 3.4) and might be interesting to understand. The development of the masked priming task reveals very significant differences between how information is processed consciously and how it is processed non-consciously (Forster and Davis, 1984). In his detailed and intensively argued criticism of subconsciousness processing methods, Holender (1986) writes that the visually masked method is (compared e.g. to introspective measurements) the best method to prove strong evidence for the future. Thus, the last twenty years seem to confirm Holender’s presumption because the masked form of priming has been widely investigated (Cheesman and Merikle, 1985; Forster and Davis, 1984; Marcel, 1983).

Breitmeyer and Ögmen (2006) suggest that subliminal presentation is often achieved by masking, a method whereby the subjective visibility of a stimulus is reduced or eliminated by the presentation, in close “spatial and temporal contiguity, of other stimuli acting as masks’” (Dehaene and Changeux, 2011, p. 211). Kouider and Dehaene (2007) recently provided an extensive historical overview of the literature on masked priming and amplify that masked stimuli are frequently used to induce subliminal priming, the facilitation of the processing of a visible target by the prior presentation of an identical or related subliminal prime. Thus, subliminal exposure can also be achieved with threshold stimuli whereby the effect or energy of a stimulus is progressively reduced until its presence is unnoticeable (Dehaene and Changeux, 2011). But how does the masked priming method work?

In masked priming experiments subjects are typically presented an image or word very briefly and embedded into letter strings serving as forward and backward masks (Kouider and Dehaene, 2007). Masks are used to influence subsequent processing of a target stimulus even though observers do not notice the primes themselves (Marcel, 1983). The prime stimulus is then presented too quickly for the participant to be aware of it. After an even briefer second presentation of the mask, subjects see the target stimulus and can begin carrying out the required task. The quick successive presentations of prime and target stimuli are coupled to identical or alternative motor responses and thus have a visuomotor effect (Neumann and Klotz, 1994).

For instance, a 500 ms forward mask (e.g. “XXXXXX”) briefly flickers and is followed by a prime (e.g., Kouider and Dehaene, 2007; Karremans et al., 2006), which is very briefly presented for about 50 or 60 ms and then replaced by a 500 ms target, which also serves as the backward mask. The forward mask usually consists of nonlinguistic signs and the function to reduce the visibility of the prime and working as a fixation signal to alert the participant to the critical item (Marcel, 1983).

2.2.6 Effects of Subliminal Messages

The turning point in research in the effectiveness of subliminal messages is represented by the findings of Strahan et al. (2002). They demonstrated that subliminal priming has recently been shown to be effective, as long as there is an inner motivation to achieve a specific need or goal. Further, Strahan and colleagues (2002) also obtained evidence that people who were thirsty (as compared to people who were not thirsty) were more likely to drink a beverage, and evaluated a thirst-quenching beverage as more positive, after they had been primed with thirst-related cognitions (e.g., thirst, dry) (cf. Karremans et al., 2006).

Based on these theoritical and empirical findings other laboratory research by Karremans and colleagues (2006) reveal that the relevance of goal achieving is an important factor to influence the effectiveness of behavioral change due to subliminal stimuli, even a respondents’ choice for a brand. In their study, subjects were influenced in their choice, as well as their intention to drink a specific brand of soft drink, by a subliminally presented brand prime. They also suggested that only participants were affected by choice when the primed-feature corresponds to their goal of thirst quenching.


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The Effects of Subliminal Cues on Information Seeking and Evaluation of Google Search Results
University of Cologne  (DP Psychologie)
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Google, Adwords, Subliminal Advertising, unconscious, Cognitive Psychology, Priming, Search Engines, Digital Marketing, subliminal cues, empirical, masked prime, paradigm, information search, information processing, brand, mind, attention
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Eyüp Aksoy (Author), 2015, The Effects of Subliminal Cues on Information Seeking and Evaluation of Google Search Results, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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