Subliminal Messages in Gambling and Gaming: Do We See Things as They Are? [Or as We Are?]

September 2nd, 2019
Back Subliminal Messages in Gambling and Gaming: Do We See Things as They Are? [Or as We Are?]

Everything we perceive is a message: comment overheard in the subway, the headline of a randomly clicked article, a gesture of stranger in the restaurant, out of the blue observation of colleague, sometimes even the word on our screen. Simple or complex, public or private, spoken, written or nonverbal, digital or analog, information travel as communication pieces in search for a terminus. Once there, it’s up to the recipient to handle it in the right way. No realm of existence is devoid of such messaging; gambling and gaming are no exception.

Vehicles and corridors used in this underlying world of human existence are quite visible no matter how diversified. The perpetual and iridescent triangles of senders, receivers, and implications — personal, collective, and social — are omnipresent in our lives.

On occasion, however, the messages are also hidden, covert; they lurk within domains, apparently loitering, waiting to be discovered and consumed by our conscious mind.

Then, there are subliminal ones, presenting themselves below regular limits of perception; they are perceptible only by our unconscious, deeper cognizance.

Like it or not, we are infinitely more in control of messages observed consciously: their fate is always binary, zero or one — discard or accept. We’re capable to process 9 bits of information in this way.

But, we are not able to recognize, let alone control, those grasped by our subconsciousness, impacting even preconsciousness (part of mind “below the level of immediate awareness, from which memories and emotions that have not been repressed can be recalled”). Our subconscious mind is capable to process 20,000 bits of information.

It’s 1:2,222 ratio.

Being susceptible to a myriad of messages way beyond ourselves, we should, then, be well aware of their nature, our exposure, and protection levels required to retain responsible governance of our lives.

Conscious messages are no brainer; we are free to act as we deem proper.

But covert and subliminal ones require attention, particularly in the era of consumer society and integrated world, where everyone is selling everything to everybody.

Which may put gamblers, gamers, and iGamers occasionally in a vulnerable position. As is the case with anything in life, being informed and knowledgeable is the best defense — forewarned is forearmed.

From 0.003 Seconds to Eternity

The concept is old, present since the 1950s — an entity can use the word or image consumers can’t consciously detect as subconscious stimuli for the desired outcome.

It has been used by Coca Cola, Marlboro, McDonald’s, Husker Do, Benson & Hedges, Food Network, Gilbey’s Gin, Wendy’s, KFC, Amazon, Tostitos, Snooty Peacock, FedEx, SFX Magazines, Disney, and seen in politics as well.

During the U.S. elections in 2000 — a grueling political duel fought between George W. Bush and Al Gore — the latter accused Republicans for utilizing subliminal messaging in an attack on his healthcare policy. Allegedly, the TV ad for Bush campaign featured the word “RATS” appearing for a fraction of second before a full visual of the wording “BUREAUCRATS DECIDE” appears on screens. (For those with fast fingers, it’s impossible to miss it at 0:24.)

In the music world, Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne found themselves in courts, defending their music on charges of subliminal messaging (in the case of the former, two suicides were in question).

Interestingly, the United States does not have a specific federal or state law regarding the use of subliminal advertising; furthermore, it’s not protected by the First Amendment since it produces information the viewer is not aware of receiving.

(The issue went all the way up to the Supreme Court.)

The only institution in the U.S. to take care of messages flashing for 0.003 seconds on the screens is the Federal Communication Commission — an independent agency regulating interstate transmissions by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable empowered to revoke the broadcast license of any company using subliminal marketing when needed.

On the other hand, Australia and the U.K. ban subliminal advertising by default.

Science of Luck and Skills

Of course, it’s one thing to subconsciously try to affect consumers of fast-moving consumer goods, but it’s a completely different ballgame to use it in gambling, the industry estimated to be worth $454.18 billion (all in, land-based casinos, sports betting, iGaming, lotteries) in 2019, according to H2 Gambling Capital.

It’s not a question of money but different stakes and expectations that average hamburger buyers and slots players have. And we’re not talking about financial aspects.

People don’t buy $5 chicken breast and mashed potatoes because they’re cheap but to satisfy hunger expecting a tasty food and good service.

Similarly, gamblers don’t put up hundreds of dollars because they have them in abundance but to take a chance on their hopes (even wrong ones), expecting their choices and luck to govern ensuing balances.


To somehow have players’ expectations boosted subconsciously, enough to govern stakes differently, in the activity wherein humans have universal “tendency to mistakenly perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things [and] seek patterns in random information,” is significant — equaling to consciously and scientifically building upon science.

More precisely, the fecund soil in human brain quoted above is called apophenia.

It is the propensity of our minds to make Type I error, a statistical blunder of “accepting the false positive and believing to see a difference or meaning when the given result is attributable to chance.”

Psychology defines such weakness of our cognition as a “pervasive tendency of human beings to see the order in random configurations.”

What makes this so important for every gambler of any kind is — apophenia is closely related to gambler’s fallacy; in fact, the fallacy originates in apophenia.

Taken into consideration in the scientific context, then, subliminal messaging can be a significant amplifier for natural pattern-detection beings (we all are), happening way out of our control.

In the continuous and ubiquitous messaging triangles mentioned earlier, not all receivers are aware of these findings but all senders are, as implications keep rising.

(For the record: we’re not elaborating on business practices but rising awareness of worldwide patrons about a segment of the zeitgeist of our time. Also, the best possible tool to govern gambling is personal responsibility, prudence, and balanced, well-informed, skillful approach to games of chance.)

Quite Conscious Business End

Now, humans have five radars to perceive the surrounding world: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Additionally, there is also the proprioception: how our brain understands the correlation between body and space.

When it comes to gambling, each sense is subject to hidden, subliminal messaging.

For instance, land-based casinos are rife with bright colors, glaring lights, entrancing music — remaining the same no matter what time of day is — void of clocks and windows, while free alcoholic beverages influence patrons’ inhibitions.

Floor layouts, forming a haphazard maze of table games and slot machines — the latter positioned high enough to obscure mandated exit signs — are not there to confuse players but make them stay longer.

Cashiers and refreshment areas are a bit harder to find on purpose, providing for incessant opportunities to test chances again.

Then there are winners: whenever someone wins big, everyone in the house knows.

An attention-grabbing scenery and atmosphere, choreographed by welcoming and friendly staff (you’re right, the waitress is flirting with you but not because she wants to go somewhere) including big words like “congratulations,” or “jackpot,” or “winner,” or “super mega win,” flashing out of nowhere — they’re all there to subconsciously let us know that we can do it too.

And then, on occasion, we might be impacted by subliminal messages popping up on the screens of slots or video poker machines.

In 2007, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. (OLG) temporarily pulled out of service 87 video slot machines upon being recorded on camera to flash jackpot images for 0.2 seconds. At the moment, there were 22,000 devices across Ontario, Canada.

Machines’ manufacturer attributed the situation to a software glitch and committed to developing an upgrade.

Nowadays, methods are bit more sophisticated, as seen in the latest TV ad for New Zealand Lotto, currently airing.

The scenario revolves around life-changing motorcycle accident and lotto ticket, but — as stated by executives of Lotto NZ and advertising agency — it leaves viewers unaware of secret numbers hidden in the commercial.

As is keeps airing, the concept is revealed and the audience is stimulated to look for numbers which are — a Lotto ticket. Those who manage to spot all numbers correctly can enter an online competition hoping to draw the main prize of $10,000 or range of other cash prizes.

The business rationale has been explained as an effort by the advertiser to increase views of the commercial and to reward those willing to spend a bit more time watching it.

It’s About Motives

Similar is in the online segment. A couple of years ago, Journal of Applied Social Psychology published findings of two experiments in which 327 participants played computerized slots games.

Some of them were repeatedly flashed for 30 milliseconds with jackpot symbols during the first round; exposure led to more betting and self-confidence during the final spin.

In the second round, the same thing happened only to players exposed to flashing effect in the previous run. Increased proclivity levels returned to normal when participants were forced to wait for five minutes before betting.

Findings supported the premise of category priming (to react in the desired way) rather than goal priming explanation (to react to achieve something), applicable in consumer psychology.

(The effect is comparable to impulsive shopping, although it’s completely conscious activity.)

Gamers in the world of eSports are not exempted, too, although hidden messages are mostly benign, witty, or mystery ones.

Majority of players of the Dead Space franchise are already aware that the fate of Nicole, main protagonist Isaac Clark’s love interest, could have been realized well before reaching the end of this game. The message was concealed in the first letter of each chapter, listed at the table of contents: Nicole Is Dead.

In Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, creators were a bit more playful and funny. As Nathan Drake progresses through tame, one of the Spanish tombstones has the epitaph which, when translated, reads: ‘if you are reading this grave, you are a huge nerd. Please get a life and a girlfriend.’

Mother of All Messages

When Bungie LLC — company behind the Halo franchise — split with Microsoft to further focus on the development of the massive online multiplayer FPS game Destiny, they announced the move in Halo 3: ODST.

Exploring the second campaign level, players could see the poster with headline “DESTINY AWAITS,” hinting on the Traveler orbiting above Earth. (The image is removed in the remastered version of the game by Microsoft.)

One way or the other, no matter the games — and “games” — involved…

Hidden and subliminal messaging is widely debated, even polemicized and controversial issue, difficult to prove but present enough to be governed by laws. In gambling and iGaming it’s delicate and subtle enough to require awareness, if not attention. (Mind you, we cannot know we received one.)

At the foundation, though, it boils down to timeless quote: “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”

Attributed to Anais Nin who referenced Babylonian Talmud, wisdom can be also read in writings of Immanuel Kant, George Thomas White Patrick, Henry Major Tomlinson, and Stephen Covey, further emphasizing its essential truth.

Of all the messages we receive every day on any device, by anyone, it’s up to us to recognize the right ones in the right way. When it comes to games of luck and skill involving wagering for money, it’s of paramount importance to understand the background and surroundings before acting upon in a way we see fit.


There are also messages which sender is not always explainable and, in a way, irrelevant. They can be seen anywhere, every day, too. When it comes to them…

It’s not how they read but what they mean, and that’s for each one of us to find out.

“No realm of existence is devoid of such messaging”

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