The Power of Subliminal Programming: How TV Changes Our Behavior

By: Tiffany Vogt

After a recent episode of BONES, I noticed for the first time how easy it is for television to influence our personal lives. In this particular episode, Dr. Temperance Brennan was chastising Booth for failing to put the toilet seat cover down. After her detailed, if not repulsive rationale, Booth was prompted to buy new toothbrushes for himself and his new girlfriend. Maybe it was only meant to be a funny reminder of how when one enters a relationship, one needs to alter some of their bachelor ways; but it was a vivid reminder of how the rest of us need to be more aware of our environments. I know I immediately tossed my old toothbrush and bought a new one which I now keep in a drawer and not in a container next to the sink. BONES actually got me to rush out and buy something I had not thought to replace. How often can we say that a TV show had such an immediate effect on us?
It was upon further reflection that I began to think back over my buying habits and how they have changed; and for the first time I noticed how subconsciously I had altered my personal behavior in direct response to what I was watching on television. In fact, over the years, many of television shows have had a subtle, subconscious influence on what I buy.

One perfect example is MONK. After years of watching MONK, I now carry both Purell hand sanitizer and handiwipes everywhere I go. While recent concerns over SARS, the bird flu and the H1N1 flu viruses may have reinforced the need for such items, I realized that I had added both items to my basic necessities in my purses long before those scares came along. Thus, it was most likely Adrian Monk and his obsessive-compulsive fear of germs and frequent use of handiwipes after he touches anything that got me into the habit of carrying such things.
Then looking in my refrigerator, I was startled to see that another one of my TV shows had gotten me to start regularly buying yogurt. After 4 years of watching Michael Weston habitually eating yogurt every time he walked into his apartment, it had been ingrained in me that every time I open the refrigerator there should be yogurt awaiting me too. It is now my favorite after work treat and I can only imagine that my deep fondness and craving comes from BURN NOTICE’s direct influence.
The other item I find myself stocking up on in the kitchen is tea. As a devoted fan of THE MENTALIST, I can directly trace my growing tea collection to watching Patrick Jane constantly making cups of tea both for himself and others as a way of relaxing and calming the raging emotions involved in a murder investigation. I have never been a big tea drinker, but ever since I feel under THE MENTALIST’s spell, I find myself craving it whenever the world seems to be spinning out of control. After all, if Patrick Jane thinks it can cure the world’s ills, then it has to be the best cure for mine too.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my buying habits are directly affected by what I see on television. For all the flak that MODERN FAMILY took for its blatant promotion of Apple’s iPad, I still find myself wishing I had one and am constantly checking on line to see if the price has dropped to a reasonable level yet. I am also compulsively entering online contests in hopes of winning one.
Another great example is GOSSIP GIRL’s prevalent use of smartphones to convey the basic message of their show: someone is always watching. It is not just the voyeuristic need to see what is going on in everyone else’s lives that compels us to carry smartphones, but it is the counter-veiling need to report on every little thing we are doing via Twitter, Facebook or other social networking sites. But it was not really until GOSSIP GIRL showed how powerful and useful it was to be so interconnected with those in our social worlds that I broke down and bought one. It seemed ludicrous that all those glamorously attired teenagers depicted would be better informed about the minutiae of daily life than I was. After all, I am involved in the entertainment realm, thus I should be as up to the minute informed as well. So just as GOSSIP GIRL advocated, I made a Smartphone another one of my everyday accessories. I just had to be a part of the world that could transmit photos, tweets and email blasts at any given moment.
Another funny trend I have begun to notice is the frequent reference to pancakes by various characters on TV shows that I watch. Both in HAVEN and WAREHOUSE 13 pancakes were the preferred way to invite a co-worker out for a meal without it being taken as a romantic overture. As a result, I am constantly craving pancakes when I am at work and I could swear that I smell pancakes as I walk down the hallways. It is as if one of my co-workers is teasing me by keeping syrup at their desk which they have found is the perfect way to ensure that I am in a great mood each day. Either way, my subconscious is reminding me that pancakes are the way the world invites us to a wonderful meal.
In addition to toothbrushes, handiwipes, yogurt, tea, smartphones and pancakes, there is a whole array of items that are slowly trickling into my every day life. Good examples are buying more wine after an episode of COUGAR TOWN, ordering mojitos when dining out like Sam Axe in BURN NOTICE, craving Subway sandwiches as result of watching CHUCK, the desire to read more mystery books after watching CASTLE, or the need to wear more white t-shirts after watching TRUE BLOOD. If asked, I would have said I was immune to the influence of what I watch on television to alter my personal behavior and determine what I buy. But careful inspection of what I am buying, wearing and using clearly reflects that I am affected — or have been subliminally programmed.
Who amongst us can truly claim such immunity? Popular products such as Reese Pieces, Ray-Ban, Coca-Cola, FedEx, and Tabasco have all been incorporated into our buying habits as a result of clever product placement in film and television. Think back over your own life and what you are buying. You too may be startled to see how much what you watch is influencing your buying habits too. For the most part, it is not a bad thing. It is just funny that we as viewers and consumers are so easily influenced. What will be the next thing that you find in your refrigerator or on your kitchen pantry? Will you suddenly find that tea and pancakes are items that you too cannot live without? And while you may resist adding yogurt and mojitos, I really have to recommend the new toothbrush. Even if you do not watch BONES, trust me on this — get a new toothbrush!

Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to The TV Addict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).

  • if this were true i would have to carry wooden stakes with me since i love buffy, and now vampire diaries 😀

  • Yup, this is totally true: my whole family got new toothbrushes after that disgusting fact. Just in case!

  • I also ran and bought a new toothbrush…

  • kevin

    they did an episode of mythbusters a couple years ago about not putting down the lid when you flush. they found trace fecal matter all over the place they tested. it was slightly worse in the bathroom, but it’s already everywhere else.

  • great article and I will say that I too got a new toothbrush after that episode of Bones and I no longer keep it in my bathroom