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While I am in Las Vegas attending a conference, I thought I'd rerun this post that was first published in 2010.
It began when media researcher, James Vicary held a news conference on September 12,1957. An early pioneer in media psychology, Vicary had made a name for himself with several studies using psychophysiological measures such as eye-blink reactions to test emotional tension relating to buying decisions. Working as a media consultant for various companies including J.L. Hudson and Benson & Benson, he had established himself as a bit of a showman in promoting the use of psychological techniques in advertising.
During the news conference, Vicary reported that he had placed a tachistoscope in the projection booth of a movie theatre in Fort Lee, New Jersey to flash virtually undetectable advertising slogans on movie screens to audiences. During screenings of the movie, "Picnic", Vicary reportedly flashed slogans such as "Hungry? Eat popcorn" and "Drink Coca Cola" at regular intervals and for only 1/3000 of a second each time. He claimed that concession sales during intermission increased dramatically with 57 % more popcorn and 18 % more soft drinks being sold. Vicary later stated that these results had been successfully replicated across multiple screenings with a total sample of 45,000 moviegoers. In holding the press conference, he also announced forming a new company, the Subliminal Projection Company to exploit the new marketing technology (he was a major shareholder, by the way).
Strictly speaking, there was nothing new about subliminal research. The earliest studies into non-conscious perception of sensory stimuli began in the 1800s and the venerable tachistoscope has been around for decades. Researchers also questioned Vicary's motives in giving a press conference rather than publishing his findings in a refereed journal. This meant little available information concerning basic points such as sample size, use of control groups, replicability of findings, etc. In 1958, the American Psychological Association issued a statement declaring that subliminal ads were "confused, ambiguous, and not as effective as traditional advertising".
Whatever Vicary intended with his news conference, he likely didn't anticipate the reaction that he eventually received. Although more modest in his claims about what subliminal advertising could do, the mainstream media was not so guarded. While some journalists covering the story were skeptical about Vicary's claims (one reporter for the Wall Street Journal pointed out that "precise details of...how the scheme works, how much it will cost, and the validity of its ability to sell popcorn or soda pop, are shrouded in secrecy because of problems involving the company's patent application"), other journalists were alarmed by subliminal messages being used in manipulating people making buying decisions. An editorial by Norman Cousins captured this alarm when he wrote that: "Question: if the device is successful for putting over popcorn, why not politicians or anything else? If it is possible to prompt the subconscious into making certain judgments of human character, why wouldn't it be possible to use invisible messages for the purpose of annihilating a reputation or promoting it?".
Not long after Vicary's press conference, a pop-culture book, The Hidden Persuaders, was published. Written by Vance Packard, the book described the potential dangers of media psychology and subliminal messages to trick customers into buying products and even affecting how they voted in elections. While advertisers denounced Packard as a huckster and conspiracy theorist, his book sold millions of copies and the notion of subliminal advertising sparked an outcry (although Packard never actually used the term). It probably didn't help that Aldous Huxley came out with Brave New World Revisited in 1958. In this sequel to his classic 1931 novel, Huxley suggested that subliminal messaging technology was a "powerful instrument for the manipulation of unsuspecting minds". He also added that "the scientific dictator of tomorrow will set up his whispering machines and subliminal projectors in schools and hospitals..., and in all public places where audiences can be given a preliminary softening up by suggestibility increasing oratory or rituals".
Conspiracy theorists accused governments and corporations of manipulating popular opinion through "brainwashing". The National Association of Broadcasters formally banned subliminal advertising in 1958 and all American television networks quickly followed suit. Legislation banning subliminal advertising was later passed in the U.K. and Australia and civil rights groups pounced on all suspected uses of subliminal messages in ads (real or imagined).
On the other hand, researchers who tried to replicate Vicary's research weren't getting the same results. Vicary had been extremely ambiguous about the actual methodology that he used making true replication of his method impossible. In an attempt at replicating his own results, Vicary carried out a 1958 study using a Canadian television broadcast in which the words "Telephone now" were flashed 352 times during a half-hour show. There was no noticeable increase in telephone use during or after the broadcast (although the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation did get thousands of letters from viewers guessing at the nature of the subliminal message, nobody got the right answer). Other research studies were just as inconclusive. Vicary's Subliminal Projection Company quickly went out of business and he returned to being a media researcher for Dunn and Bradstreet. In a 1962 interview, Vicary admitted that the news conference and his research findings had been nothing more than a "gimmick". As he ruefully added in the interview, "All I accomplished, I guess,...was to put a new word into common usage. And for a man who makes a career out of picking the right names for products and companies, I should have my head examined for using a word like subliminal".
Despite this confession, the supposed dangers of subliminal advertising still lurk in the popular imagination and has taken on the status of an urban legend. While there is no actual evidence that subliminal messaging works, anecdotes about its supposed effectiveness abound. Not only are "subliminal" self-help tapes still being sold, but opinion surveys have shown that belief in subliminal advertising is widespread. This belief is especially apparent in allegations of "backward masking" of satanic messages in rock music, a claim that is still a common staple in conservative circles. A 1990 trial in Reno, Nevada was held in which the parents of two teenagers blamed their suicides on subliminal messaging in a Judas Priest album. The parents lost the case but the resulting publicity added to the "anecdotal evidence" of subliminal advertising's widespread use.
Meanwhile, laws against subliminal advertising remains on the books in many countries and research still continues (albeit without conclusive results). Despite the lack of success, the subliminal tape industry continues to do good business as well. Such is the power of advertising.
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