A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Does subliminal advertising work?

April 22, 1977

Dear Cecil:

Do you know anything about "subliminal advertising"? Supposedly, they can flash a message like "Buy right now!" real quickly in a commercial, so we viewers don't know it, but it registers in our subconscious and we do what we're told. Is this technique really used? Does it work?

Cecil replies:

On September 12, 1957, a market researcher named James M. Vicary called a press conference to announce the formation of a new corporation, the Subliminal Projection Company, formed to exploit what Vicary called a major breakthrough in advertising: subliminal stimuli. Vicary described the results of a six-week test conducted in a New Jersey movie theater, in which a high speed projector was used to flash the slogans "drink Coke" and "eat popcorn" over the film for 1/3,000 of a second at five-second intervals. According to Vicary, popcorn sales went up 57.5 percent over the six weeks; Cokes sales were up 18.1 percent.

Vicary's announcement immediately touched off something like a national hysteria. Outraged editorials appeared in major magazines and newspapers; outraged congressmen drafted laws and made themselves available for outraged interviews. This was the year of Vance Packard's best-selling exposé of the advertising industry, The Hidden Persuaders, and the public was apparently willing to believe anything about Madison Avenue — 1984 was just around the corner.

Overlooked in all the hullaballoo were Vicary's own relatively modest claims for his invention. It was useful only as a reminder, he said, and couldn't persuade anyone to do what they didn't want to do in the first place. But even that was probably overstating the case. While Vicary steadfastly refused to release any of his data (or even the location of the theater where the tests were conducted), psychologists who had performed similar experiments gleefully contradicted his results. A weak stimulus, they said, produced a weak impression; the subliminal "message" was no more hypnotic than a slogan on a billboard glimpsed out of the corner of the eye.

Moreover, Vicary's ideas were hardly new. A subliminal projector called a tachistoscope had been used during World War II in training soldiers to recognize enemy aircraft, while a book published in 1898 (The New Psychology by E.W. Scripture) laid out most of the principles of subliminal response.

Still, the panic over subliminal "brainwashing" continued. In January of 1958, Vicary agreed to conduct a publicly announced test over the Canadian Broadcasting Company stations. The message "telephone now" was flashed 352 times during a half-hour show, but there was no noticeable increase in telephone use during or after the program. Instead, the CBC received thousands of letters reporting unaccountable urges to get up and get a can of beer, go to the bathroom, or change the channel — not a single viewer correctly guessed the message.

Since the technique apparently wasn't working, the advertising industry felt free to denounce it (and help repair some of the image problems brought on by Packard's book). Subliminal ads were banned by the American networks and by the National Association of Broadcasters in June 1958. A panel discussion at the American Psychological Association convention later that year found no "visible danger to the general public from the indiscriminate use of subliminal techniques" and saw little chance they'd ever be effective. Thereafter popular anxiety about subliminal advertising began to subside.

In 1962 Vicary granted an interview to Advertising Age in which he called his invention a "gimmick" — the Subliminal Projection Company had been dissolved and he was working in happy obscurity for Dunn and Bradstreet. Eleven years later, though, the subliminal pitch made an unexpected comeback. A commercial for a game called "Husker-Do" was found to contain the phrase "get it" flashed four times (one frame each) during its 60 seconds.

The manufacturer, the Pican Corporation of Los Angeles, expressed horror and surprise, withdrawing the ads (which, of course, violated the NAB code) and writing the whole thing off to an overzealous copywriter in Cincinnati. But the company's scruples apparently didn't extend to countries where there were no regulations against subliminal ads: in 1974, the spots appeared on Canadian television. More outrage followed, and subliminal ads were quickly (if pointlessly) outlawed in Canada.

Edited June 24, 2010 to clarify the APA's role in the controversy.

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