Re: Subliminal advertising

From: Wade T.Smith (
Date: Thu Apr 18 2002 - 05:42:25 BST

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    Subject: Re: Subliminal advertising
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    > I read a report some years ago that claimed theater owners were able to
    > increase the number of people who went to buy soft drinks and popcorn
    > right after subliminal messages about them were flashed on the screens
    > of their movie theaters. Since that's where the majority of their
    > money comes from, I believe they were serious about that. I also heard
    > a public outcry made them stop doing it, though.

    The text from

    Claim:   An early experiment in subliminal advertising at a movie
    theater resulted in tremendously increased sales of popcorn and Coke.

    Status:   False.

    Origins:   Public awareness of what we now term "subliminal
    advertising" began with the 1957 publication of Vance Packard's book The
    Hidden Persuaders. Although Packard did not use the term "subliminal
    advertising," he did describe many of the new "motivational research"
    marketing techniques being employed to sell products in the burgeoning
    post-war American market. Advertisements that focused on consumers'
    hopes, fears, guilt, and sexuality were designed to persuade them to buy
    products they'd never realized they needed. Marketers who could reach
    into the hearts and minds of American consumers soon found consumers'
    wallets to be within easy grasp as well.

    It was James Vicary who coined the term "subliminal advertising." Vicary
    had conducted a variety of unusual studies of female shopping habits,
    discovering (among other things) that women's eye-blink rates dropped
    significantly in supermarkets, that "psychological spring" lasts more
    than twice as long as "psychological winter," and that "the experience
    of a woman baking a cake could be likened to a woman giving birth."
    Vicary's studies were largely forgettable, save for one experiment he
    conducted at a Ft. Lee, New Jersey movie theater during the summer of
    1957. Vicary placed a tachistoscope in the theater's projection booth,
    and all throughout the playing of the film Picnic, he flashed a couple
    of different messages on the screen every five seconds. The messages
    each displayed for only 1/3000th of a second at a time, far below the
    viewers' threshold of conscious perceptibility. The result of displaying
    these imperceptible suggestions -- "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat
    Popcorn" -- was an amazing 18.1% increase in Coca-Cola sales, and a
    whopping 57.8% jump in popcorn purchases. Thus was demonstrated the
    awesome power of "subliminal advertising" to coerce unwary buyers into
    making purchases they would not otherwise have considered.

    Or so goes the legend that has retained its potency for more than forty
    years. So potent a legend, in fact, that the Federal Communications
    Commission banned "subliminal advertising" from radio and television
    airwaves in 1974, despite that fact that no studies have ever shown it
    to be effective, and even though its alleged efficacy was based on a

    You see, Vicary lied about the results of his experiment. When he was
    challenged to repeat the test by the president of the Psychological
    Corporation, Dr. Henry Link, Vicary's duplication of his original
    experiment produced no significant increase in popcorn or Coca-Cola
    sales. Eventually Vicary confessed that he had falsified the data from
    his first experiments, and some critics have since expressed doubts that
    he actually conducted his infamous Ft. Lee experiment at all.

    As usual, the media (and thereby the public) paid attention only to the
    sensational original story, and the scant coverage given to Vicary's
    later confession was ignored or quickly forgotten. Radio and television
    stations began airing subliminal commercials, leading to two
    congressional bills to ban the practice being introduced in 1958 and
    1959 (both of which died before being voted upon). In 1973, Dr. Wilson
    B. Key picked up where Vicary left off, publishing Subliminal Seduction,
    an indictment of modern advertisements filled with hidden messages and
    secret symbols -- messages and symbols that only Dr. Key could discern
    (including the notorious example of the word "S-E-X" spelled out in the
    ice cubes pictured in a liquor advertisement). The old "subliminal
    advertising" controversy was stirred up again by Dr. Key's book, leading
    to the 24 January 1974 announcement by the FCC that subliminal
    techniques, "whether effective or not," were "contrary to the public
    interest," and that any station employing them risked losing its
    broadcast license.

    For neither the first nor the last time, a great deal of time and money
    and effort was expended on "protecting" the public from something that
    posed no danger to them. As numerous studies over the last few decades
    have demonstrated, subliminal advertising doesn't work; in fact, it
    never worked, and the whole premise was based on a lie from the very
    beginning. James Vicary's legacy was to ensure that a great many people
    will never be convinced otherwise, however.

    Last updated:   1 July 1999

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