The term “subliminal advertising” was coined in 1957 by a market researcher named James Vicary. He claimed that he could get people in a cinema to “drink Coca-Cola” and “eat popcorn” by simply fl ashing those messages onscreen for such a short time — 0.03 of a second at five-second intervals — that the viewer wouldn’t notice the words but the suggestion would be received and acted upon.
During screenings of the Kim Novak film Picnic he inserted those messages and claimed that popcorn sales went up 57.5 percent over six weeks while Coke’s sales went up 18.1 percent. Off the back of this, he started an organisation called the Subliminal Projection Company and said it would revolutionise advertising. What it actually did was cause a panic.
Also released that same year was Vance Packard’s best-selling exposé of the advertising industry, The Hidden Persuaders, which mentioned Vicary’s work, adding to the hysteria about the ad men on Madison Avenue. Senators demanded an investigation, the public were scared in case the “Commies” got hold of this mind-washing tool and even the CIA looked into using it, but concluded that “its operational feasibility is exceedingly limited.”
As a result of the fears, subliminal ads were banned from American networks by the National Association of Broadcasters in June 1958. They were also banned in other countries, including Australia and the UK.
Vicary refused to release data from his tests, or even name the cinema where it took place. Some psychologists tried to recreate it without any success and claimed that the subliminal message was no more effective than a slogan on a billboard glimpsed out of the corner of the eye while driving past.
Then in a 1962 Advertising Age interview, Vicary admitted he had fabricated his results and that the original study was “a gimmick” and that the amount of data was “too small to be meaningful”. The idea had taken hold though.
In the 1970s, writer Wilson Key claimed in his book Media Sexplotation that advertising used subliminal sexual symbols to sell products. Key also claimed that the word “sex” was inserted into adverts and even embedded in products (Ritz Crackers being one such example). He claimed that the word was unconsciously received, creating an arousal that made the products more desirable. It was the literal idea that sex sells.
Many people were sceptical of his claims — it all sounded a bit too Manchurian Candidate — but in 1990 Pepsi withdrew its summeredition can design after it was pointed out that, although individually the cans appeared to have a random neonlight design, when stacked on top of each other in the shops, the pattern subtly spelled out the word “sex”.
A spokesperson for Pepsi claimed it was just a coincidence. Also dismissed as coincidence was a George W. Bush’s 2000 election campaign advert in which, alongside images of rival Al Gore, the word “RATS” flashed up for a split second before the complete word “bureaucrats” appeared.
However, public fears over subliminal advertising seem to have faded over the years, as people have become more worried about what they are being openly bombarded with and not so concerned about hidden messages that are just coincidence or paranoia.
But there is a twist to Vicary’s work. In 2007, to mark the fi ftieth anniversary of his claim, an experiment was conducted at the International Brand Marketing Conference. The study was led by a man called Jim Brackin from the ESP Marketing consultancy. Brackin has won over sixty awards for his advertising campaigns and is a qualified hypnotherapist and a master practitioner of neurolinguistics. He asked 1,400 delegates to watch part of the opening credits of the film Picnic, the same film that Vicary used in the ’50s.
Hidden within, Brackin added thirty subliminal cuts over a ninety-second period. The delegates were later asked to choose one of two fictional brands, Delta or Theta — eighty one percent of them picked Delta, the brand suggested by the subliminal cuts. Brackin wasn’t surprised by the results. He claimed that an analysis of the twenty most popular ads ever reveals they all use some form of hypnosis or subliminal techniques to sell their message.
From hypnotic music in the Guinness surfing advert (by British band Leftfield) to simple Neuro Linguistic Programming techniques to placing attractive women smiling in the background (i.e. approving) to link the product with attraction. And despite early attempts to ban it, the use of hypnosis and subliminals to increase market share are widespread in advertising.
“Even though this technique’s fifty years old, and there are more sophisticated techniques being used in advertising today, this demonstrates the powerful influence of the subliminal message,” Brackin said. “The subliminal cut was the mother of all hypnotic techniques and today her children walk all around you. They’re everywhere, in posters, press advertising, on the radio and TV. They’re the legal siblings of a banned parent.
[For Esquire magazine, Nov 2011]