The phrase subliminal advertising, which first appeared in American mass media in September 1957, refers to ad messages intended not to be consciously perceived. It has been applied incorrectly to techniques such as the depiction in ads of scantily clad women and the use of single-frame cuts (a single frame of motion-picture film or single video image spliced into a film sequence or reel, a process that has been legally banned from use in commercials in several countries).
The phrase "subliminal advertising" has also been used to describe the supposed depiction in ads of sexual organs, vulgar words and death's-heads, as well as the use of dominant trade colors in advertising illustrations (e.g., the use of "Newport blue" as the color of the ocean that appears in a beach scene in an ad for Newport cigarettes), all of which can readily be perceived consciously.
Only images or sounds that cannot be consciously recognized are literally subliminal, however. Despite extensive testing, no significant effects on brand awareness or buying behavior have been proven for such messages.
In 1956, the British Broadcasting Corp. tested subthreshold awareness by flashing a four-word news item for 1/25th of a second during a TV program and deemed the results inconclusive. The only on-air tests in the U.S. reported to the Federal Communications Commission were conducted by two TV stations, WTWO in Bangor, Maine and WTTV in Bloomington, Ind., in 1958. Neither had any significant effect. A test the same year by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that involved flashing the words "Telephone now" during a half-hour program resulted in no calls.
Despite the failure of these efforts to show any effect, the association of advertisers in Britain banned use of such techniques by members and the National Association of Broadcasters amended its code of ethical practices to discourage subliminal ads. In addition, numerous legislative provisions have been initiated in the U.S. to prohibit a practice that has neither been proven to be possible nor to have any effect on attitudes, opinions or behavior. No cases have been prosecuted.
There have been several fictitious examples of subliminal advertising, most notably the famous "Popcorn Experiment" reported in 1957, which proved to be a fraud perpetrated to boost the consulting business of a self-employed market researcher named James McDonald Vicary. In September 1957, Printers' Ink reported that Mr. Vicary had demonstrated his purported subliminal technique in a film studio in New York to some 50 reporters.
The article also described a purportedly scientific test in a motion picture theater in which, Mr. Vicary claimed, 45,699 persons unknowingly had been exposed to two ad messages projected subliminally on alternate nights. One message, he said, advised the movie-goers to "Eat popcorn," the other to "Drink Coca-Cola." According to Mr. Vicary, the invisible advertising increased popcorn sales an average of 57.5% and sales of Coca-Cola an average of 18.1%.
But the operation was apparently a fabrication. An article in Advertising Age on Sept. 17, 1962, the fifth anniversary of Mr. Vicary's original announcement, quoted him as admitting his "Popcorn Experiment" was a "gimmick" intended to save his failing business and that it had no scientific or practical validity.
The only official test of subliminal advertising was ordered by the FCC and conducted in Washington in January 1958. There, Mr. Vicary reportedly flashed an "Eat popcorn" message for members of the FCC, Congress and the media. The only response recorded was that of Sen. Charles E. Potter of Michigan who said, "I think I want a hot dog."
Perhaps the fiction of subliminal advertising was accepted so readily in the late 1950s in part because U.S. military propaganda after the Korean War (1950-53) attributed the defection of some American troops to a mysterious new tactic called "brainwashing." Another factor might have been the 1953 activities of Sen. Joseph McCarthy in overzealously hunting down "Communists."
"The Hidden Persuaders"
The idea that devious and perhaps evil conspiracies abounded and were secretly influencing the American people was further enhanced by the 1957 publication of Vance Packard's "The Hidden Persuaders." An immediate best-seller, the book revealed manipulation of American consumers consciously through the mass media.
In the early 1970s, Canadian sociologist Wilson Bryan Key gave subliminal advertising a new twist. His thesis was that obscene words and images are secretly "embedded" in ads to make people buy things they do not want or need. Mr. Key wrote four books on the topic, but they have not been particularly influential.
Ad executives have observed that if subliminal advertising were actually practiced, there would be subliminal boutique agencies and many technical books offering detailed analyses of how to do it. In fact, there are neither.
Furthermore, if subliminal messages were truly effective, government agencies would by now have successfully used the technique to eliminate child abuse, drug addiction, drunk driving and tax evasion.