Cynthia Crossen writes in today’s Journal about subliminal advertising:
At a New York press conference 50 years ago, a market researcher, James Vicary, announced he had invented a way to make people buy things whether they wanted them or not. It was called subliminal advertising.
He had tested the process at a New Jersey movie theater, he said, where he had flashed the words “Eat Popcorn” or “Coca-Cola” on the screen every five seconds as the films played. The words came and went so fast — in three-thousandths of a second — that the audience didn’t know they’d seen them. Yet sales of popcorn and Coke increased significantly.
While this caused some hysteria and promises by networks to not engage in subliminal advertising, eventually testing undermined Vicary’s claims of efficacy:
…People began trying to replicate Mr. Vicary’s experiment.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. flashed the message “Telephone now” 352 times on a 30-minute program. Of the more than 500 viewers who responded to a follow-up survey, 51% said they felt compelled to “do something” after watching the show. Many said they felt like having something to eat or drink. Only one said she felt like making a phone call.
In another test in San Francisco, 150 viewers, most of them television and radio broadcasters, watched a 25-minute film with an advertising message flashed every five seconds. The viewers then got a ballot with nine product names from which to identify the advertiser. Only 14 people chose the right name, a soft drink. More than twice as many chose a brand of chewing gum.
The Federal Communications Commission ordered Mr. Vicary to demonstrate his device in Washington before a panel of government officials. The message “Eat Popcorn” was transmitted during an episode of “The Grey Ghost.” Sen. Charles E. Potter (R., Mich.) was heard saying to a colleague, “I think I want a hot dog.”
The advertising industry’s trade publication, Printer’s Ink, observed, “Having gone to see something that is not supposed to be seen, and having not seen it, as forecast, the FCC and Congress seemed satisfied.”
Subliminal ads, supporters assured people, were strictly “reminder” ads. “They might move you to do something you like doing, but they’ll never make a Democrat out of a solid Republican, and they’ll never make a Scotch drinker out of a teetotaler,” one advocate told Gay Talese of the New York Times.
In 1962, Mr. Vicary, in an interview, admitted that he had fabricated the results of the popcorn test to drum up business for his market-research firm. Subliminal ads were tossed into the invention junkyard.
“All I accomplished,” he said, “was to put a new word into common usage.”