Read this Post! WSJ on Subliminal Advertising

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.”


  1. OK, how on Earth did you make the flashing title!??? It even flashes on the Last-24-Hours page!

  2. The dreaded blink tag! It’s totally in bad taste and should never be used.

  3. I don’t know why I clicked over here.

  4. It works! I promise to stop using the blink tag. It’s annoying!

  5. There’s a new card for the deck here (the Fool, perhaps?): if senators are too dull to respond to subliminal advertising, they shouldn’t be trusted to regulate corporations.

  6. Ack! You’ve made the whole side-bar blink! You bastard.

  7. Of course, supraliminal advertising works just fine…

    You know, I’d almost forgotten the blink tag existed – that’s how long it’s been since anyone (or at least, anyone I read) was so crude and ill-mannered as to use it. This has been another episode in my occasional series “HTML tags you wish had never been invented”. Next time – marquee…

  8. I use a proxy called privoxy that kills the blink tag, so I never see it except for whitelisted sites.

  9. Just out of curiosity, I took a look at the Wikipedia article “Subliminal message”. Under the header “History”, it tells much the same story. I don’t know whether this has any profound significance.

  10. I think what we’ve shown here is that while subliminal advertisements might not be picked up by the mind, the human eye is highly susceptible to catching change in the field of vision, and a blinking post title is highly distracting. Not that we didn’t already know that, but more evidence never hurts. Well, it won’t hurt unless one of us decides to track you down and teach you a lesson about using the blink tag…

  11. Pieter B

    Ah, memories. Thanks, Chris, for reminding me of one of the 20th century’s most endearing cranks, Wilson Brian Key. Having worked in commercial photography in my younger years, I found his writings on advertising photographs — which he claimed often weren’t photos at all, but very expensive paintings — particularly amusing when he described photos I’d either seen being shot or had processed while working in professional labs.

  12. I read your blog regularly so I would’ve read it with or without the blinking tag. BUT … the blinking tag would make me more inclined to stay away as it very annoying!

  13. Our Australian Media Watch program just reported that one of our commercial television stations inserted single TV frame sponsors names and logos into a Recording Industry Awards broadcast last week:

    Our code of practice bans subliminal advertising (“any technique which attempts to convey information to the viewer by transmitting messages below or near the threshold of normal awareness”), but of course the television station denies that it is subliminal advertising.

  14. I still find it hilarious that people think that the “threshold of normal awareness” is the kind of thing that is totally hammered out in science. All gorilla-related change blindness studies aside, we’re talking about one of the most poorly-understood concepts in cognitive science.

  15. Well, technically **this** type of subliminal advertising doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean they don’t work at all. The Mindfreak show had a case that give a clear example of how it does work. It requires a) multiple visual cues, b) vocal cues, and c) distracting the person in question from realizing what is happening. In this case the magician managed to convince someone he previously talked to, and asked to write down what he had always wanted as a gift (a leather jacket), to instead be 100% certain that a jacket would be totally useless to him, and that what he had instead always wanted, for years, was a red BMX bike. The sort of subliminal stuff they tried to slip into TV, movies, etc. doesn’t work because the mind is **too** distracted, there are no secondary cues involved, and the dialogs don’t contain the sort of almost Freudian trigger words needed to prime the persons mind to consolidate all the other inputs into a clear action.

    Also, it probably wouldn’t work for someone if the intended action goes against their own normal behavior. You can’t do that. Trying to hypnotize someone to walk down a street naked, for example, isn’t going to work, because its not something they would normally do. Trying to convince them *first* that its not a street, but a long hallway from their shower, and they are looking for a towel *may* work, but it might fail anyway, unless you can convince them enough that their actual real knowledge that it is a street doesn’t override the suggestion, which it probably would anyway. Subliminal suggestion is worse, in that you have to do it while they are awake, aware, and you risk them noticing what you are doing, or where other things can distract them so much that they don’t even passively notice the message. It has to be a) something they are primed for already, b) something they would do anyway, and c) triggered by multiple forms of suggestion. Otherwise, you might as well not bother, from what I can tell.

  16. Ah, memories. Thanks, Chris, for reminding me of one of the 20th century’s most endearing cranks, Wilson Brian Key.

    Was he the inventor of the blink tag?

  17. If nothing else, we got SNL’s Mr. Subliminal out of the deal, so I guess it’s not all bad. 😉

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