Claim: An early experiment in subliminal advertising at a movie theater substantially increased sales of popcorn and Coke.
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
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
Or so goes the legend that has retained its potency for more than forty years, which includes the belief the Federal Communications Commission banned “subliminal advertising” from radio and television airwaves in 1974, despite that fact that no studies had shown it to be effective, and even though its alleged efficacy was based on a fraud.
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,
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,
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.
Sightings: The “subliminal cut spurs popcorn sales” is explicitly mentioned in a 1973 Columbo movie (“
Last updated: 3 May 2011
Haberstroh, Jack. Ice Cube Sex. Notre Dame: CrossRoads Books, 1994. ISBN 0-940121-17-4 (pp. 7-10, 130). Key, Wilson B. Subliminal Seduction. New York: Signet, 1973. Rogers, Stuart. “How a Publicity Blitz Created the Myth of Subliminal Advertising.” Public Relations Quarterly. Winter 1993 (pp. 12-17).