In September 1957,
I began what to me was a serious study of contemporary applied
psychology at Hofstra College in Hempstead, Long Island.
At exactly the same time, in nearby New York City, an unemployed
market researcher named James M. Vicary made a startling
announcement based on research in high-speed photography
later popularised by Eastman Kodak Company.
Some time before, a device had been developed that could
emit a flash of white light at a speed of 1/580, 000th of
a second. it was called a tachistoscope.
The light pulse of the tachistoscope was so fast that it
was imperceptible to human consciousness - what I was learning
as a psychology student to call "subliminal" because
it was below ("sub") the threshold ("limen")
of human perception.[Note that what
is at issue here in this article is really the relevance
of electronic means of producing subliminal images/messages.
The Subliminal World web site is concerned with the quite
different issue of embedded, secondary or semi-subliminal
images in print.Whilst the secondary imagery is often included
under the rubric of subliminal advertising - and shares
some of the same qualities with regard to conscious awareness
and potential to influence viewers - there are major differences
concerning exposure over time and the meaningfulness of
imagery. Ads can be perused over time, subliminal presentations
by tachistoscope, computer, tv screen, etc are either noted
or overlooked, they cannot be 'returned to' for a second
viewing. Stimuli in experiments are usually discrete and
meaningful ( when considered consciously ) whereas secondary
imagery in ads are usually thematic, emotive and make sense
only within a specific context set by the ad and the viewer.
Retainers and Consulting Fees
Armed with the scientific sound of "tachistoscope"
Vicary invented a sparkling new pseudoscience, and proceeded
to contact the CEOs, marketing directors, and advertising
managers of multimillion-dollar corporations headquartered
in New York City. Basically, he offered to serve them on
retainer as a motivational research consultant while he
developed the process he called "subliminal advertising".
His persuasive sales pitch was that consumers
would comprehend information projected at 1/60,000th of
a second, although they could not literally "see"
the flash. And he sent a news release to the major media
announcing his "discovery" without any scientific
The Demon Rum
..................Vicary ........was helped
substantially when the Women's Christian Temperance Union
(WCTU) immediately issued a [press] release of their own,
apparently prompted by Vicary's martini remark.
For reasons they never explained, these teatotalling
[This Freudian spelling mistake appeared
in the original article] ladies suspected that the
deviish subliminal techniques they had been reading about
in the newspapers were being used by breweries and distillieries
to "increase their sagging sales", as their release
In fact, beer and liquor sales had not
been sagging at all, but the claim made another good
story, so the media ran the WCTU release with all the enthusiasm
they had devoted to Jim Vicary's fabrications.
The famous popcorn experiment
The [press] release said than in an unidentified
motion picture theater a "scientific test" had
been conducted inwhich 45,699 persons unknowingly had been
exposed to two advertising messages projected subliminally
on alternate nights. One message, the release claimed, had
advised the moviegoers to "Eat Popcorn" while
the other had read "Drink Coca-Cola."
Vicary swore that the invisible advertising
had increased sales of popcorn an average of 57.5 percent,
and increased the sales of Coca-Coal an average of 18.1
A Confusion of Fictions
Shortly thereafter, presumably on the basis
of a personal interview with Vicary, Motion Picture Daily
disclosed that the site of the experiment had been the
movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey.
It's interesting that we now more often hear
today that the site of the now-famous Popcorn Experiment
was Grover's Mill, New Jersey.
Grover's Mill, of course, was the site chosen
for the landing of the Martian invasion fleet in Orson Wells'
classic radio dramatization of War of the Worlds -
an event I now believe was just as accurately and honestly
presented as Jim Vicary's subliminal advertising experiments.
When I learned of Vicary's claim, I made the
short drive to Fort Lee to learn first-hand about his clearly
The size of the small-town theater suggested
it should have taken considerably more than six weeks to
complete a test of nearly 50,000 movie patrons.
But even more perplexing was the response
of the theater manager to my eager questioning. He declared
that no such text had ever been conducted at his
There went my term paper for my psychology
Soon after my disappointment, Motion Picture
Daily reported that the same theater manager had sworn
to one of its reporters that there had been no effect
on refreshment stand patronage, whether a test had
been conducted or not - a rather curious form of denia,
The FCC Picks up the Gauntlet
....the FCC [Federal Communications Commission]
ordered Vicary's firm, The Subliminal Projection Company,
to conduct a closed-circuit demonstration of their secret
in Washington, D.C.
The advertising industry's senior publication
at the time, Printer's Ink, observed wryly, "Having
gone to see something that is not supposed to be seen, and
having not seen it, as forecast, [the FCC and Congressmen]
In fact, so thoroughly did all assembled not
see anything that the only reported response was that
of Senator Charles e. Potter (Republican, Michigan). "I
think I want a hot dog," he said.
"This innocent little technique,"
Vicary announced a short time later, "is going to sell
a hell of a lot of goods."
In early 1958, the National Association of
Broadcasters, in a move undoubtedly designed to forestall
federal and state legislation, boldly banned the broadcast
of that which had yet to be proved to exist.
And despoite all the Top Secret treatment
that Vicary claimed for his purported patent application,
years later - in1969, when I went to Washington to work
on a project for the U.S. Patent Office - no one there could
find any record of a Vicary patent application, nor anything
related to a device to project subliminal advertising.[What
about Becker's little Black Box? This is discussed in many
Since Vicary's announcements began in September
1957, results of psychological studies have proved the validity
of the observation that a "strong stimulus produces
a strong response, and a weak stimulus produces a weak response."[Responses
to Marlboro, Camel and other ads undoubtedly are weak and
may even be weaker than the influence of weak stimuli produced
by tachistoscopes, etc. But see the reports on the
experimental pages. Nevertheless, even if weak, the
intentional uuse of such stimuli is unethical. If they influence
anyone at all it is still socially undesirable. Where products
are addictive and potentially lethal, the use of secondary
elements in ads is totally unacceptable.]
Messages that are projected (as Vicary proposed)
at light levels significantly below the level of screen
images, and for such short periods of time that they cannot
even be perceived, cannot reasonably be expected to have
any effect at all on behavior. All the behavioral
studies I have read since 1957 indicate that zero perception
equals zero response, and so "subliminal"
means in practical terms "no effect".[Whilst
this conclusion does not seem to be an accurate reflection
of the conclusions that can be drawn from decades of studies
into subliminal perception there are important issues associated
with stimuli that are presented using other forms of media.
Try focussing on studies involving stimuli that were deemed
contentious i.e. not truly subliminal because viewers may
just have perceived them. Call these studies involving borderline
perceptual stimuli and one can then equate them to secondary
imagery in printed ads. In both instances one has phenomenon
that are not consciously appreciated but can still influence
the judgements of viewers. If judgements are influenced,
how can one reasonably say that behaviour is not ultimately
influenced? It would be akin to saying that if one did not
respond immediately to viewing an ad that subsequent behaviour
was not related in any way to the ad. Bear in mind also
that most people do not believe they are influenced by ads.
If this were the case then billions of pounds, dollars and
yen are wasted every year. ]
The Corner of Your Eye
Yet his [Vicary] claims grew weaker and vaguer
with each passing month. By spring he stated that subliminal
advertising would only work as what he called "reminder
advertising" - with " a level of affect similar
to that of a billboard seen out of the corner of the
eye from a speeding car (emphasis added).[Ironically,
recent research into subliminal perception does indicate
that subliminal stimuli are, in fact, most likely to make
an impact if viewed with peripheral vision.]
This was a far cry, indeed, from his descriptions
of the irrespressible and irresistable force he had claimed
to have harnessed less than eight months earlier.
Millions in Fees
Despite this backk-pedalling on the potential
power and influence of his purported discovery, by the middle
of 1958, James M. Vicary had reportedly signed contracts
with many of the corporations headquartered in New York
City which he had targeted back in 1957.
It has been estimated that he collected retainer
and consulting fees from America's largerst advertisers
totalling some $4.5 million- about $22.5 million in today's
Then, some time in June 1958, Mr. Vicary disappeared
from the New York marketing scene, reportedly leaving no
bank accounts, no clothers in his closet, and no hing as
to where he might have gone.
The big advertisers, apparently ashamed of
having been fooled by such an obvious scam, have said nothing
since about subliminal advertising, except to deny that
they have ever used it.[ Yet, Rogers
and Seiler expected their employees to be open and honest
about using related techniques. The present author does
not expect such honesty when he attempts to determine who
precisely produced the ads discussed on this web site, unless
the individuals concerned are naive with respect to the
ethical issues involved and are unaware that they are, in
fact, producing stimuli on the borderline of perceptual
ability. Different professional backgrounds may lead to
different views on what is 'subliminal' and unethical. For
example, individuals coming from an arts background into
advertising may simply see such phenomema as a means of
heightening emotive responses and not as manipulative (
click here for some examples of 'subliminal'
art ). One would not expect such naivety in individuals,
regardless of their background, if they were working on
cigarette and spirits ads. ]
Extracts from Stuart Roger's article
How a Publicity Blitz Created the Myth of Subliminal
Advertising. Public Relations Quarterly, Winter, 1992-93.