Advertising Educational Foundation

[Editor’s Note: This article is a part of ADText A revised version of this article is available here.]

Fig. 1. Movies Were a Popular Summertime Activity in 1957 []
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Fig. 1.

Movies Were a Popular Summertime Activity in 1957 [Source]

It’s the summer of 1957 in the suburbs of New York City. The afternoon is hot and you’re trying to stay cool. A recent polio scare makes public swimming pools seem dangerous. Department stores are air conditioned, but you’re trying to save instead of spending all your money. A movie theatre — the dark, cool movie theatre with the big screen — seems a perfect place to spend the hottest hours. You decide on Picnic starring William Holden and Kim Novak at the Lee Theatre. inline graphic inline graphic

Now imagine yourself inside — relaxing, cooling off, and watching the story unfold. You managed to pass up popcorn, candy, and a soft drink on your way in, but you did find a great seat. To simulate this experience, click on the image in Figure 1 and watch Kim Novak sashay her way down the stairs toward William Holden. It’s a memorable scene. Relax, enjoy it, and try to put yourself in the frame of mind of a moviegoer in 1957. inline graphic inline graphic

A Scene from the Movie Picnic []
Fig. 2.

A Scene from the Movie Picnic [Source]

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All of a sudden, you start thinking about popcorn and a Coke. You try to put the thought out of your mind, but it keeps coming back. You don’t want to miss any of the movie, but you’ve got to have popcorn. You can’t stop thinking about it. inline graphic inline graphic

This seems like a perfectly plausible situation — a movie, popcorn, and a Coke on a hot summer afternoon. But are your urges your own, or are you being subliminally manipulated? Advertising Age reported the following story on September 16, 1957: inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 3. Advertising Age Reports Use of Subliminal Advertising []
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Fig. 3.

Advertising Age Reports Use of Subliminal Advertising [Source]

Subliminal comes from Latin (sub = “below” + limen “threshold”) and refers to perception that occurs below the threshold of human consciousness. Subliminal advertising, as a term, did not come into general use until the 1970s.

Thus begins the story of subliminal advertising in America. It’s a story that has been told over and over but not without frightening the public, making advertisers angry, and increasing the general level of suspicion and distrust of the advertising industry. This unit examines subliminal communication, its supposed applications in advertising, and the public’s fascination and horror of it. inline graphic inline graphic

1. The Furor over Subliminal Perception

Early in 1958, Life magazine described “hidden” selling techniques in basic layman’s terms to its extensive readership — images that flash too quickly for the conscious mind but nonetheless register unconsciously. It went on to suggest that several repetitions of such messages could affect a person’s actions. inline graphic inline graphic

This article included images showing precisely what Vicary had claimed to do. Hungry? Eat Popcorn appears in one frame and fades quickly in another. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 4. Life Used This Image to Explain Subliminal Advertising to an Interested Public []
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Fig. 4.

Life Used This Image to Explain Subliminal Advertising to an Interested Public [Source]

Life treated subliminal advertising as fact and discussed its potential not only in selling but also in gaining support for anti-litter campaigns and even promoting political candidates. inline graphic inline graphic

Norman Cousins, the influential editor of The Saturday Review, addressed his readers: “Welcome to 1984.” He meant, of course, the nightmarish world described by George Orwell in the novel 1984 in which a totalitarian government watches over every move and monitors the private, inner thoughts of its citizens. In his editorial in the October 5, 1957 issue, he warned his readers of the ominous prospects of subliminal communications. inline graphic inline graphic

Cousins noted that Vicary claimed to be aware of the potentially dangerous uses of subliminal communication and had suggested warning the public when subliminal techniques were in use. He even suggested that some sort of governmental regulation might be needed. Cousins himself denounced the subconscious assault in the strongest terms:

There is only one kind of regulation or ruling that could possibly make any sense in this case; and that would be to take this invention and everything connected to it and attach it to the center of the next nuclear explosive scheduled for testing.1 inline graphic inline graphic

As this issue of The Saturday Review was in press, in fact the day before its publication date of October 5th, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, marking the beginning of the space age and the USA-USSR space race. It seemed to many that the world was being bombarded from many directions — from the Soviets who were ahead of the US into space and from those attempting to colonize the inner workings of human consciousness. inline graphic inline graphic

Read the materials introduced into the Congressional Record on January 28, 1958, concerning subliminal telecasts.

Almost simultaneously, the US government turned its attention to both these issues. Congress beefed up the space exploration program and quickly passed the National Defense Education Act to enhance science education. Congress and the Federal Trade Commission held hearings on subliminal communications. At the end of November 1957, the trade publication Sponsor reported that many Congressmen were outraged over the idea of subliminal advertising, the Federal Trade Commission was investigating the technique, and the National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters had asked its members to report on any uses of subliminal techniques. Sponsor warned that subliminal techniques may already be in use on TV despite the fact that many broadcasters were calling them immoral and unethical.2 inline graphic inline graphic

In the 1950s, the term admen was commonly used for people working in the ad industry. In more recent years, women have outnumbered men. In 2003, US Government statistics showed 59% of the industry was female.

As this uproar settled down a bit over the next few weeks and months, legislation was introduced in Congress that would make subliminal communications illegal. But some Congressmen felt that legislation against something that could not be seen or perceived was unnecessary. Although the proposed legislation failed to pass, the legacy of public outrage and government concern lived on. Wary of how it would be received, admen seemed cautious and often uninterested. In 1958, the Advertising Research Foundation issued a report entitled, “The Application of Subliminal Perception in Advertising,” which concluded:

The available experiments and observations on “subliminal perception” [referring to decades of psychological research] seem to indicate that in certain instances human subjects are capable of responding to stimuli which are so weak in intensity, duration, size or clarity, that they are not consciously aware of them. The evidence is insufficient to draw any conclusions about the merits or even the possibility of subliminal advertising.3 inline graphic inline graphic

2. The TV Spot Heard Around the World

Advertising Age and Adweek are trade publications that follow the advertising industry. Reading either of them is a good means of keeping abreast of the latest trends and issues in advertising.

In 1962, Advertising Age published a retrospective look at subliminal advertising, calling it “the TV spot heard round the world.” Reporter Fred Danzig noted the nearly universal condemnation that the idea had received. He went looking for James Vicary five years after the furor he had caused. Vicary, who was then employed as survey research director for Dun & Bradstreet, talked candidly with Danzig. He told this story:

You know, I first had the idea for subliminal many years ago, but I was ashamed of it. It struck me as a form of high jinks I didn’t want to have anything to do with. I never regarded myself as a wheeler-and-dealer. But years later, there I was in my own business and the people who were putting up the money thought I should stir things up. They thought it was a good time to pull subliminal out of the drawer. Maybe it would help business. So we worked out this apparatus to make subliminal advertising work.... We applied for a patent, after testing the thing in a movie theater in Fort Lee, N. J. The story leaked out to some newspaper guys and we were forced to come out with subliminal before we were ready. Worse than the timing, though, was the fact that we hadn’t done any research, except what was needed for filing a patent.4 inline graphic inline graphic

Defending himself as naïve and innocent, Vicary went on to say that what had bothered him most was the public’s outrage at his idea. He shunned public appearances, unlisted his phone number, and feared for his life. He expressed surprise at the fact that the State of New York had refused to grant him a license to practice as a psychologist. When Danzig had found him working for Dun & Bradstreet, Vicary was trying to rehabilitate his image and didn’t want to be known as “Mr. Subliminal.” inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 5. James Vicary (L) with Colleagues from Subliminal Projection Co. []
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Fig. 5.

James Vicary (L) with Colleagues from Subliminal Projection Co. [Source]

What is most clear through all of this is that subliminal advertising was a hot potato tossed here and there. Nobody wanted to claim it, own it, or admit to practicing it — most of all admen. There seemed to be no research showing that it produced results, and any association with it brought on the public’s fear and wrath. It is an idea that might have, like Vicary, passed slowly into the status of “has been” on its road to oblivion. inline graphic inline graphic

3. The Broader Picture

The year 1957 had also witnessed the publication of a highly influential book, The Hidden Persuaders, by Vance Packard. The book brought motivational research techniques to public attention for the first time. These techniques were used by advertisers and marketers to delve more deeply into consumer psychology than what could be learned simply by asking people questions about their likes and dislikes. Packard discussed research techniques that measure such things as pupil dilation to monitor pleasurable responses to TV commercials, changes in voice pitch that show positive and negative reactions to products, squirming in wired theatre seats that shows boredom levels of viewers, and brain wave activities that gauge level of arousal created by ad imagery. Although such physiological responses to external stimuli had been recognized in psychological research much earlier, it was their application to marketing that concerned Packard. His thesis was simple: We are being monitored, managed, and manipulated outside our conscious awareness by advertisers and marketers. His exposé was detailed, quoted evidence (including many research studies), and included chapter headings like “The Psycho-Seduction of Children” and “New Frontiers for Recruiting Customers.” inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 6. Packard’s Best-Selling Book Sullied Advertising’s Image []
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Fig. 6.

Packard’s Best-Selling Book Sullied Advertising’s Image [Source]

Packard alerted consumers to early examples of the now common practice of product placement, which he also considered to be a covert form of advertising. He called on the public to wake up to the existence of motivational research and initiated a public debate on the morality of its uses. His revelations about hidden techniques and invisible pitches struck a responsive chord in the American public, all too recently disturbed by the so-called brainwashing techniques that had been used in the Korean War. There was a general fear in the public of brainwashing, spying, and invasion of privacy. Packard’s book added fuel to this fire. By the 1960s, Packard’s claims, bolstered by the supposed popcorn experiment, made their way into psychology classes all over America. It became common knowledge that advertisers carefully constructed ads and researched responses to them even more painstakingly. Packard went on the public lecture circuit and testified before Congress. Professors included information from his book in their lectures. And advertising and manipulation became almost synonymous in the public’s mind. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 7. Packard Railed Against Advertising in Washington []
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Fig. 7.

Packard Railed Against Advertising in Washington [Source]

4. The Advertising Industry Responds

The advertising industry — like all trade and professional organizations — is made up of individuals and companies who compete with one another. It is therefore unreasonable to expect there to be a single opinion or a single voice of such a diverse group. However, Advertising Age reported in its retrospective piece on subliminal advertising that the general response of most admen to the idea had been embarrassment and denunciation. Only a “brave few” admen had publicly stated that they would use the technique if it could help their clients.5 inline graphic inline graphic

One response of the industry to subliminal advertising that began shortly after it appeared on the scene was to poke fun at it. Spoofing the idea showed the public that subliminal advertising was not a serious technique — only a joke about the serious work of promoting products. For example, an early TV commercial from 1958 introduced the new model Chevrolet with playful reference to subliminal techniques of communication. inline graphic inline graphic

Advertisers Frequently Spoofed Claims about Subliminal Ads []
Fig. 8.

Advertisers Frequently Spoofed Claims about Subliminal Ads [Source]

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The black-and-white commercial features Dinah Shore and Pat Boone, each of whom was a well-known, wholesome celebrity at the time. Dinah Shore had her own weekly variety show that was sponsored by Chevrolet. She was continually belting out lines like, “See the USA in your Chevrolet!” for the sponsor. Pat Boone was a popular recording artist whose records were top sellers. Together they made an earnest, trustworthy team. inline graphic inline graphic

The lyrics of the spot ask viewers if they know about the clever new way to communicate, explain it briefly, and finally encourage viewers to go to dealerships to have a good look at the new car. In the meantime, they say, viewers get an image flashed quickly on the screen (three times as it turns out). The image flashes too quickly to be examined in any detail, and thus a visit to the show room is necessary. inline graphic inline graphic

Although the song claims that the image is “subliminal,” it is not really subliminal at all because it can be seen briefly and recognized as a Chevrolet. If it were a real subliminal message in the terms discussed above, it could not be perceived consciously nor would the advertisement speak directly about the subliminal communication. In fact, the commercial mocks subliminal advertising and serves instead to invite viewers to visit Chevrolet dealers’ show rooms all over the country when the model comes out. inline graphic inline graphic

Perhaps the most common responses of Madison Avenue to the idea of subliminal advertising in the late 1950s were to ignore it, to disclaim it, or to poke fun at it. What the industry did not do was to launch any serious effort to counter the claims of Vicary, Packard, and others who were concerned about invisible, covert, and subliminal manipulations of consumers. The public response of admen seems to have been to let the idea of subliminal advertising wither and die on the vine. inline graphic inline graphic

There is some evidence that advertising agencies and large corporations, not wanting other agencies and corporations to get the jump on them, did investigate and invest in subliminal advertising. Several seem to have engaged the services of Vicary as a paid consultant. According to Stuart Rogers writing in Public Relations Quarterly in the early 1990s, “it has been estimated that [Vicary] collected retainer and consulting fees from America ‘s largest advertisers totaling some $4.5 million.”6 inline graphic inline graphic

However, there is no real evidence that advertising agencies — given the extremely negative public reception that subliminal projection had received — actually used subliminal techniques as a major means of communicating with consumers. By the end of the 1960s, the brouhaha over subliminal advertising had diminished significantly. In place of Vance Packard’s book as a best seller had come David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man (1963), an autobiography that talks specifically about overt, conscious, and apparently successful advertising techniques. Nowhere in the book does Ogilvy even mention motivational research or subliminal techniques. Rather he focuses on sharing his guidelines for producing winning advertisements. In a chapter on great advertising campaigns, he gives his eleven commandments:

  1. 1. What you say is more important than how you say it.

  2. 2. Unless your campaign is built around a great idea, it will flop.

  3. 3. Give the facts.

  4. 4. You cannot bore people into buying.

  5. 5. Be well-mannered, but don’t clown.

  6. 6. Make your advertising contemporary.

  7. 7. Committees can criticize advertisements, but they cannot write them.

  8. 8. If you are lucky enough to write a good advertisement, repeat it until it stops pulling.

  9. 9. Never write an advertisement which you wouldn’t want your own family to read.

  10. 10. Every advertisement should be thought of as a contribution to the brand image.

  11. 11. Don’t be a copy-cat.7 inline graphic inline graphic

These pieces of advice, drawn from Ogilvy’s highly successful career, are straightforward. They are a distillation of what works for him. When they are followed, secret or hidden manipulative techniques are irrelevant. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 9. An Example of David Ogilvy’s Advertising Methods []
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Fig. 9.

An Example of David Ogilvy’s Advertising Methods [Source]

5. The Rebirth of Subliminal Advertising

Wilson Bryan Key talks candidly with Stuart Ewen about his career, including his dismissal from a tenured professorship, in an interview published in Advertising & Society Review.

That might have been the end of subliminal advertising, save for an enterprising college professor named Wilson Bryan Key who became a new champion of the idea. In 1972, Key published a book entitled Subliminal Seduction, which as it turned out would be the first of five books published between 1972 and 1992, each with essentially the same message. inline graphic inline graphic

The paperback edition of Subliminal Seduction contained what may be one of the most provocative book covers ever. It features a large, central photograph of a mixed drink — large ice cubes, a clear liquid such as a Martini, and a twist of lemon in a drink glass — and with this caption in red letters: Are You Being Sexually Aroused by this Picture? Key’s book was a best seller. Who could resist the pitch: an explanation of sexual arousal? inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 10. Key’s Book Cover Asks: Are You Being Sexually Aroused by this Picture? []
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Fig. 10.

Key’s Book Cover Asks: Are You Being Sexually Aroused by this Picture? [Source]

The book contained a restatement of the claims of Packard and Vicary along with some new “evidence” from Key and his students. Key argued that advertisers embed images of body parts like breasts and genitals, wild animals, and other stimulating or terrifying images in ads. These embeddings are not immediately obvious to readers, but they are picked up subliminally and interpreted by our unconscious minds. We are stimulated by them and ultimately motivated to purchase the advertised products and brands that use them. inline graphic inline graphic

Although Key discusses evidence from research findings and other sources that supports the idea of motivational research in general and subliminal communication in particular, his books are far from any systematic scientific investigation of the topic. For example, a typical experiment for him is to ask his students to relax and look at an image and then state the first thing that pops into their minds. Then they go looking for hidden images such as a dog’s face, a phallic symbol, a human body — embedded in a pool of water, a cluster of foliage, or the ice cubes in a glass. inline graphic inline graphic

Key includes images drawn from advertisements that illustrate the process. For example, he claims that the letters S-E-X appear in the ice cubes in the Gilbey’s Gin ad reproduced in Figure 11. For Key, this is clear evidence of the shenanigans of admen. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 11. The Word S-E-X is Visible in the Ice Cubes []
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Fig. 11.

The Word S-E-X is Visible in the Ice Cubes [Source]

A group of marketing students went looking for the producers of the Gilbey’s Gin ad and published their findings in Advertising Age.

Another example of this “deviousness” appears in Figure 12a. This Canadian ad for Jantzen swimwear features both a male and a female model wearing swimsuits whose design motif paid homage to the then relatively new Canadian flag. To the innocent reader, it makes sense that bathing suit ads focus on the particular zone of the body that is covered. But Key warns, there is much more to this ad. inline graphic inline graphic

If the ad is inverted (as shown in Figure 12b), then it is possible to see a face close to the woman’s crotch. The figure in the water is blowing directly into the woman’s genital area, making the bathing suit much more appealing because it is not only sexy but about sexual stimulation itself. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 12a. An Image from Media Sexploitation []
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Fig. 12a.

An Image from Media Sexploitation [Source]

Fig. 12b. The Upturned Ad Reveals a Hidden Face According to Key []
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Fig. 12b.

The Upturned Ad Reveals a Hidden Face According to Key [Source]

It is examples like these that comprise Key’s claims. They come from his ever-watchful eye and those of students whom he has trained to look for these embedded words and images. Key argues that by exposing these techniques we can diffuse their power over us. inline graphic inline graphic

His later books extend this message primarily by showing the broader uses of such subliminal techniques — on the front page of the New York Times, for example, to sell newspapers, in ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel to enhance Michelangelo’s art, and most frequently of all in advertising and marketing. He claims that Nabisco intentionally bakes the word S-E-X several times in each Ritz cracker to make “the damned things taste better.”8 inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 13. Key Finds Subliminal Imprints in Ritz Crackers []
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Fig. 13.

Key Finds Subliminal Imprints in Ritz Crackers [Source]

Key tells the story of going to a Howard Johnson’s restaurant with a group of students. Before long they had managed to find not just an image of fried clams on the paper placemat, but a subliminal scene of several human bodies (and an animal) engaged in a sexual orgy.9 Such techniques, according to Key, are fully intentional, carefully researched, and enhance sales. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 14. A Subliminal Orgy Scene Discovered by Key []
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Fig. 14.

A Subliminal Orgy Scene Discovered by Key [Source]

In addition to writing best sellers, Key was for many years popular on the lecture circuit. He addressed public audiences and spoke on college campuses, much as Vance Packard had done a generation earlier. The appeal of his topic, according to one Duke professor, drew one of the three largest audiences he had seen at his university outside sporting events and commencement. The other two top draws were a Nobel Prize winner (Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa) and a sitting American president (Ronald Reagan). Another professor who heard Key’s presentation — a kind of mass hypnosis in which the crowd was asked to look for images in the clouds together — expressed concern about what passed for the scientific method in Key’s presentations and what a disservice he did to serious scholarship though his modern Barnum-like shows. inline graphic inline graphic

6. The Advertising Industry Responds to Wilson Bryan Key

John O’Toole, President of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and thus often called on to speak on behalf on the industry, denounced both subliminal advertising and Wilson Bryan Key in his 1980 book, The Trouble with Advertising. O’Toole, who had previously headed the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency, wrote in his book:

There is no such thing as subliminal advertising. I have never seen an example of it, nor have I ever heard it seriously discussed as a technique by advertising people.... It’s demeaning to assume that the human mind is so easily controlled that anyone can be made to act against his will or better judgment by peremptory commands he doesn’t realize are present. Even more absurd is the theory proposed by Wilson Bryan Key in a sleazy book entitled Subliminal Seduction. From whatever dark motivations, Key finds sexual symbolism in every ad and commercial.10 inline graphic inline graphic

While O’Toole was president of the 4A’s, the industry finally responded to charges of subliminal embeddings in advertisements. Specifically targeting universities and college professors, the 4A’s mailed thousands of posters disclaiming subliminal advertising and arguing that the so-called embedded images are like rabbits in the clouds — something imagined by the viewer rather than something placed there by advertisers. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 15. The 4A’s Responds to Subliminal Claims []
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Fig. 15.

The 4A’s Responds to Subliminal Claims [Source]

Jack Haberstroh, a marketing professor firmly convinced that the phenomenon of subliminal perception is real but its use by advertisers is infrequent, wrote a book entitled Ice Cube Sex: The Truth about Subliminal Advertising (1994). He takes the advertising industry to task for saying so little about subliminal advertising. By keeping mum while Key was publishing, lecturing, and promoting his claims, the belief that advertisers regularly use subliminal techniques was allowed to grow. Reporting a research study commissioned by the House of Seagram’s in 1991, Haberstroh noted that “62% of all U.S. adults think that subliminal messages are being constantly and deliberately embedded in the nation’s advertising.”11 inline graphic inline graphic

Haberstroh cites Jock Elliott’s12 commentary on subliminal advertising in general and on Haberstroh’s invitation to Wilson Bryan Key to lecture at his university.13 Elliott wrote:

Every time we practitioners visit a campus (which is pretty often), we are almost invariably asked about subliminal advertising. Our continual explanations that the practice simply doesn’t exist are usually met with varying degrees of skepticism. Why? Because Mr. Key has been preaching his hokum with the blessings of the educational institutions. Why in heaven’s name, did Prof. Haberstroh invite Mr. Key to lecture to his students in the first place? A terrible disservice to advertising and, more important, to his students. inline graphic inline graphic

(Elliott, quoted in Haberstroh 1994:84)

Key wrote to Advertising Age responding to Elliott’s comments:

In answer to the primitive wailings of Jock Elliott, Jr. (AA, Oct. 4), who would ban my books about subliminal advertising from university campuses and who wants the academic world to “shut up” on the subject, his intemperate admonishments did more to confirm my data than anything in my three books. inline graphic inline graphic

(Key, quoted in Haberstroh 1994:92)

7. What Do Psychologists Say about Subliminal Advertising?

Aside from possible application to advertising, do subliminal influences on behavior actually work? Psychologists Anthony Pratkanis and Elliot Aronson of the University of California, Santa Cruz examine the question in their 1992 book, Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion. Their conclusion is that subliminal messages do not appear to be able to affect subsequent human behavior, such as buying decisions.

During the last few years, we have been collecting published articles on subliminal processes, gathering more than 150 articles from the mass media and more than 200 academic papers on the topic (a stack nearly 2 feet tall). In none of these papers is there clear evidence in support of the proposition that subliminal messages influence behavior. Many of the studies fail to find an effect, and those that do are either fatally flawed on methodological grounds or cannot be reproduced. Other reviewers of this literature have reached the same conclusion.14 inline graphic inline graphic

Pratkanis and Aronson do note, however, that there is some evidence for subliminal perception itself. The “cocktail party phenomenon” illustrates this. A person at a party who is engaged in a conversation may suddenly perk up when he hears his or her name mentioned by someone not in the group. This sudden awareness suggests that there is some minimal processing outside conscious awareness, but how this phenomenon works is unclear. Despite effects such as this one, they report that “no study has demonstrated motivational and behavioral effects similar to those claimed by the advocates of subliminal seduction.” inline graphic inline graphic

8. The Appeal of the Idea

What is the appeal of the idea of subliminal advertising? Actual evidence of the use of subliminal techniques in advertising is limited. It seems to have had its heyday in the late 1950s and a rebirth in the 1970s, but there is no question that subliminal communication is not a viable technique for advertisers. Given the shoddy evidence that has been presented to support the claims of Key and others, why has the idea lived on? inline graphic inline graphic

Haberstroh has suggested that one reason may be that the public loves to be fooled. 19th-century America loved P. T. Barnum. It didn’t seem to matter that everyone knew his claims were outrageous and his exhibits were fabricated; people nonetheless flocked to see Tiny Tim, the Feejee Mermaid, and other freaks. His sign “This Way to the Egress” led unsuspecting museum goers into the street instead of to yet another exhibit — many people laughed and enjoyed the joke. Perhaps ice cubes with hidden messages are a bit like this. To many it may seem like a harmless little joke, worth the bother in exchange for the fun, while for others, it is deception, trickery, and not funny at all. inline graphic inline graphic

Another explanation for its popularity is that Key’s theory trades on the currency of sex. He cleverly combines sex and consumption into a single story. Beyond this, subliminal seduction offers a means to displace personal responsibility. Who has not asked, “Why in the world did I buy that?” Key tells us that we can’t help some of the decisions we make as consumers because we are manipulated via one of our greatest vulnerabilities — sex. inline graphic inline graphic

Additionally, both the press and the advertising industry have contributed to the perpetuation of this myth through their treatment of it. The press has eagerly reported stories suggesting the existence of subliminal perception and almost never the evidence against it. The advertising industry has largely remained silent rather than rebutting claims about subliminal communication. inline graphic inline graphic

Finally, there is the history of advertising itself. American advertising in the 19th century was for the most part unrestrained and unchecked. When subliminal advertising emerged in the 1950s, many saw it as just another deceptive device in the hands of unscrupulous marketers. inline graphic inline graphic

9. An Urban Legend Lives On

Wilson Bryan Key, now 80 years old, has retired in Nevada, but not without contributing significantly to the perseverance of the idea of subliminal advertising. His last book was published in 1992, and he no longer lectures to large audiences on a regular basis. The advertising industry has largely ignored the topic, rarely addressing the issue in any public forum. No further rebuttals like the one in Figure 15 have appeared in recent years. inline graphic inline graphic

Yet the idea of subliminal advertising lives on — it seems to be more because the public wants to believe in it rather than the fact that there is any genuine evidence showing it to be a technique used by advertisers. Some relatively recent events surrounding claims about subliminal advertising are perhaps typical of what might be expected in the future. inline graphic inline graphic

In 1990, the media were abuzz with the revelation of a purported use of subliminal techniques by Pepsi Cola. The company had produced some new designs for its Cool Cans — a more “with it” look intended for use during the summer. When the cans were stacked in a particular manner, the familiar S-E-X appeared. Two of the cans, aligned in the way they might be when six packs are stacked one on another, appear in Figure 16. The letters S-E-X seem to be there — much like the letters were there in the original Gilbey’s ad from 1971 that Key had discussed. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 16. Do Pepsi Cans Contain a Subliminal Message? []
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Fig. 16.

Do Pepsi Cans Contain a Subliminal Message? [Source]

In response to the claims that Pepsi had embedded S-E-X on its cans, Jean Meade, advertising manager for the San Diego Pepsi office, insisted that “the cans were designed to be cool and fun and different, something to get the consumer’s attention.” Tod MacKenzie, another spokesperson for Pepsi, claimed that the supposed subliminal message was “nothing more than an odd coincidence.”15 inline graphic inline graphic

Subliminal scares since their very beginning seem to have had this quality — whistle-blowers certain of the intentionality of what they find, while those who are supposed to be responsible for the embedded messages deny and disclaim them. A simple rational assessment would seem to suggest that a company as large and powerful as Pepsi would be foolish indeed to risk the wrath of the public and certain outspoken conservative groups. It makes little sense that the company would intentionally use a technique that seems not to produce significant market behavior results and is so widely despised by the public. inline graphic inline graphic

In 1992 Saatchi & Saatchi, a large New York advertising agency, revived the joking about subliminal in a commercial for Paseo, a sedan sold by Toyota. Once again the ad parodies the idea of subliminal. The commercial is playful. The car is introduced — but to make the commercial more interesting the “film” does not run properly thorough the projector and the audience “secretly” sees “hidden” images of women dancing at a party. It offers commentary on the absurdity of the hidden persuasion while playfully showing the car in a commercial designed to attract the public that often ignores conventional ads. inline graphic inline graphic

Another Commercial Spoofs Subliminal Advertising []
Fig. 17.

Another Commercial Spoofs Subliminal Advertising [Source]

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Similarly, Absolut Vodka, known for its artful and innovative advertising, produced both a print ad and a TV commercial that poked fun at the myth of subliminal advertising. If you look closely at the ice cubes in Figure 18, you can see ABSOLUT VODKA spelled out. The TV commercial, created in France for the brand, is another tongue-in-cheek reference to subliminal techniques in films. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 18. Absolut Subliminal (Print) []
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Fig. 18.

Absolut Subliminal (Print) [Source]

Absolut Subliminal (Film) []
Fig. 19.

Absolut Subliminal (Film) [Source]

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Most recently of all, subliminal claims emerged in the context of political advertising — the very thing that early commentators like Norman Cousins had warned about in the 1950s when subliminal techniques first came on the scene. In a political ad for the reelection of George W. Bush in 2004, the letters R-A-T-S appear for a split second on the screen before the camera pulls back and the full word B-U-R-E-A-U-C-R-A-T-S appears. This occasioned accusations and denials all around and led to talk about “dirty tricks” in politics. Interestingly, the reporter who first broke the story claimed to have recently read one of Key’s books and was thus alert to the possibility of subliminal techniques. inline graphic inline graphic

Campaign Spot for George W. Bush’s Reelection []
Fig. 20.

Campaign Spot for George W. Bush’s Reelection [Source]

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Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, responded to the R-A-T-S commercial by having Bart Simpson write the following message on his blackboard at the beginning of an episode: inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 21. Bart Simpson Embeds a Message Supporting Al Gore []
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Fig. 21.

Bart Simpson Embeds a Message Supporting Al Gore [Source]

Another frequent theme in the subliminal scare has focused on messages embedded in music. Either much quieter than the music itself or only clear when played backwards, the idea of subliminal messages in music dates back to the period of the popcorn episode engineered by Vicary. A quick search of the Internet will turn up claims about embeddings in the music of The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Ozzy Osbourne, and Jefferson Starship among others. The Beatles song I’m So Tired is said to contain John Lennon’s disguised voice saying, “Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him, miss him...” and Pink Floyd’s Empty Spaces, when played backwards, is supposed to say, “Congratulations, you have just discovered the secret message. Please send your answer to old pink, care of the funny farm....” inline graphic inline graphic

In addition to these claims about embeddings, motivational tapes with subliminal messages are available for sale on the Internet. One makes these claims:

If you need relief from ANY PHYSICAL PAIN including headaches, backaches, PMS, chronic pains, this program is for you! It’s a powerful tool that will help change your life.

Subliminal messages have been used for years to reprogram and change consumer’s [sic] unconscious minds. Now you can use the same process for pain relief.

If you can watch a 12-minute DVD or listen to a CD you can reprogram your unconscious mind to release unnecessary pain from your life. 16 inline graphic inline graphic

The audiotape contains such messages as “My body and mind are pain free,” “I release all fears of letting go of pain,” and “I see and feel myself pain free.” inline graphic inline graphic

Another company offers men instant success with women by using subliminal techniques. The following copy is from its promotional literature.

As incredible as it sounds, it is now possible for you to achieve in minutes, what typically takes most men days, months, and sometimes even years to accomplish, and that is...Seducing a woman!

I call it, “The Lazy Man’s Way to Seduce Single Women.” All you do is simply pop in one of our Subliminal Seduction cassettes and she thinks she’s only hearing music, but she’s being sexually programmed and stimulated to uncontrollably want to make mad passionate love to you, her subconscious mind is saturated with romantic and erotic thoughts only of you....17 inline graphic inline graphic

Finally, a recent movie, Josie and the Pussycats (2001), is centered on the theme of subliminal embeddings in rock music. The characters, Josie and the Pussycats, originated in the Archie comic strip in the 1960s and had a brief run in an animated cartoon during the 1970s. Revived here in a satire about both rock music and merchandizing, the trio find themselves at the heart of a conspiracy in which Megarecords has made them into rock superstars by embedding messages in their music. Good wins over evil, Megarecords and their dirty tricks are exposed, and Josie and the Pussycats remain stars because their music is loved on its own. This movie contains an immense number of product placements and company logos — to the point where it seems like one long ad itself. inline graphic inline graphic

Even if there is not much to be said about the merits of the movie itself, the way that subliminal techniques are treated in this popular cultural medium is significant. Hidden messages are the result of a government-based conspiracy, in this case, to get young people to spend their allowances and earnings from baby-sitting. And although it is the premise of the plot, subliminal is treated yet again as a kind of joke — almost too absurd to be taken seriously, but fun to play with. The owner of Megarecords explains the secret techniques to a select audience by showing a “film” (see Figure 22). inline graphic inline graphic

Megarecord’s Evil Plan to Take Teen Money []
Fig. 22.

Megarecord’s Evil Plan to Take Teen Money [Source]

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Product placement within Josie and the Pussycats, while utterly obvious to the audience, is never addressed directly. Although the incredible amount of it — occurring in virtually every scene — is on one level a satire on the frequency of product placement today, the names, logos, and brands that constantly appear in the film are nonetheless product placement. Thus, the audience is asked to laugh at the technique while being exposed to it. Perhaps more telling than the attempt at satire is the fact that Vance Packard, in enumerating and describing the so-called hidden persuaders, considered product placement to be one of those techniques. Josie and the Pussycats, on the other hand, does not consider product placement a part of the evil conspiracy that must be destroyed. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 23. Brand Names and Logos Are Clearly Visible Throughout the Movie []
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Fig. 23.

Brand Names and Logos Are Clearly Visible Throughout the Movie [Source]

Fig. 24. Brand Names and Logos Are Clearly Visible Throughout the Movie []
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Fig. 24.

Brand Names and Logos Are Clearly Visible Throughout the Movie [Source]

Fig. 25. Brand Names and Logos Are Clearly Visible Throughout the Movie []
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Fig. 25.

Brand Names and Logos Are Clearly Visible Throughout the Movie [Source]

An episode of Columbo entitled “Double Exposure,” (1974) placed subliminal quick cuts in the hands of the murderer while a film, Agency (1979), linked subliminal messages to a suicide.

Whatever one thinks about the relatively small amount of evidence suggesting that subliminal communications play any real role in most advertising messages, there is no denying that the idea is perhaps more significant than the reality. It seems to be an idea that many members of the public want to believe in. inline graphic inline graphic

The Fort Lee, N. J. theatre is now demolished and you can’t go there to see a movie with or without subliminal images being flashed on the screen. Today, it’s much more likely that you might stop by your local video store, rent a movie, and head home to watch it. If you happen to choose the VHS version of A Fish Called Wanda, you will be treated to the following before the show begins: inline graphic inline graphic

John Cleese Takes a Turn with the Subliminal Idea []
Fig. 26.

John Cleese Takes a Turn with the Subliminal Idea [Source]

Click to view video

William M. O’Barr

William M. O’Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford Universities. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course, Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives, is one of Duke’s most popular undergraduate courses. His many seminar courses include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.

He is author or co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in East Africa, Japan, and the United States. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O’Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.

In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of Advertising and Society — An Online Curriculum which will consist of 20 units published as supplements to AS&R.


1. Cousins, Norman. “Smudging the Subconscious,” The Saturday Review 5 Oct. 1957: 20.

2. “James Vicary: Subliminal Svengali?” Sponsor 30 Nov. 1957: 42.

3. Advertising Research Foundation. The Application of Subliminal Perception in Advertising 1958: 6.

4. Danzig, Fred. “Subliminal Advertising — Today It’s Just Historic Flashback for Researcher Vicary,” Advertising Age 17 Sept. 1962: 72.

5. Danzig, 72.

6. Rogers, Stuart. “How a Publicity Blitz Created the Myth of Subliminal Advertising,” Public Relations Quarterly 37 (Winter 1992–1993): 16.

7. Ogilvy, David. Confessions of an Advertising Man (New York: Atheneum, 1964) 93–103.

8. Key, Wilson Bryan. Media Sexploitation (New York: New American Library, 1976) 10.

9. Key, Wilson Bryan. The Clam-Plate Orgy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1980) 2.

10. O’Toole, John. The Trouble with Advertising (New York: Times Books, 1980) 16.

11. Haberstroh, Jack. Ice Cube Sex The Truth About Subliminal Advertising (1994) 101.

12. Jock Elliott, Jr. (1921–2005) headed Ogilvy & Mather from 1965 to 1982. He was Chairman, U.S. Company 1965—75, Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather International 1975–82, and named Chairman Emeritus in 1982.

13. Haberstroh’s article “Can’t Ignore Subliminal Ad Charges” was featured as a cover story in Advertising Age, September 17, 1984. Elliott & Key’s comments were made in response to it.

14. Pratkanis Anthony and Elliot Aronson, Age of Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion (New York: W.H. Freeman & Co., 1992) 102.

15. Meade and MacKenzie’s statements are quoted on

Media Credits

Fig. 1. Courtesy Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, Inc.

Fig. 2. Picnic Dir. Joshua Logan, Columbia/Tristar © 1955.

Fig. 3. “’Persuaders’ Get Deeply ‘Hidden’ Tool: Subliminal Projection,” Advertising Age 16 Sept. 1957: 127.

Fig. 4. Walter Daran/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Fig. 5. “James Vicary: Subliminal Svengali?” Sponsor 30 Nov. 1957: 43.

Fig. 6. Courtesy Pandora’s Books Ltd

Fig. 7. © Bettmann/CORBIS

Fig. 8. From the author’s collection.

Fig. 9. New Yorker 29 Nov. 1957: 94.

Fig. 10. From the author’s collection.

Fig. 11. Time 5 July 1971: 61.

Fig. 12. By permission of Wilson Bryan Key, from A&SR v 3.2 p. 3.

Fig. 13. By permission of Wilson Bryan Key, from A&SR v 3.2 p.10.

Fig. 14. By permission of Wilson Bryan Key, from A&SR v 3.2.

Fig. 15. Courtesy American Association of Advertising Agencies.

Fig. 16. Photo by Paolo Crisante.

Fig. 17. Courtesy Saatchi & Saatchi.

Fig. 18. Atlantic Monthly, Apr., 1990.

Fig. 20. Courtesy Ji-Young Hong,

Fig. 21. Courtesy Springfield Paradise,

Fig. 22. Josie and the Pussycats Dir. Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, Universal Studios © 2001.

Fig. 23–25. Josie and the Pussycats.

Fig. 26. A Fish Called Wanda Dir. Charles Crichton, CBS/FOX © 1988.

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