Advertising Educational Foundation

[Editor's Note: This article is a part of ADText.]

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

Movies Were a Popular Summertime Activity in 19571

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 Video 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
Video 1.

A Scene from the Movie Picnic2

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. 2. Advertising Age Reports Use of Subliminal Advertising
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Fig. 2.

Advertising Age Reports Use of Subliminal Advertising 3

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 with 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: 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

Life's discussion of subliminal techniques 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. 3. Life Used This Image to Explain Subliminal Advertising to an Interested Public
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Fig. 3.

Life Used This Image to Explain Subliminal Advertising to an Interested Public4

The magazine 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 in the October 5, 1957 issue: "Welcome to 1984." He referred, of course, to the nightmarish world described by George Orwell in the novel 1984, in which a totalitarian government monitors the private, inner thoughts of its citizens and watches over their every move. Cousins 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, had suggested warning the public when subliminal techniques were in use, and even seemed to think that some sort of governmental regulation might be needed. Cousins himself denounced the subconscious assault in the strongest terms: inline graphic inline graphic

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.5

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.6 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 2010, US Government statistics showed 56% 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.7 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.8 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. 4. James Vicary (L) with Colleagues from Subliminal Projection Co.
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Fig. 4.

James Vicary (L) with Colleagues from Subliminal Projection Co.10

Although Vicary is frequently credited with the invention of subliminal techniques, the truth is far from this. Charles R. Acland traces the history of the tachistoscope in his book, Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence (2012). Acland shows that although Vicary's particular version of the equipment may have been unique, instruments that flash brief images on screens existed well before 1957 and have since been used in a variety of contexts:

As a diagnostic and therapeutic instrument, the tachistoscope helped identify and rectify extraneous action in the movement of eyes. As an experimental instrument, it helped to discover and measure optical and mental processes. As a teaching instrument, it helped to accelerate recognition and memory, and provided a quantifiable performance indicator. As a speed-reading instrument, it disciplined eyes to take in entire fields of information rapidly. As a military instrument, it pushed target recognition into a reflex response. As a marketing instrument, it helped to streamline decisions about advertising copy and layout.9 inline graphic inline graphic

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 Vance Packard's highly influential book, The Hidden Persuaders. In it Packard brought the many motivational research techniques of advertising and marketing to public attention for the first time. These various techniques allowed advertisers and marketers to delve more deeply into consumer psychology than what could be learned by asking people questions directly about their likes and dislikes. Packard discussed the use such things as measures of pupil dilation to monitor pleasurable responses to TV commercials, tracking changes in voice pitch to study positive or negative reactions to products, wired theatre seats that monitor squirming and thereby allowing researchers to chart boredom levels of viewers, and gauges of brain wave activities that assess degree of arousal created by ad imagery. inline graphic inline graphic

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. 5. Packard's Best-Selling Book Sullied Advertising's Image
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Fig. 5.

Packard's Best-Selling Book Sullied Advertising's Image11

Packard alerted consumers to early examples of product placement, which he 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. Americans already had a general fear of brainwashing, spying, and invasion of privacy. Packard's book further stoked it. 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. 6. Packard Railed Against Advertising in Washington
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Fig. 6.

Packard Railed Against Advertising in Washington12

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 from such a diverse group. However, Advertising Age reported in its 1962 retrospective 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 such techniques if they could help their clients.13 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
Video 2.

Advertisers Frequently Spoofed Claims about Subliminal Ads14

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, wholesome 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 showroom 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. 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, disclaim it, or laugh it off. What the industry did not do was 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 from 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."15 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. inline graphic inline graphic

In the wake of Vance Packard's best-selling book 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.16 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. 7. An Example of David Ogilvy's Advertising Methods
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Fig. 7.

An Example of David Ogilvy's Advertising Methods17

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. 8. Key's Book Cover Asks: Are You Being Sexually Aroused by this Picture?
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Fig. 8.

Key's Book Cover Asks: Are You Being Sexually Aroused by this Picture?18

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 9. For Key, this is clear evidence of the shenanigans of admen. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 9. The Word S-E-X is Visible in the Ice Cubes
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Fig. 9.

The Word S-E-X is Visible in the Ice Cubes19

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 10. 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 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. 10. An Image from Media Sexploitation
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Fig. 10.

An Image from Media Sexploitation20

Fig. 11. The Inverted Ad Reveals a Hidden Face, According to Key
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Fig. 11.

The Inverted Ad Reveals a Hidden Face, According to Key21

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."22 inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 12. Key Finds Subliminal Imprints in Ritz Crackers
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Fig. 12.

Key Finds Subliminal Imprints in Ritz Crackers23

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.24 Such techniques, according to Key, are fully intentional, carefully researched, and enhance sales. inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 13. A Subliminal Orgy Scene Discovered by Key
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Fig. 13.

A Subliminal Orgy Scene Discovered by Key25

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. 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 1981 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.26 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. 14. The 4A's Response to Subliminal Claims
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Fig. 14.

The 4A's Response to Subliminal Claims27

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."28 inline graphic inline graphic

Haberstroh cites Jock Elliott's29 commentary on subliminal advertising in general and on Haberstroh's invitation to Wilson Bryan Key to lecture at his university.30 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.31 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 being fooled. 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 lost his academic job at the University of Western Ontario ostensibly over the shoddy nature of his scholarship. He nonetheless became a popular public speaker on the lecture circuit for many years. He continued publishing popular books on subliminal advertising with the last one appearing in 1992. At least one of his books sold 8.5 million copies, netting him a handsome retirement in Nevada where he lived for many years before his death in 2008. Key was without a doubt the single most important proponent of "subliminal" advertising in American advertising history. inline graphic inline graphic

Since the idea of subliminal advertising appeared on the scene in the 1950s, the advertising industry has largely ignored it, rarely addressing the issue in any public forum and never responding directly to Key's claims. There have been no further rebuttals like the one in Figure 14. inline graphic inline graphic

Yet the idea of subliminal advertising lives on—more, it seems, 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. inline graphic inline graphic

10. More Recent Claims about Subliminal Techniques

A frequent theme in the subliminal scare is music. Either much quieter than the music itself or only clear when played backwards, messages are often intentionally placed.

As Wilson Bryan Key's notoriety diminished and his ideas had largely moved into the realm of popular cultural understandings about how things work, there has been no single person who has acted as torchbearer for the idea. However, there are many events that have occurred since Key's heyday that continue to raise and support the ideas that subliminal communications are a reality and that their use is often devious, manipulative, and/or controlling. Here are some of the many things that have been reported in the press and/or appeared on the Internet about subliminal communication since 1990. 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 trendy 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 face when six packs are stacked one on another, appear in Figure 15. The letters S-E-X seem to be there—much like the letters Key identified in the 1971 Gilbey's ad (Figure 11). inline graphic inline graphic

Fig. 15. Do Pepsi Cans Contain a Subliminal Message?
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Fig. 15.

Do Pepsi Cans Contain a Subliminal Message?32

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."33 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


Similarly, Absolut Vodka, known for its artful and innovative advertising, produced both a print ad and a TV commercial around 1990 that poked fun at the myth of subliminal advertising. If you look closely at the ice cubes in Figure 16, 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. 16. Absolut Subliminal (Print)
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Fig. 16.

Absolut Subliminal (Print)34

Absolut Subliminal (Film)
Video 3.

Absolut Subliminal (Film)35


In 1992 Saatchi & Saatchi 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 through 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
Video 4.

Another Commercial Spoofs Subliminal Advertising36

Josie and the Pussycats.

The 2001 movie Josie and the Pussycats centers on the theme of subliminal embeddings in music. A satire about both rock music and merchandising, a band finds themselves at the heart of a conspiracy in which "Megarecords" has made them into rock superstars by embedding messages in their music. This movie contains an immense number of tongue-in-cheek product placements and company logos. 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. The owner of Megarecords explains the secret techniques to a select audience by showing a "film." inline graphic inline graphic

Megarecord's Evil Plan to Take Teen Money
Video 5.

Megarecord's Evil Plan to Take Teen Money37

2004 Presidential Campaign.

In 2004, subliminal claims emerged in the context of political advertising—the very thing that early commentators like Norman Cousins had warned about when subliminal techniques first came on the scene in the 1950s. 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-AU-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
Video 6.

Campaign Spot for George W. Bush's Reelection38

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. 17. Bart Simpson Embeds a Message Supporting Al Gore
Click for larger view
View full resolution
Fig. 17.

Bart Simpson Embeds a Message Supporting Al Gore39

Motivational Tapes.

In addition to these claims about embeddings, motivational tapes with subliminal messages are available for sale on the Internet. In 2005 one company offered 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....40 inline graphic inline graphic

Another from 2006 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.41 inline graphic inline graphic

The audio accompanying images of waterfalls and other tranquil sights contains embedded messages such 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

Beyond advertising, an episode of Columbo entitled "Double Exposure" (1973) placed subliminal quick cuts in the hands of the murderer, while a film, Agency (1980), linked subliminal messages to a suicide.


In 2006, the Coca-Cola company continued the spoofs and parodies of subliminal advertising through some of its advertising. For Sprite, the company ran a series of print ads and commercials that referred to the well-known lemon-lime flavored soft drink as sublymonal. inline graphic inline graphic

Although the idea of subliminal advertising in any form is tired and shop-worn, Sprite's sublymonal advertising campaign employed many state-of-the-art techniques to engage viewers with the brand.

The online Sublymonal campaign was first introduced through a website dedicated to fans of the television series Lost. Advertisements for a fictional company, Hanso Foundation, began to introduce subtle references to the emerging Sublymonal campaign. Viewers were referred to [no longer functional], at which they were able to engage in clues relating to the television series. Over time the site morphed into a clearly-evolved advertising site promoting the new-look Sublymonal Sprite brand.

Visitors to the Sublymonal site are invited to enter passwords to interact with media-saturated screens. Key words are 'Gulp', 'Belly', 'Chill', "Defib", "Pulse", "Listen", "108., "Kicks", "Spray", "Belly", "Bentley", "Embed", "Scan", "Tongue", and, no doubt many others. Other words bring up a narrated excerpt from Wikpedia's dictionary. Visitors to the site are referred to the Lymonade videos at YouTube, auctions at Ebay, profiles of musicians such as Talib Kweli and Fonzworth Bentley. Try "Sprite", "Good", "Lymon", "Love", and "Heir Apparent".42 inline graphic inline graphic

Sprite Based a 2005 Campaign on the Appeal of Subliminal Messages
Video 7.

Sprite Based a 2005 Campaign on the Appeal of Subliminal Messages43


In 2007 a TV viewer spotted what he believed to be a subliminal embedding in Iron Chef, a program on Food Network. When slowed down, the McDonald's logo appears when the program is viewed frame-by-frame. During viewing at regular speed the frame is visible for only 1/30th of a second. inline graphic inline graphic

Eli Hodapp Demonstrates the McDonald's Ad He Discovered during Iron Chef
Video 8.

Eli Hodapp Demonstrates the McDonald's Ad He Discovered during Iron Chef44

Barbara Lippert, former columnist for Adweek, had this to say about what the viewer had found:

It's a flash frame that came up at the wrong time. It's definitely not subliminal advertising. inline graphic inline graphic

A spokesperson for the Food Network commented:

It was a technical error on our part and definitely not a subliminal message. It has been corrected for all future airings. inline graphic inline graphic

McDonald's issued this terse statement:

We don't do subliminal advertising. inline graphic inline graphic

Inside Edition Covers the McDonald's Controversy
Video 9.

Inside Edition Covers the McDonald's Controversy45

Despite all these denials, the fact remains that this extraneous image does appear in the programming. Only denials have been issued by the parties and no explanation of how the supposed "technical error" occurred. Nonetheless, it is instances like this that help feed the public credence in the idea of subliminal ads and other beneath-the-level-of-consciousness communications. inline graphic inline graphic

11. Subliminal-like Advertising Techniques

Advertisers and their agencies struggle for the consumer's attention, but the battle is a difficult one. Newer technologies—especially time-shifting devices like DVRs, TiVo, etc.—make it relatively easy for viewers of recorded programs to fast-forward through the ads or skip them altogether. inline graphic inline graphic

There have been several attempts to counter this tendency. Some ads have been produced with the idea that they communicate both at regular speed and at fast-forward speeds. For example, during the burger wars, a Burger King spot featured a point-by-point comparison with McDonalds. The regular-speed version offers details about the differences. In the fast-forward version, the viewer sees a competition between the two brands with several rounds of alternating logos. The commercial ends with the Burger King logo appearing for a lengthy time on the screen signaling visually that it is the winner of the brand competition. inline graphic inline graphic

More recent attempts have included such things as one-second commercials for Miller High Life, and various kinds of embeddings that consumers can view if a DVD-type device is used to slow down the commercial and search it for such things as coupons or more information of some sort that may be of interest to the consumer. Because of the brevity, some consider this akin to subliminal. inline graphic inline graphic

KFC Hid an Image of a Dollar Bill in the Lettuce
Video 10.

KFC Hid an Image of a Dollar Bill in the Lettuce46

Miller Beer Used One-Second Ads in the 2009 Super Bowl
Video 11.

Miller Beer Used One-Second Ads in the 2009 Super Bowl47

These examples are hardly instances of subliminal advertising in the classical sense of something intended to remain outside the viewer's awareness. However, they do share certain aspects of the classical idea such as embeddings that are not usually apparent (but now can be found!) and extreme brevity of exposure. Accordingly, they are sometimes erroneously categorized as subliminal ads. inline graphic inline graphic

12. Conclusion

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

There is another fact to be considered in evaluating the subliminal idea in relationship to advertising and it is this: Perhaps most ads to most viewers communicate whatever they have to say in essentially subliminal ways. This claim was made as early as 1958 when Ross Wilhelm, a marketing professor at the University of Michigan wrote:

Every time we drive our car and flash by a billboard we probably receive a subliminal suggestion. Each time we flip through a newspaper or magazine we probably receive subliminal messages from the ads and the pages we pass over. Whenever we switch our TV sets from channel to channel those channels we pass over which are delivering commercials probably deliver subliminal reminders to us—reminders of which we are not aware.48 inline graphic inline graphic

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. 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 seminars include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.

He is author and 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 Brazil, China, East Africa, India, Japan, and the US. 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, which will consist of more than 25 units published as supplements to A&SR.


* Updated 2013. Original version published in A&SR 6.4.

1. Courtesy Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, Inc.

2. Joshua Logan, Director, Picnic, Columbia/Tristar © 1955.

3. "'Persuaders' Get Deeply 'Hidden' Tool: Subliminal Projection," Advertising Age 16 (Sept. 1957): 127.

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

5. Norman Cousins, "Smudging the Subconscious," The Saturday Review, October 5, 1957, 20.

6. "James Vicary: Subliminal Svengali?" Sponsor, November 30, 1957, 42.

7. Advertising Research Foundation, The Application of Subliminal Perception in Advertising, 1958, 6.

8. Fred Danzig, "Subliminal Advertising—Today It's Just Historic Flashback for Researcher Vicary," Advertising Age, September 17, 1962, 72.

9. Charles R. Acland, Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 88.

10. "James Vicary: Subliminal Svengali?" 43.

11. Courtesy Pandora's Books Ltd,

12. © Bettmann/CORBIS.

13. Danzig, 72.

14. From the author's collection.

15. Stuart Rogers, "How a Publicity Blitz Created the Myth of Subliminal Advertising," Public Relations Quarterly 37 (Winter 1992-1993): 16.

16. David Ogilvy. Confessions of an Advertising Man (New York: Atheneum, 1963), 93-103.

17. New Yorker, November 29, 1957, 94.

18. From the author's collection.

19. Time, July 5, 1971, 61.

20. By permission of Wilson Bryan Key, from Advertising & Society Review 3.2: 3.

21. Ibid.

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

23. By permission of Wilson Bryan Key, from Advertising & Society Review 3:2: 10.

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

25. By permission of Wilson Bryan Key, from Advertising & Society Review 3.2.

26. John O'Toole, The Trouble with Advertising (New York: Times Books, 1985), 16.

27. Courtesy American Association of Advertising Agencies,

28. Jack Haberstroh, Ice Cube Sex: The Truth About Subliminal Advertising (Notre Dame, Ind.: Cross Cultural Publications, 1994), 101.

29. Jock Elliott, Jr. (1921-2005) headed Ogilvy & Mather from 1965 to 1982. He was Chairman, US Company 1965-75, Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather International 1975-82, and named Chairman Emeritus in 1982.

30. 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.

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

32. Photo by Paolo Crisante.

33. Meade and MacKenzie's statements are quoted on

34. Atlantic Monthly, Apr., 1990.

35. © Copyright 2002, Marc-André, Director, Absolut Subliminal, 2002,

36. Courtesy Saatchi & Saatchi.

37. Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, Directors, Josie and the Pussycats, Universal Studios © 2001.

38. Courtesy Ji-Young Hong,

39. Courtesy Springfield Paradise,

40., accessed on October 20, 2005.

42. Duncan, June 18, 2006, "Sublymonal Sprite Advertising Campaign," The Inspiration Room,

43. "Sprite-Greenhouse," YouTube video, uploaded by "johnnymelvin," February 14, 2007.

44. "Food Network Subliminal Advertising?" YouTube video, uploaded by "Eli Hodapp," January 21, 2007.

45. "'Inside Edition' Subliminal McDonalds Ad Busted," YouTube video, uploaded by "PSYK0MANT1S," January 29, 2007.

46. "Subliminal Hidden Message in KFC Snacker Commercial," YouTube video, uploaded by "a2mNT," May 9, 2008.

47. "Super Bowl 2009- 1-Second Commercials: Miller High Life," YouTube video, uploaded by "cuzcrew666," February 1, 2009.

48. Ross Wilhelm quoted in Acland, 155, quoting "Proponent of SP Deprecates Effect," Broadcasting 54:12 (March 24, 1958): 47-48.