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  • Review of Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence(Duke University Press) by Charles R. Acland
  • Kimberly Sugden (bio)

Hidden persuasion became the sensational topic in America during fall 1957 when James Vicary announced the results of his research on subliminal messaging. His claim—flashing words like “eat popcorn” and “drink Coca-Cola” on a movie theatre screen had increased consumption 57.5 percent and 18.1 percent, respectfully, for each product over a period of six weeks—ignited national alarm. 1Could advertisers use media to manipulate consumers without their consent?

Charles Acland’s captivating Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influencebrings to life the tension of this period by placing readers directly into the cultural context that sparked the debate about subliminal messaging. His narrative weaves together from an impressive range of cultural artifacts—comic books, images, archival papers, newspaper articles, TV shows, and popular novels—to craft a masterful new approach to examining the evolution of subliminal theory. Acland’s conceptual framework revolves around the notion that the subliminal shapes societal perceptions of all different types of mass media, from movies, advertising, books, and news articles of the day. He states that it is: “the frontline of an elaborate apparatus of discourse–talk and expression–that produces understandings of the world and through which decisions are taken and institutional initiatives launched.” 2To illustrate this point, Acland highlights how modern comedic parodies in The Simpsonsand Family Guyreinterpret subliminal advertising within the context of modern culture; subliminal advertising must still be a relevant concept in society for audiences to understand satirical punch lines that make fun of it. For instance, this clip from Family Guyshows an episode of Lassiebeing routinely interrupted by a less-than-subliminal, subliminal ad. However, if subliminal advertising wasn’t still relevant and acknowledged in culture, audiences wouldn’t understand what this clip is referencing and why it is funny.

Video 1.

Family Guy parody

Click to view video

The central narrative of Acland’s book doesn’t judge subliminal advertising, but instead provides an in-depth historical look at the subliminal advertising work of James Vicary and his claims that subliminal techniques actually could modify consumer behavior. These claims coupled with Vance Packard’s bestselling The Hidden Persuadersalerted American society to the potential of manipulative advertising and sent the nation into a panic. Acland’s writing is comprehensive and scholarly, while possessing a great storytelling charm that transports readers back in time. His work continues the important historical tradition of writers like Larry Samuel whose Freud on Madison Avenueanalyzed the rise and resistance of motivational research in America ( Together, these books capture the skepticism that engulfed motivational research and subliminal advertising. Because both books are rich in archival documentation, it is easy for readers to understand whyand howthese cultural reactions occurred. I highly recommend that advertising students and scholars read these histories to attain a holistic understanding of the events and social contexts that drove these controversies, in addition to understanding the advertising industry’s reputation in the 1950’s. 3

The subliminal advertising debate largely centered on visualmanipulation, and Acland does a good job of tracing the socio-historical roots of the subliminal ideas. However, I was hoping Acland would also include examples of the artisticprecursor to subliminal theory in Chapter 2. For centuries, artists snuck social critique, self-promotion, and satire into their works. Personally, my favorite example of this can be found in the work of English engraver and painter William Hogarth in the eighteenth century. Hogarth was known to detest art from the Continent; he believed that English collectors should invest at home through the purchase of English works. Hogarth did not approve of the aristocratic “grand tour” obsession, whereby wealthy young men would travel the Continent in an educational rite of passage collecting and commissioning works of art to bring home. He particularly...

Additional Information

pp. 1-7
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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