Subliminal Advertising and the Perpetual Popularity of Playing to People's Paranoia

By Broyles, Sheri J. | The Journal of Consumer Affairs, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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Subliminal Advertising and the Perpetual Popularity of Playing to People's Paranoia

Broyles, Sheri J., The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Every 20 years, subliminal advertising pops back into popular culture. August Bullock (2004a) is the most recent "advocate" with his book The Secret Sales Pitch: An Overview of Subliminal Advertising. This paper reviews nearly 50 years of research on subliminal advertising and comments specifically about Bullock's more recent publication. The literature repeatedly shows that most effects are only obtained in highly artificial situations, and no research has shown an effect that changed attitudes or impacted purchasing behavior.


What is commonly thought of today as subliminal advertising began in 1957 when a movie theater experiment subliminally directed the audience to "eat popcorn" and "drink Coca-Cola." David Ogilvy, founder of the international advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, noted that "[u]nfortunately word of [this] found its way into the public prints, and provided grist for the mills of the anti-advertising brigade" (Ogilvy 1983, 209).

In a movie theater in Fort Lee, N J, psychologist and marketing researcher James M. Vicary claimed to have conducted a six-week study in 1957 that involved showing movies while at the same time projecting the words "eat popcorn" and "drink Coca-Cola" on the screen for 1/3,000 of a second. The claimed results of increased sales of popcorn and cola were widely reported in numerous news media stories. Though the study was never reported in a scientific journal and had no control group, it fit a popular paranoia of media power such that it caused a public outcry concerning psychological manipulation of consumers, which was immediate and widespread (Moore 1982). When a major research company and several academic researchers failed to replicate the original results, Vicary eventually admitted that he had invented his experiment's results in an effort to revive his then-failing research firm (Gray 2000; Rogers 1992-1993; Rotfeld 2001). His admission was widely covered in the trade press of the period, yet despite the "experiment" and results having been an exposed hoax, the concept of subliminal advertising continues to be an issue today.

In fact, the issue seems to periodically rear its ugly head with renewed vigor. In the 1970s and 1980s, Wilson Bryan Key wrote a series of books-Subliminal Seduction: Ad Media's Manipulation of Not So Innocent America (1972), Media Sexploitation (1976), and The Clam-Plate Orgy: And Other Subliminal Techniques for Manipulating Your Behavior (1980). Most recently, August Bullock, a self-proclaimed disciple of Key, has been touting his own book, The Secret Sales Pitch: An Overview of Subliminal Advertising (2004a).

Over the years, advertising scholars and psychologists have published a plethora of studies on the possibilities of subliminal communications and persuasion. Yet, regardless of the actual research findings, the general public apparently believes subliminal advertising exists, that it is actively used by advertisers, and that it is an effective business tool for generating sales. A review of the nearly 50 years of subliminal advertising research is needed, especially in contrast to the newest popular speaker and author making what is for him a profitable assault on the advertising business.


The study of sensations and perceptions in psychology can be traced to Fechner and Helmholtz in the late 19th century. From that line of research emerged an area of study--subliminal perception--that has become a controversial issue today. While there was some interest with so-called dirty words experiments in the 1940s, it was in the 1950s with Vicary's hoax that attention focused on the commercialization of subliminal perception, that is, subliminal advertising (Bloomquist 1985).

Part of the controversy of subliminal advertising concerns the misuse of the word. In psychological terms, "limen" is the threshold of consciousness.

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Subliminal Advertising and the Perpetual Popularity of Playing to People's Paranoia


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