In 1957 the American journalist Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders, a trenchant critique of US advertising aimed at the motivation researchers who were designing campaigns that spoke directly to the subconscious fears and desires revealed by depth psychology. For Packard the issues raised were primarily moral. Was it ethically acceptable to play ‘upon the hidden weaknesses and frailties to sell products’ or to exploit ‘our deepest sexual sensitivities and yearnings for commercial purposes’ or to seek to manipulate children? (Packard 1963:209). These worries struck a responsive chord and helped to sell over a hundred thousand copies in the first year of publication. The book also resonated with wider political concerns.
As the Cold War against the Soviet Union intensified it became more important than ever for the United States to present itself as a democracy based on rational argument and open choice. The techniques Packard described smacked of the thought control and brainwashing associated with communist regimes. Suspicion that the activities of depth psychologists might be unAmerican were underscored by a widely publicized marketing experiment in a New Jersey cinema early in 1957, in which the applied psychologist, James Vicary, flashed messages exhorting the patrons to ‘Drink Coca Cola’ and ‘Eat popcorn’ during a feature film. These ‘subliminal’ advertisements as he called them, were projected every five seconds for one three-thousandth of a second, well below the threshold of conscious perception (M.C. Miller 1990). Vicary’s claim that sales increased was disputed, but whether the technique actually worked was less important than