Subliminal Messages in Advertising

Advertising has been part of the American economy for some time. Over that time advertising has grown significantly from a single page ad with one black and white photo to today’s million dollar multi-media campaigns, including TV and magazine adds designed specifically to make you want to buy what everyone is selling. At the heart of every advertising campaign is a sales pitch which is obvious. Beginning in the 50’s advertisers were looking at all available techniques to get their product sold. This included a very new and untested broadcasting method called subliminal projection. The idea of using an individual’s subliminal perception was a direct result of research in the 50’s concerning the human subconscious and how it is effected by the world around us. One man in particular would try to use the subconscious to communicate directly with people’s minds without them even knowing it. The term subliminal messages was born and the use of these messages has risen in the ranks of advertisers wanting to sell their products with increased results.
In 1957 a new scare came into the public spotlight. This scare was given the name subliminal advertising by the father of this new technique, James Vicary. Vicary was the first person to think up subliminal perception and went on after much encouragement to develop a machine capable of testing his theory. Finally Vicary created a company called Subliminal Projection Co. to market his new product. When news of Vicary’s new technology reached the
public eye it resulted in public hysteria. From the beginning, Vicary’s technological invention was labeled as mind altering and destructive. Still many advertisers quickly adopted this new and untested form of advertising hoping to sell their product in increased numbers. The most noticeable of these advertisers was KTLA in Los Angeles. Soon after announcing their use of subliminal messages a story appeared in the New York Times stating that “(KTLA) was certainly playing with fire” (Wash 2). This hysteria brought a quick reaction from the FCC (Federal Communication Commission) stating to its members that “caution in using the new technique would evidence proper regard for the public interest” (Wash 1). The NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) followed suit by urging it’s members to not use subliminal messages pending “review and consideration” (Hidden 2). These FCC and NAB warnings were only the beginning of a long future of government intervention into the use of subliminal advertising.
The most prevalent study of the use of subliminal messages has to be the trials conducted by James Vicary in 1957 in a theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Vicary used his newly developed machine to flash images onto the screen in five second intervals at a speed of 1/300th of a second. The claimed results of the test according to Vicary was that cola sales improved by 18% while popcorn sales rose an amazing 58%. Vicary was never able to provide records of his test. Vicary stuck by his claims even though many other scientists could not replicate Vicary’s success. One such test was posted in a bulletin from the FCC that said:
On January 19, 1958, during a half-hour CBC-TV network program carried on 27 Canadian stations, an undisclosed subliminal message was flashed on the screen 352 times, alternately 1/5 and ½ of a second in duration. Viewers were asked to

report their reactions. The CBC said the experiment proved inconclusive as to the effectiveness of the technique (FCC 2).
This was to be only one of many such tests of subliminal messages that failed to produce any results, let alone the one claimed in Vicary’s movie theater. The further reckless testing by companies on the public brought concern from many people. One of these people was Aldous Huxley who is the author of A Brave New World who said:
I feel very strongly that we mustn’t be caught by surprise by our own advance in technology. This has happened again and again in history with technology’s advance, and this changes social conditions and suddenly people have found themselves in a situation which they didn’t foresee and doing all sorts of things they didn’t really want to do”. (Hidden 2)
Aldous was one of many thousands of people who didn’t approve of companies freely testing their subliminal