Testing subliminal advertising (again)

As part of a BBC Radio 4 documentary, producer Phil Tinline looks at the controversial and weird history of subliminal advertising, and with social psychologists devises an experiment to test its efficacy.

From BBC News:


On 12 September, 1957, at a studio in New York, a market researcher in the Mad Men mould called a press conference.

James Vicary astonished the assembled reporters by announcing that he'd repeatedly flashed the slogans "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Eat popcorn" throughout a movie, too fast for conscious perception. As a result, he claimed, sales of popcorn had risen 18.1% - and Coke by 57.7%. This, he declared, was "subliminal advertising".

Vicary thought his fellow Americans would cheer this prospect - annoying cinema and TV ads could now be replaced with his imperceptible flashes. But on both sides of the Atlantic, his announcement sparked fear and outrage. "Welcome," cried one American magazine, "to 1984."

His story took a more serious blow when the manager of the cinema involved told Motion Picture Daily that the experiment had had no impact. In 1962, Vicary finally confessed that he hadn't done enough research to go public and that he regretted the whole thing.

But a nagging anxiety about the supposed power of subliminal advertising has never gone away. Ever since the 1957 panic, it has been banned in the UK. So is all this anything more than a hangover from sci-fi-style Cold War worries about mass brainwashing?

"Does subliminal advertising actually work?"