History of Subliminal Messages

1863 – Suslowa, an experimental psychologist in subliminal stimulation conducted experiments concerning the effect that electrical stimulation had upon subjects’ ability to make two-point threshold discriminations. His findings showed that despite the intensity of the electrical stimulation being so low that the subjects were not aware of its presence, their ability to discriminate one- from twopoint stimulation was slightly reduced (McConnell, 230).

1884 –  Peirce and Jastrow showed that “subjects could discriminate differences between weights significantly better than chance would allow, even though the differences were so small they had no confidence whatsoever in their judgments” (McConnell, 230).

1957 – The birth of the term, ‘Subliminal Advertising’. Market researcher James Vicary was the first to conduct a study on subliminal stimuli, embedding the words “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola” into a movie in order to experiment on the impact subconscious messages had on concession sales at a New Jersey movie theater. The words appeared for a single frame of the movie, only flashing for one three-thousandths of a second, long enough for the subconscious to receive it but not long enough for the viewer to be aware of it. James V. McConnell et. al in an article for the American Psychologist, 1958 explained, “Despite the likelihood of serious methodological and technical defects (exposure time was reported as 1/3,000 sec.,  far faster than any previously reported stimulation), this demonstration has been the one which has caused the most stir in both the fields of advertising and psychology” (p 230).

1958 – “A May survey of public opinion on subliminals indicated that about 42% of the population had heard of the technique. Of course those who had, 50% said they considered subliminal advertising unethical and 50% considered it ethical. A significant majority—60%—said they would watch television programs even if they knew subliminals were used in the show” (www.badabingrecords.com).

1972 – Author Wilson Bryan Key released a popular book called Subliminal Seduction: Ad Media’s Manipulation of a Not So Innocent America, triggering “the second wave of widespread worry over secret stimuli… the book charged that the use of hidden messages and images in print ads is widespread and causes millions of consumers to buy more, more, more” (www.badabingrecords.com). He went on to write four more books between 1972 and 1992 about the phenomena.

1973 – An ad for a board game, Husker Du, including the flashing of the words ‘Get It’ was removed from the air for subliminal pursuasion. This incident led to the Federal Trade Commission’s official stance against subliminal advertising. “The Commission saw these ads as deceptive and banned the practice of using subliminal ads, even though there wasn’t definitive research to prove the effects” (study.com).

1974 – The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “issued a public notice stating their official position on subliminals: “We believe that the use of subliminal perception is inconsistent with the obligations of a [broadcast] licensee, and therefore we take this occasion to make clear that broadcasts employing such techniques are contrary to the public interest. Whether effective of not, such broadcasts clearly are intended to be deceptive.” “(www.badabingrecords.com).

1981 & 1994 – The Advertising Industry responds to the Key.

1981 – “John O’Toole, President of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and thus often called on to speak on behalf on the industry, denounced both subliminal advertising and Wilson Bryan Key in his 1981 book, The Trouble with Advertising. O’Toole, who had previously headed the Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency, wrote in his book:
‘There is no such thing as subliminal advertising. I have never seen an example of it, nor have I ever heard it seriously discussed as a technique by advertising people…. It’s demeaning to assume that the human mind is so easily controlled that anyone can be made to act against his will or better judgment by peremptory commands he doesn’t realize are present. Even more absurd is the theory proposed by Wilson Bryan Key in a sleazy book entitled Subliminal Seduction. From whatever dark motivations, Key finds sexual symbolism in every ad and commercial’ ” (O’Barr, 2013).

1994 – “Jack Haberstroh, a marketing professor firmly convinced that the phenomenon of subliminal perception is real but its use by advertisers is infrequent, wrote a book entitled Ice Cube Sex: The Truth about Subliminal Advertising. He takes the advertising industry to task for saying so little about subliminal advertising” (O’Barr, 2013).

Since then companies have continued to use subliminal messages in their advertisements, citing many examples here.

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