The following was excerpted from the book The Anatomy of Humbug.
Tall and good looking, James A. Vicary showed considerable flair of publicizing himself and his business.
One of his early experiments, still quite famous today, involved monitoring the eye-blink rates of people walking round supermarkets: as they cruised the aisles the blink rates dropped to half of normal, which Vicary described as ‘trance-like’ — they then accelerated to higher than normal as the time came to pay, indicating stress.
But he was to become most famous for his experiment with “subliminal advertising.”
In 1956 Vicary installed a tachistoscope in a cinema in Fort Lee, NJ, which projected the verbal messages “Drink Coke” and “Eat Popcorn” on the screen for 1/30,000 of a second. Vicary hypothesized that while this was far too quick to register consciously, it would be subconsciously noticed and could influence behaviour; and indeed, on the alternate days that the subliminal messages were projected, sales of Coke and popcorn rose enormously. This experiment was widely publicized, and caused huge alarm.
If it was so easy to brainwash people without their knowledge, what else might this technique be used for in the wrong hands? (Recall that this was the McCarthy era, when the American public were highly concerned about the “communist threat”).
The US, the UK, and other governments rushed through legislation banning “subliminal advertising.” And as we shall see, the alarm caused by Vicary’s stunt made a major contribution to the eventual faction against motivation research as a whole.
But in fact, a stunt is all that it was. After the hysteria had died down a bit, scientists who attempted to replicate Vicary’s results found that these kind of message exposure had no effect at all on behaviour. Eventually, someone thought to drive over the George Washington Bridge and visit Fort Lee.
It turned out the cinema manager had never heard of Vicary, had never installed a tachistoscope, and indeed the cinema was too small for the numbers claimed in Vicary’s report. In 1962 Vicary admitted that the whole thing had been a hoax designed to prop up his business (Robinson, pp.16-20).
A widespread fear of “subliminal advertising” has however persisted to this day.
Excerpt from “The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently about Advertising” by Paul Feldwick (Matador, 2015).
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