Gary P. Radford
Ph. D. in Communication, Information and Library Studies
The Graduate School, New Brunswick
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
May 16th, 1988
Copyright 2002 by Gary P. Radford. All Rights Reserved
1. "Subliminal Persuasion," the act of persuasion by means of messages below the threshold of
awareness, literally exploded on the public attention as a result of a press conference given in New
York City on September 12, 1957, by a market researcher by the name of James M. Vicary
(Henderson, 1957, Westin, 1967). The initial reaction to the conference, as exemplified by the press
of the time, was emphatic and emotional, revealing feelings of alarm, fear and paranoia. It was
responded to at the highest levels of national Government, and was the subject of discussion for
many State legislatures around the country as being the cause for serious concern (see Westin, 1967,
chapter 11). It was from this single event and the ensuing reactions to it that an idea was implanted
in the American psyche that was to endure with very little change for the next 30 years. In the 1970s
and 1980s, those same concerns have been masterfully exploited (Creed, 1987) in the guise of a
series of sensationalistic "exposes" of subliminal messages in advertising (Key, 1973, 1976, 1980).
The same concerns also continue to be discussed at the highest levels of national Government
(Subliminal Communication Technology, 1984). From a different perspective, the power of the
belief in communicating with the subconscious is being commercially exploited via self-help
subliminal cassettes (Lofflin, 1988) and "black boxes" that reduce theft in supermarkets by
subliminal voices (Elias, 1979; Secret voices, 1979). In 1988, the selling of subliminal persuasion
is big business!
2. Beginning with the Vicary's press conference in 1957, subliminal persuasion has generated a
discourse that is based neither in fact nor fantasy, but resides in a fascinating "grey area" inbetween.
It is a concept that is strange enough be absurd yet with enough basis in scientific discourse that
legitimizes it as having the potential to be "real." It is this "potential for reality" rather than the
reality of the phenomenon itself that is the basis of the articulation of the myth. The intention here
is not to add to that discourse, but to look at the discourse itself as a phenonenon for analysis. This
project will not address subliminal persuasion as a psychological phenomenon, as a function of the
brain, or in terms of the ethical issues surrounding the exposure of unknowing subjects to subliminal
messages. Rather it will consider it in terms of a discourse, or, as Barthes (1972) describes it, as
"mythology," a "type of speech" (p. 109).
3. In Barthes conceptualization, the myth is able to endure regardless of the truth or validity of the
concept (at least in the empirical sense). Indeed, the popularity of it is growing, as witnessed in
growing interests in subliminal tapes (Lofflin, 1988) and subliminal "technologies" in places such
as supermarkets (Elias, 1979; Secret voices, 1979). The argument will be that the success of such
products in 1988 is not directly linked to empirical proof, but to the existence of a "myth" in which
such a concept can make sense and be seen as reasonable. It will also attempt to demonstrate that
the myth to be described can be traced back to the single press conference of 1957, and that the
nature of the discourse that we know as subliminal persuasion was formed in a very dynamic period
from 1957 to 1959. The context and meaning systems in which the discourse came to be will be
considered, as will the question of why it was important and appropriate that the discourse should
be articulated at the time it was and in the way it was. Finally, it will consider why that discourse
should be so forceful again today, some 30 years after it was originally articulated.
4. To do this analysis requires a perspective on the phenomenon that is unique as far as the author
is aware. In considering subliminal persuasion as a discourse rather than a phenomenon requires the
utilization of the methods of structuralism, structural linguistics, and semiotics. Thus this project
will be a case study in the use of structuralist methods in a discourse that has yet to be subject to
such an analysis. This paper, then, is just the beginning of such a project.
Metalanguage and Language-Object: Subliminal as a Psychological Construct
5. Before discussing subliminal persuasion as a discourse in itself (i.e. in terms of a "metalanguage"),
it is first necessary to briefly review the concept of "subliminal" in its own terms (i.e. as "language-
object"), and why the concept is the source of much controversy aside from its emotional
attachments to words such as "persuasion" and "advertising." As Barthes (1972) points out:
in myth there are two semiological systems, one of which is staggered in relation
to the other: a linguistic system, the language (or the modes of representation
which are assimilated to it), which I shall call the "language-object", because it
is the language which myth gets hold of in order to build its own system; and
myth itself, which I shall call "metalanguage", because it is a second language.
in which one speaks about the first (p. 115).
Looking at subliminal as "language-object" will offer insights as to why the notion of the subliminal
is such a ripe area for the stimulation of imagination and the spawning of myth.
6. Subliminality is first and foremost a construct taken from experimental cognitive psychology and
has a very long history under various guises (see Dixon, 1971). Considered in terms of its
etymology, the adjective "subliminal" is derived from "sub," meaning "below," and "limen,"
meaning "threshold." Thus anything that is given the adjective of subliminal is said be below a
threshold of some kind. However, it is the nature of the limen in subliminal that is important,
because the limen referred to is of a specific nature. Limen in this case refers to a "threshold of
awareness," and subliminal describes something that is "below" this threshold. Thus, the Random
House Dictionary (1982) defines "subliminal" as "noting, pertaining to, or employing stimuli that
exist or operate below the threshold of consciousness" (p. 1309).
7. In this definition, "consciousness" becomes the term that is most problematic in terms of
interpretation, not subliminal. "Subliminal" embodies the preexisting problematics of
"consciousness" and "subconsciousness" in its very formulation. By including "threshold of
consciousness" as part of the definition, the word `subliminal' immediately asserts that there is such
a thing as consciousness, that one can in a sense go "beneath it," and that by implication there are
two distinct areas which the "threshold" has divided which one can logically ascribe the terms "the
conscious" and "the "subconscious." That is what `subliminal' "means" according to the definition
we have just ascribed to it; these are the presuppositions, the discursive system, in which it makes
8. Such presuppositions have been the fundamental source of debate within modern psychology for
much of the Twentieth Century. The nature and study of the conscious person, the subconscious
information processor or the behaving organism have been at the crux of the differing world views
held by the schools of Behaviorism, Humanism, Phenomenology, Psychoanalysis and Cognitive
Psychology (see Hillner, 1984). The notion of the "subliminal" is not at the root of these issues, but
it certainly embodies their tensions by the inclusion of "consciousness" in its definition. It is some
of these tensions that get played out in the discussion of subliminal perception literature, for
example. When we get to a conception of subliminal persuasion, however, these tensions are even
more explicitly in evidence.
9. In the cognitive paradigm, the idea of "subliminal perception" has generated debate and
controversy almost unique to itself. At the heart of the controversy is the proposition that there is
the capacity in the subconscious for the processing of information presented below the threshold of
consciousness which can influence overt behaviors, bypassing the region known as "consciousness"
or "awareness." This capacity for such subconscious information processing has become known as
the "subliminal perception hypothesis." As Dixon (1971) points out, this view suggests that:
while some physiological processes which result from sensory stimulation with
light or sound may give rise to awareness of the stimulus, such phenomenal
representation is neither a necessary consequence of effective stimulation, nor a
necessary prelude to an overt response (p. 2).
10. In other words, behaviors are not necessarily dependent on a "phenomenal representation" (or
awareness) of the stimuli that may be influencing or determining those behaviors. These sub-
threshold stimuli are, in a sense, influencing behavior "directly." Such a view is a radical departure
form currently accepted paradigms of perception (see Dixon, 1971; Marcel, 1983a, 1983b).
11. In cognitive psychology, subliminal perception is not the study of the "subconscious" per se.
Rather it is the systematic investigation of the relationships between input and output variables when
the stimulus is denied access to consciousness by presenting it very quickly over a tachistoscope.
Tachistoscopic presentation is perhaps the most common paradigm for studying the effects of
subliminal stimuli and is presented here for ease of explanation. However, other paradigms for
rendering the stimulus unavailable to consciousness also exist, notably backward masking and
dischotic listening (see Holender, 1986; Marcel, 1983a).. From this, the information processing
characteristics of the system can be inferred. Thus the definition of subliminal in cognitive
psychology is always operational in nature. If a stimulus is presented to a subject and the subject
cannot give an accurate verbal response as to its nature and/or presence, then that stimulus is said
to be subliminal. Subliminal "perception" occurs when that stimulus is determined to have a
systematic effect on some outcome variable, such as another verbal response (e.g., Worthington and
Dixon, 1964) or an autonomic nervous response (Lazarus and McCleary, 1951). The subliminal
perception hypothesis, then, asserts that such relationships can be demonstrated with experimental
reliability and, to some extent, validity.
12. The methodological considerations surrounding such "demonstrations" are problematic enough
(see Holender, 1986). However, the crux of the controversy lies in the articulation of what these
relationships actually "mean." To explain them satisfactorily requires the construction of a model
of human information processing that is radically different from the received paradigm in which a
conscious component of behavior is taken as axiomatic (see Marcel, 1983a, 1983b). This has led
to disagreement, competing accounts, and controversy. As Dixon (1971) points out:
as a hypothesis, it [subliminal perception] is unique in having initiated what is
surely one of the longest lasting, most acrimonious, and, in terms of research
done and papers published, time-consuming controversies in the history of
psychology (1971, p. 3).
13. Such conditions provide the backdrop for myth to emerge as an alternative and acceptable means
of "making sense" of what is a ambiguous and complex issue.
14. Of interest to this paper, however, is the greater consideration of why these debates and
controversies should be occurring at all. There must exist a discourse in which a phenomenon such
as subliminal perception is extremely problematic and which is inclined to actively resist it as a
viable basis on which to conduct meaningful research. Why is this so? Ultimately because it goes
against beliefs which are more fundamental than psychological theories. It is also running counter
to the discourse of North American "common sense," or Schutz's (1967) "natural attitude" (p. 36).
In this discourse, people hold the belief that they are self-directed. They behave as is they operated
on the basis of information they are aware of. If this were not the case, then it would be difficult
to hold the world view that people were rational, and, in general, this seems to be a self-image the
United States culture strives to maintain. Dixon (1971) briefly recognizes this larger context when
he observes that:
Of particular interest in this context is the contrast between the apparent simplicity
of the proposition that people may be influenced by stimulation of which they are
unaware and the complexity of factors, philosophical and psychological,
methodological and statistical, economic and ethical, which have sustained the
controversy (p. 3).
15. In his treatment of the problem, Dixon focuses exclusively on the methodological and conceptual
issues of the controversy to the exclusion of the wider concerns. The focus in this paper, however,
will be an examination of this "complexity of factors" that have formed the backdrop to a
controversy over a proposition that while so superficially simple in its statement, is so complex in
its interpretation. It is the controversy that allows the discourse of "subliminal persuasion" to appear
at all, because it is in the context of this uncertainty that possibilities have the potential to become
Articulating the Myth of Subliminal Persuasion
16. Thus far described, the subliminal problem lies not so much in terms of its operational definition
but in terms of its conceptual interpretations. Subliminality embodies an implicit notion of the
"conscious/subconscious" dichotomy, but the conceptual frameworks available to cognitive
psychology have only allowed it to address the issue indirectly. Underwood (1982) has described
this situation in the following manner:
We cannot talk about consciousness without talking about experience, but the
information processing model of man, one of our strongest conceptual
frameworks, does not readily admit the notion of mental experience. Early
information processing models of consciousness side-stepped this problem by
identifying consciousness with one or more stages of processing; it became a box
in the much parodied flowchart. This not only failed to provide an adequate
description, but also avoided the question, and provided little in the way of an
understanding of how mechanism can incorporate mental experience (p. viii).
17. The limitations of a purely information processing account open the way for competing
explanations of the conscious/subconscious relationship. Myth can take whatever discourses it can
in order to maintain a coherent picture of the world. Thus myth is able to traverse the border into
other types of discourse, most notably the psychoanalytic paradigm of Freud, whereas the cognitive
accounts described by Underwood above cannot.
18. The Freudian framework would seem to be more receptive to some of the contradictory ideas
involved in the subliminal. After all, it has a theory of the subconscious and its relationship with
conscious aspects of human existence. Given a layman's knowledge of Freud and the definition of
subliminal already described, myth has the potential to shape them together as one coherent
discourse. In taking the first steps in articulating the discourse of subliminal persuasion, it is useful
to let the imagination take over and see what happens when these ideas are combined. According
to Barthes (1972), this is the essence of myth. Just as language selects and combines preexisting
linguistic elements to form unique sentences, so myth selects and combines preexisting semiological
systems to form a new and unique discourse. To do this, however, it is necessary that one suspends
one's critical faculties for the moment and pardon the apparent sloppy treatment of these discourses.
The intention is to articulate the myth in its own terms rather than in the discourse of the objective
observer. In the Freudian world view, behavior is the result of unconscious mental forces, inner
drives fueled by desire, fear and the libido. The definition of a "subliminal message" describes an
entity which can bypass the threshold of consciousness. By definition, it follows that this message
is being "received" in this subconscious region of the mind.
19. What happens when the message reaches this subconscious area? Cognitive psychology finds it
difficult to address this, but a Freudian discourse allows one to at least have the means to "talk"
about it. One can now speculate that this subconscious can "react" to what it has received. One
might go as far as to say that the subconscious has the capacity to recognize, or even understand,
the message in some form. One might even say that it is possible to subliminally "communicate"
with this inner self. Communication is a fairly benign term, but what happens if terms such as
"subliminal advertising" or "subliminal persuasion" are used? Given that it is possible to
"communicate" with the subconscious, would it not also be possible to structure these messages such
that they are "persuasive?" To change its inner structure in a manner conducive to the message?
Would it not be possible to "advertise" to the subconscious, to tell it that you really need this
product? And could the subconscious self, thus altered, cause changes in conscious states, such as
beliefs, attitudes, and ultimately behavior? If the subconscious can be "persuaded" directly, then it
is not a big step to speculate the possibility of programing people what to think, what to do, what
to buy. Could freewill and autonomous decisionmaking be seriously undermined? Could the whole
population be ultimately transformed into subservient puppets through the manipulation of
subconscious forces directly by subliminal means?
20. What has been described above is a rough sketch of "subliminal persuasion," or "persuasion
below the threshold of consciousness." The myth has no answers to the questions it raises, but it
provides the means by which such questions can be articulated and thought about. By connecting
the idea of "subliminal," and the presuppositions it carries in its very definition, and a very simple
understanding of some of Freud's ideas, the chain of reasoning to these claims appears logical and
relatively straightforward. However, such reasoning is a discursive system rather than an empirical
one. The description given above does not come out of psychology or of psychoanalysis. The
combination of "subliminal," "subconscious," and "persuasion" forms a discourse quite separate
from any of them, driven by a logic and structure that is the property of none. This is the nature of
"myth," and an explication of this term will follow in the next section.
Analyzing Subliminal Persuasion as Myth
21. According to Barthes (1972), "myth," in the sense that it has been employed in this paper, is a
"type of speech," "a system of communication," "a mode of signification" (p. 109). The myth of
subliminal persuasion, for example, does not refer to an object, an event or an empirically verified
construct, but to the discursive system in which it is expressed. By taking a structural perspective
of subliminal persuasion, one is not addressing the question of whether subliminal persuasion
"exists" (an ontological question) but rather the world view in which its existence would make sense
(an epistemological question). In this perspective, the truth or falsity of the phenomenon, at least
as demonstrated by empirical method, is almost irrelevant.
22. In this project, it will be argued that subliminal persuasion is a myth which appeared at a
particular and specifiable point in time and that the nature of the myth can be explained by
considering its historical context. Myths do not simply arise, they are generated by specific social
and historical forces. As Barthes points out, "myth is a type of speech chose by history: it cannot
possibly evolve from the `nature of things'" (p. 110). One aspect of this study would be the nature
of such a history.
23. A second major consideration of this project will be a consideration of the "elements" from which
the discourse is generated. Barthes points out that: "Mythical speech is made of a material which
has "already been worked on so as to make it suitable for consciousness" (p. 110). It is perhaps
ironic that this quote should include the term "consciousness" in this context. A better term might
be articulation or assimilation. The point being made here is that subliminal persuasion is not a new
discourse, nor is any discourse. It draws on "material" that is already known and defined. Thus
Barthes describes myth as a "second-order semiological system" that is "constructed from a
semiological chain that existed before it" (p. 114). In this case, subliminal persuasion draws on the
ideas of a Freudian subconscious, the power of messages to persuade, and a psychological construct
of subliminal perception that has left the field of psychology in great uncertainty. From this
"material," subliminal persuasion can be articulated as a discourse in itself.
24. The essence of this project lies in the articulation of the relationship between these semiological
systems. As mentioned before, a structuralist account of subliminal persuasion has yet to be done,
but it is an area that offers a fascinating and complex case study in the application of structuralist
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