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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 sense.

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 mythical realities.

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 methods.


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