Gary P. Radford
Paper presented at the 42nd Annual Conference of
the International Communication
Association, Miami, Florida May 21-25, 1992
Copyright 2002 by Gary P. Radford. All Rights Reserved
1. The scientific study of communication phenomena is justified in terms of a
gradual movement toward truth. Armed with a diverse range of theories and
methods, the communication researcher produces evidence which will either support
or refute a particular claim to the nature of the "truth" of the phenomenon they
are investigating. In many important respects, the communication researcher is
like the protagonist in a hard-boiled detective story. Both the detective and the
communication researcher seek the truth by considering the artifacts and traces
left behind. The detective considers clues which will reveal the truth of the
killer's identity while the communication researcher considers empirical evidence
which relate to the truth value of particular hypotheses. To continue the analogy
further, the route to the truth is often fraught with red herrings; clues which
indicate the truth in the guise of a suspect who is, in fact, innocent. In a good
detective story, the revelation of the killer's identity at the end of the story
may ultimately contradict the expectations that have been created in the audience
by the structure of the story and its handling of the evidence that is presented.
While all the clues seemed to point to one, or two, suspects, the truth of the
real killer was someone quite different. When the clues are rearranged by the
detective in the climax of the story, then the truth can be seen in the new
pattern of evidence. The story is said to have a twist in the tail.
2. The evidence presented in the story can suggest many suspects as the killer.
Until the point where the truth of the killer's identity is revealed, the
evidence is equivocal and claims to the truth are competitive. This creates the
sensation of suspense in the story. The scientific study of communication
phenomena parallels this situation. It too has many clues and many competing
theories to account for them. However, for the communication researcher, there
is one very important difference from the fictional narrative of the detective
story: the truth of the matter is not revealed. The communication researcher
remains in a constant state of suspense; believing the truth to be of one kind
until new evidence is produced which suggests it may be of another kind. The
communication researcher also operates with the knowledge that new clues always
have the potential to show up at any time. The final and definitive truth always
remains one step ahead of the conjectures of the communication researcher.
3. The communication researcher works in a state of constant suspense that is
never totally resolved. This state represents an open site for many accounts of
the true nature of communication phenomena. The activity of the communication
researcher becomes one of persuasion rather than demonstration. A case for the
truth must be made which is more persuasive than other accounts. Like the
detective, the communication researcher must arrange the clues to find the
killer. The tenets of scientific method are employed in the making of this case
using the language of probability, significance, control, and validity. The
account may seem very convincing indeed from this point of view. However, because
the truth has not been revealed at this point, there is always the possibility
of the twist in the tail. Even though all the clues and reasoning of the
communication researcher strongly suggest one particular version of the reality
of a phenomena, the possibility that a new arrangement will prevail is always
present. With this comes the conditions of possibility for alternative accounts
of the truth which run counter to the expectations generated by the scientific
account of the evidence. The constant potentiality of the twist in the tail makes
possible the existence of truths quite different from that espoused by the
scientific reasoning of the communication researcher. These accounts generate
their own kind of validity through the internal coherence they create in their
handling of the evidence they draw upon.
4. In this paper, the topic of subliminal persuasion is utilized as a site which
exemplifies the situation described above. Subliminal persuasion is considered
here as a topic that has been addressed as a communication phenomenon by the
academic disciplines of experimental psychology and marketing. A particular
account regarding the "truth" of the phenomena has been produced through these
diciplines' consideration of various kinds of evidence. However, subliminal
persuasion is also the driving force behind a lucrative industry of subliminal
self-help audio cassettes which exists on the basis of a knowledge of the
phenomena that is quite different from that produced by experimental
psychologists. While experimental psychology maintains that subliminal persuasion
is not a phenomenon capable of significantly changing people's behaviors and
attitudes, the knowledge underlying the emergence and success of subliminal self-
help tapes asserts that subliminal persuasion is a valid and powerful phenomenon.
How can this claim co-exist with the truth as espoused by the scientific
community? It is suggested here that the knowledge underlying the subliminal tape
industry represents a different arrangement of the evidence. As long as the
possibility of the twist in the tail is present, then there is reason to believe
this knowledge and its validation will continue to co-exist alongside the
knowledge of science. Therefore, it is important to study and understand the
nature of these accounts and the structures by which they maintain their
coherence and credibility.
5. According to the manufacturers of subliminal self-help tapes, subliminal
persuasion is real and available at the local bookstore at $14.95 a tape. The
producers of self-help subliminal cassette tapes claim, among other things, that
subliminal messages have the capacity to relieve stress, increase sex appeal,
facilitate weight loss, stop cigarette smoking, and improve your golf game (Mind
Communication, Inc., 1988; Stimutech, Inc., 1983). According to Lofflin (1988),
these tapes are big business. Lofflin estimates that at least 250 million such
tapes were sold in 1986. Russell, Rowe, and Smouse (1991) report that sales of
subliminal tapes by Mind Communication, Inc., grossed $2 million in 1986 and that
in the same year, the Joe Land Company sales topped that figure in one month.
According to Lofflin (1988), retail sales will continue to increase at a
significant rate well into the future.
6. On an intuitive level, the commercial success of this product might be
interpreted as paradoxical. The term "subliminal" is defined by the Oxford
English Dictionary as "below the threshold of sensation or consciousness: said
of states supposed to exist but not strong enough to be recognized" (Sampson and
Wiener, 1989, p. 40). The Webster's New International Dictionary of the English
Language defines "subliminal" as "too weak to arouse sensation...too small to be
perceived [and] existing or occurring outside of the personal consciousness"
(Neilson, Knott, and Carhart, 1959, p. 2511). Given these definitions, the notion
of a "subliminal message" would appear to be paradoxical because it refers to a
message that cannot be recognized by its intended receiver. It follows that
purchasers of subliminal self-help tapes do not, and cannot, buy them on the
basis of messages they can hear, but on the basis of subliminal messages which
they cannot. More significantly, purchasers must buy into the claim that the
subliminal messages are actually present on the tape and the claim that the
subliminal messages have the capacity to significantly change individual
behaviors and attitudes. Therefore, it is the persuasiveness of the claim of
subliminal persuasion that will ultimately determine the success or failure of
the subliminal tape enterprise.
7. The success of the subliminal tapes can be considered an indicator of a larger
question; what is the claim to subliminal persuasion upon which the subliminal
tape enterprise is based and why is it proving to be so successful for these
companies? The claim, as stated earlier, is grounded in the semantic, if not
psychological, paradox of the "subliminal message" and paradoxes are not easily
resolvable. Yet the claim of subliminal persuasion is accepted with sufficient
clarity and certainty that people will act upon it to purchase subliminal self-
help products. The paradox of the "subliminal message" has proved to be a
significant problem in the discipline of experimental psychology. The attempts
to achieve its resolution, through experimentation and logical reasoning, have
constituted one of the discipline's most fundamental controversies (Bevan, 1964;
Dixon, 1971). Psychologists who argue for the possibility and validity of the
"subliminal message" ascribe to the hypothesis of subliminal perception, which
posits that an individual can "perceive" a message without necessarily having
awareness of it (Dixon, 1971). Opponents of the hypothesis claim that information
that does not achieve the status of consciousness does not have any significant
impact upon the individual's thoughts or actions. The debate concerning the
subliminal perception hypothesis can be traced, in various forms, to the founding
of psychology as an experimental science in the 1890s (see Radford, 1991) and,
as Dixon (1971) argues:
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 (p. 3).
8. The projected commercial success of subliminal self-help tapes becomes an
interesting phenomenon because conclusive empirical evidence for a relationship
between subliminal messages and behavioral change has yet to be produced or
agreed upon by the psychological community. Given this uncertainty as a
scientific phenomenon, how is the subliminal self-help industry able to sustain
itself as a viable enterprise? What knowledge are people drawing upon in their
evaluation of the claims of subliminal tapes that enables them to reach the
decision to purchase them? Do they consider the claims of a psychological
community arrived through the procedures of scientific method and the
consideration of empirical data? Or are they drawing upon a very different realm
of knowledge in which subliminal messages are a relatively unproblematic and
credible proposition? In this paper, it is argued that the latter proposition is
9. A survey conducted by Zanot, Pincus, and Lamp (1983) suggests that people have
a considerable "knowledge" of subliminal messages quite at odds with that
espoused by psychologists. Zanot et al (1983) conducted 209 phone interviews with
respondents chosen at random from the Washington D.C. phone book to gauge their
knowledge of the topic of "subliminal advertising." Of these 209 respondents, 81%
(170) claimed they had heard of subliminal advertising. Of these, 48% (101) could
provide a definition of the term without aid. Of the group of 170 who claim to
have heard of the term, 81% (144) said that subliminal advertising is being used
in advertising today, 68% (122) said that subliminal advertising is successful
in selling products, and 51% (90) said that this technique was used "always" or
"often." From these figures, Zanot et al (1983) concluded that "public awareness
of the phenomenon of subliminal advertising is widespread and has increased over
the past two decades" (p. 42) and that "respondents believe that subliminal
advertising is widely and frequently used and that it is successful in selling
products" (p. 43). People clearly have a certain kind of "knowledge" concerning
the kind of effects of subliminal messages. Where is this knowledge acquired, and
why do people believe in its truth?
10. The answer explored in this paper is that people make these claims by recourse
to knowledge other than that produced by scientific institutions but which
nevertheless are considered to have truth and credibility. One such form of
knowledge is the urban legend. According to Brunvand (1986), legends "are stories
regarded by their tellers as true" (p. 158). They are usually recounted in
conversations as a way of explaining strange things that occur, or are thought
to have occurred. Legends are supported by validating formulas in their telling,
such as the claim that it really happened, that the teller heard it from a friend
who knew it happened, or that the teller read or heard about it from a credible
media source. They are not necessarily validated by the conventions of
testability and evidence that are the benchmark of scientific judgements.
11. Brunvand (1986) differentiates the "urban legend" as "stories in a
contemporary setting that are reported as true" (p. 165). They generally concern
recent events (or alleged events) with an ironic or supernatural twist. Along
with the elements of belief, urban legends also contain highly unnatural details.
However, according to Brunvand (1986), "this fact shakes popular belief in them
not a bit, for people in all walks of life credit such stories, and various
publications frequently reprint them...as the truth" (p. 165). According to the
teller, the true facts of a modern urban legend lie just one or two informants
back down the line with a reliable witness, or in a credible news media report.
According to Brunvand (1981), urban legends are "an integral part of white Anglo-
American culture and are told and believed by some of the most sophisticated
'folk' of modern society" (p. xi).
12. It is argued in this paper that there is a modern urban legend concerning the
origins, practices, and effects of subliminal persuasion. One version of the
subliminal persuasion urban legend is as follows: Sometime in the recent past
there was an experiment in a cinema where messages were flashed on the movie
screen while the picture was in progress. At the intermission everyone in the
theater felt compelled to buy popcorn and coca cola. The increased sales of
popcorn and coca cola are attributed to the power of subliminal messages which
reach into the unconscious minds of the unsuspecting movie audience.
13. The story is simple and accounts of it are remarkably similar. Details may
vary as to the date or location of the event (if such details are given), but the
essential elements of the story, the "flashed" messages and increased sales of
popcorn, are almost always consistent. How the teller came to know the story is
usually unclear, but it is almost always considered factual.
14. The subliminal persuasion urban legend satisfies many dimensions of Brunvand's
(1986) definition. The tellers can have credible backgrounds. The author's
experience of the telling of the legend is from tellers who are university
professors, graduate students, and undergraduate students. Zanot et al.'s (1983)
survey found that "the individual most likely to have heard of subliminal
advertising is white, well-educated (at least some college) with a relatively
high income" (p. 43). The tellers will claim the story to be factual and based
on a credible source, even if they cannot identify that source. Zanot et al.
(1983) found that "the strong correlations with education suggest that people are
most likely to learn about subliminal advertising in an educational setting" (p.
43). The respondent's claim that they learned about subliminal advertising in
school or college runs counter to the mainstream academic view that subliminal
advertising is untenable as a scientific or verifiable phenomenon. Zanot et al.
(1983) consider this finding a topic of some concern and they suggest that "this
apparent paradox suggests further research among educators to see the amount and
nature of what is being taught about subliminal advertising" (p. 43). Zanot et
al.'s concern is justifiable, if this response is taken at face value and it is
accepted that these beliefs are taught in educational institutions. However,
considering the nature of urban legends, it may be the case that the teller's
claim they acquired this knowledge in an educational setting in an attempt to
give their story credibility.
15. Zanot et al.'s (1983) survey and Brunvand's (1986) definition support the
claim that a subliminal persuasion urban legend, that is not informed by
mainstream psychological knowledge claims, is present (at least in the greater
Washington D.C. area). Library research by the author to determine the origin
of the flashed messages in the movie theater legend has revealed that it has a
basis in documented events and that there are some important transformations
between these events and the way in which those events are recounted in the
telling of the legend. It is documented that a press conference was given in New
York City on September 12th, 1957, by James M. Vicary, a market researcher, held,
as the reporter from the New Yorker describes it, "in a small, close room in East
Fifty-Seventh Street, a room heavily padded with old mattresses and chicken wire"
("Talk of the town," 1957, p. 33). Vicary's subject was the public unveiling of
a new "subliminal projection" technology that was to revolutionize advertising
by promoting products directly to the needs and desires of the unconscious mind.
The conference was called on behalf of a commercial enterprise called the
Subliminal Projection Company, to whom Vicary had signed over patent rights on
his subliminal "discoveries" in return for stock in the firm. Vicary announced
that the coke\popcorn experiment had been conducted in a movie theater somewhere
in New Jersey.
16. On the basis of this "experiment," Vicary set out to persuade his audience
that subliminal persuasion was a viable and proven phenomenon and that the
technology produced by the Subliminal Projection Co. was the means by which it
could be commercially exploited. The reporter from the New Yorker documents, in
an ironical style, that "about fifty members of the press turned up, and we all
sat obediently and receptively, if a bit sadly, in our little mortuary chairs,
allowing our brains to be softly broken and entered" ("Talk of the town," 1957,
17. Given the context of the press conference, there is good reason to be
skeptical that Vicary's breakthrough in subliminal technology was carried out in
the name of pure research because all of his claims were self-serving to the
company's interests. Little is known of the actual experiment outside of the
reports of the press conference given in general news accounts (such as "Talk of
the town," 1957; Henderson, 1957). As McConnel, Cutler, & McNeil (1972) point
this demonstration has been the one which has caused the most stir
in both the fields of advertising and psychology. There were no
reports, however, of even the most rudimentary scientific precautions,
such as adequate controls, provision for replication, etc., which leaves the
skeptical scientist in a poor position to make any judgement about
the validity of the study (p. 180).
18. Vicary's response to the call for "evidence" was to sidestep the whole issue.
As Henderson (1957) reports: "Precise details of...how the scheme works, how much
it will cost, and the validity of its ability to sell popcorn or soda pop, are
shrouded in secrecy because of problems involving the company's patent
application" (p. 1). Vicary's unwillingness or inability to produce an account
of the theater experiment according to the accepted conventions of scholarly
reporting led many to the conclusion that Vicary's press conference was a
marketing strategy to promote a new product rather than the announcement of a new
discovery. This interpretation is supported by an interview given by Vicary five
years later in 1962. He states that:
Worse than the timing, though, was the fact we hadn't done any
research, except what was needed for filing a patent. I had only a
minor interest in the company and a small amount of data - too small
to be meaningful. And what we had shouldn't have been used
promotionally (Danzig, 1962, p. 72).
19. With Vicary's own revelation of his intentions, the conclusion that the
presentatiion at the press conference on September 12th, 1957, was an attempt to
publicize the existence of a projection technology for the delivery of
advertising messages on cinema screens at subliminal speeds is strongly
supported. However, as with the nature of urban legends, the "truth" of what
actually happened (at least as documented in newspaper and magazine articles of
the time) is not as important, or as interesting, as the "truth" that is
recounted in the continual telling of the tale. The tellings are, by nature,
selective of the details which hold attention and create interest.
20. The urban legend, as it is recounted today, has striking similarities to
Vicary's presentation at the press conference. If one looks beyond it as a
scientific statement of objective fact, one might consider Vicary's presentation
as the first telling of the subliminal persuasion urban legend; an account of
subliminal phenomena which will become quite independent of, but as credible as,
scientific accounts of the concept. The account of the reporter for the New
Yorker magazine ("Talk of the town," 1957) represents a second telling of the
legend as one who heard it from Vicary. It is interesting to note that the New
Yorker's recounting of the press conference is already transforming elements of
it into a form ideal for a modern urban legend:
Mr. James M. Vicary, a cheerful, sensible-looking man, seemed to be
the guiding genius of the affair. He gave us a quick rundown. The
purpose of subliminal projection is to eliminate irritation, create
consumer desire without fuss and feathers - no visual image, no
audible word. Advertising has simply gone underground; the trick is
easy enough, and is not really new. By throwing a word or two on the
screen and leaving it there at a light intensity below that of the
picture being shown, the company can get the word into your thoughts
without causing you the awful inconvenience of having to see and
read it. The words are guaranteed to cause no pain; they merely
remind you, as a faithful servant might, that Coca-Cola is your
favorite drink. Tests have been run. Apparently a certain city over
in Jersey, nameless as yet, has been our Alamogordo. And it is all
true: sales of Coke rocketed in the lobby of a movie theatre where
the tests were made. A popcorn test was run, too (the words "Eat
Popcorn" flashed on the screen unbeknownst to anyone), but the
popcorn tests were kept separate from the coke tests, lest any cynic
suggest that the salt in the popcorn was boosting the thirst level
("Talk of the town", 1957, p. 33).
21. Carter Henderson, reporter for the Wall Street Journal, recorded, and
subsequently transformed, Vicary's presentation as follows:
This story may sound as though a flying saucer is lurking
somewhere behind the scenes, but you can rest assured all characters
in this drama are real. The tale begins some months ago when several close-mouthed men
walked into a New Jersey motion picture house and fitted a strange
mechanism to the film projector. Over the next six weeks, as 45,699
unsuspecting movie goers watched Hollywood's newest epics, a strange
thing reportedly occurred. Out of the blue, it is claimed, patrons
started deserting their seats and crowding in the lobby. Sales of
Coca-Cola reportedly rose 18.1% and popcorn purchases zoomed 57.7%
over the theater's usual sales.
These claims - and the explanation of this purported phenomenon -
were made at a press conference yesterday afternoon by executives of
a new firm called Subliminal Projection Co., Inc. The movie patrons
had been subjected to "invisible advertising" that by-passed their
conscious and assertedly struck deep into their sub-conscious.
The trick was accomplished by flashing commercials past the
viewers' eyes so rapidly that viewers were unaware they had seen
them. The ads, which were flashed every five seconds or so, simply
urged the audience to eat popcorn and drink Coca-Cola, and they were
projected during the theater's regular movie program (Henderson, 1957, p. 1).
22. Both of these accounts already contain the seeds of a good urban legend. They
represent the second telling of Vicary's original tale and bring to it a number
of significant transformations. One such transformation is the introduction of
unnaturalness and suspense into the story. The New Yorker reporter informs the
reader that "we have attended many a history-making hoedown in New York, but this
jig was the creepiest" ("Talk of the town, 1957, p. 33).
23. Henderson's account also introduces elements of strangeness coupled with
truth. He begins the article with the image of the "flying saucer lurking
somewhere behind the scenes," again explicitly incorporating the themes of
suspense and strangeness into the report. The description of the New Jersey
theater experiment is identified as "a tale" in which "several close-mouthed men
walked into a New Jersey motion picture house and fitted a strange mechanism to
the film projector," (Henderson, 1957, p. 1) an image consistent with the science
fiction motif set up by the opening paragraph. The repetition of adjectives such
as "strange," and the claim that "out the of blue," with no explanation, "patrons
started deserting their seats and crowding the lobby" add to the unnaturalness
of the situation. Finally, the tale has the ring of truth. Vicary is able to
provide an explanation of the phenomenon which would seem to be credible. He
presents experimental evidence in support of his claims. The technique is
described as a "trick" in which subliminal ads "simply urged the audience to eat
popcorn and drink Coca-Cola." Once uncovered, the paradigm of subliminal
persuasion is straightforward and easy to understand.
24. Other responses to the press conference further transform and emphasize the
science-fiction overtones of the Vicary's original presentation. Norman Cousins,
editor of the Saturday Review wrote an editorial based on Vicary's press
conference which began as follows:
Welcome to 1984. A new company has been formed with offices in New
York for the purpose of promoting a new invention designed to get at
the sources of human motivation. The invention, for which a patent
has been applied, is supposed to bypass the conscious intelligence
and deal directly with the subconscious. The device thrusts images
or messages onto a motion picture screen or TV grid. The images are
invisible to the human eye. They are "subliminal"; that is, they are
beamed into the mind below the threshold of awareness (Cousins, 1957, p. 20).
25. The images of messages being "beamed" into the mind is reminiscent of many
science fiction motifs popular in the 1950s. The discourses which followed the
Vicary press conference transform and decorate Vicary's original presentation
with a blend of images concerning the nature of the human mind and the
manipulation of subconscious desire. These discourses do not present evidence for
their claims, but rather add layers of speculation, one upon the other, in which
the layer below becomes the truth which legitimizes the layer above. These layers
begin as a contemplation of "what if this were the case " with respect to
Vicary's tale which then become transformed into a credible "that is the case"
as a further elaboration is added. For example, subliminal persuasion must begin
with the question of "what if" a subliminal message can bypass the threshold of
consciousness? This question can lead to speculating on what happens when the
message reaches this subconscious area. Given the proposition that subliminal
messages can cause reactions in the subconscious, the ground work is laid for
another series of "what if" questions. Thus, one might speculate on "what if" the
sub-conscious has the capacity to recognize, or even understand, the message in
some form? This might lead to the grander speculation of "what if" subliminal
messages were persuasive? Could they change the inner structure of the
subconscious in a manner conducive to the message? Would it not be possible to
advertise to the sub-conscious, to tell it that you really need this product?
Could the sub-conscious, thus altered, cause changes in conscious states, such
as beliefs, attitudes, and ultimately behavior? "What if" the sub-conscious can
be "persuaded" directly? Could people be programmed into thinking what to think,
do, and buy? Could the free-will and capacity for autonomous decision-making be
undermined? Could the population of America be ultimately transformed into
subservient puppets through the manipulation of sub-conscious forces directly by
subliminal means? As speculation builds upon speculation, a "what if" built upon
a previous "what if" transformed into a "that is," the urban legend of subliminal
persuasion takes on dimensions far beyond its genesis in the original
presentation. This can be seen in the editorial of Cousins (1957) when he asks:
Question: if the device is successful for putting over popcorn,
why not politicians or anything else? If it is possible to prompt the
subconscious into making certain judgements of human character, why
wouldn't it be possible to use invisible messages for the purpose of
annihilating a reputation or promoting it (p. 40).
>p>26. It is also exemplified in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World Revisited (Huxley,
1958). Huxley considered machines the method by which rulers, even in democratic
societies, could destroy, control, and manipulate individual freedoms while at
the same time maintaining the illusion of that freedom. One method that Huxley
considers is the use of "subliminal projection machines" to disperse propaganda
and advertising messages. He suggests that such subliminal techniques might well
become a "powerful instrument for the manipulation of unsuspecting minds"
(Huxley, 1958, p. 80) and that:
The scientific dictator of tomorrow will set up his whispering
machines and subliminal projectors in schools and hospitals..., and
in all public places where audiences can be given a preliminary
softening up by suggestibility increasing oratory or rituals (pp. 80-81).
27. In one year from 1957 to 1958, subliminal persuasion had been transformed, in
Huxley's writings, from a technique for presenting advertisements to a technique
for undermining the very fabric of a free society.
28. Vicary's message was successful in the sense that it was persuasive, but the
reaction to it was far beyond what Vicary ever expected. During the period 1957-
1959, there was a universal condemnation of the technique and its underlying
assumptions in the press (Britt, 1958/1962; Danzig, 1962; DeFleur and Petranoff,
1959; Haber, 1959; Henderson, 1957; "Persuaders get Deeply Hidden Tool," 1957;
"Spectator's Notebook," 1958; "Talk of the Town," 1957; Westin, 1967).
29. This claim was followed by publicly articulated fears that subliminal messages
could be used as a form of brainwashing (Huxley, 1958; McConnell, Cutler, and
McNeil, 1958/1972); that subliminal technology should be federally regulated and
even banned (Adams, 1957; "Ban on Subliminal Ads," 1957; Cousins, 1957; Godbout,
1957a, 1957b, 1958; Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, 1958; "McCracken
Attacks, 1958;" "Psychic Hucksterism," 1957); that the use of subliminal
technologies was morally and ethically unjustifiable in a democratic society
based on the ideals of free and open expression of ideas, freedom of choice, and
free speech (Cousins, 1957; Roper, 1957; "Subliminal TV Cited as Danger to
Youth," 1958); and, finally, that subliminal persuasion was a powerful
instantiation of Packard's (1957) claims of the existence of "hidden persuaders"
(Rose, 1958; Talese, 1958; Weiss, 1958).
30. The Subliminal Projection Co. Inc. quickly went out of business (Danzig,
1962). Vicary's legacy, however, has lived on as the basis of the subliminal
urban legend. Vicary himself sees himself as having had a negligible impact on
the field. He says: "All I accomplished, I guess,...was to put a new word into
common usage. And for a man who makes a career out of picking the right names for
products and companies, I should have my head examined for using a word like
subliminal" (Danzig, 1962, p. 72). Vicary has done much more than introduce a new
word, however. His press conference sparked an explosion of discourse about
subliminal persuasion that has yet to subside. This discourse, represented here
by the writings of Huxley (1958) and Cousins (1957) introduced the concept of
subliminal persuasion to the average person and placed it into their vocabulary
and understanding. Vicary's original framing of the subliminal persuasion
paradigm, its visualization in the story of the popcorn experiment, and the
subsequent transformations of Vicary's conference based on the layers of "what
if" speculations, have dominated the way in which the effects of subliminal
messages are conceptualized and spoken about. The urban legend stands alongside
the claims of experimental psychology in its claims about the nature and the
truth of subliminal messages.
31. The modern urban legend has successfully overridden the claims of experimental
psychology that subliminal persuasion is a theoretically unreasonable and, so
far, experimentally refuted, concept. Dixon (1971), in his extensive review of
the subliminal literature, concludes that he has not seen a "shred of valid
published evidence to substantiate these claims [of subliminal persuasion]" (p.
175) and that "nobody, except perhaps those interested in the commercial
exploitation of subliminal stimulation, would maintain that a subliminal stimulus
can compete successfully with other more powerful influences [such as an ongoing
movie]" (p. 85). Empirical psychologists have long considered subliminal
persuasion a theoretically baseless and potentially harmful concept (see
McConnel, Cutler, and McNeil, 1972). In the Marketing and Advertising literature,
the conclusion is the same; the presence of a phenomenon even remotely
reminiscent of the subliminal story has never been demonstrated (Moore, 1982,
1988; Saegert, 1987). Overall, it is generally agreed that the subliminal
stimulus is too weak to have the effects that are the foundation of the
subliminal persuasion urban legend; the concept is extremely difficult to test
in terms of constructs such as attitudes, consumer preference, or buying
behaviors; there are too many competing and more parsimonious explanations for
the so-called "effects" of subliminal messages. In addition, the cognitive
processing of subliminal stimuli at any level is not understood and remains a
32. Yet the urban legend has its own kind of internal logic that makes it
reasonable to accept in spite of the claims of empirical researchers rather than
because of them. Indeed, it has taken on an existence of its own which has formed
the basis of other types of "knowledge" about subliminal persuasion. Wilson Bryan
Key (1973, 1976, 1980, 1989) has claimed the existence of a subliminal persuasion
conspiracy, orchestrated by the advertising giants of Madison Avenue, which can
be read as a further transformation of the "what if" scenarios which structure
the writings of Cousins and Huxley. Consider the opening page of Key's first
book, Subliminal Seduction (Key, 1976):
This story is about subliminal perception and about the ways we
think we think. In the concept of subliminal phenomena are included
all those techniques now known to the mass media by which tens of
millions of humans are daily massaged and manipulated without their
conscious awareness. Every person reading this book has been victimized and
manipulated by the use of subliminal stimuli directed into his
unconscious mind by the mass merchandisers of media. The techniques
are in widespread use by media, advertising, and public relations
agencies, industrial and commercial corporations, and by the Federal
The secret has been well kept. The average citizen, as well as
most social and behavioral scientists, simply do not know what is
going on. Further, and most shocking, they appear not to want to
know what is going on (p. 1).
33. In key's telling of the subliminal persuasion urban legend, the concept is
transformed from a potential concert to a real one. Key's "story," as he himself
describes his book, has very little to do with the criteria of testability,
falsifiability, and scientific method in its claims to be true (Kilbourne,
Painton, and Ridley, 1985; Moore, 1982). Rather, Key's claims are grounded in the
"truth" of the subliminal persuasion urban legend. He invokes the claims of
conspiracy and unnaturalness, and maintains the theme of suspense by asserting
that subliminal seduction is a secret. Key's claims have significant similarities
to the discourse of controversy that was produced following Vicary's press
conference. Key's books advocate the claim that "hidden persuaders" are as active
and as unscrupulous as ever, systematically bombarding unconscious minds with
"sex" and "death" through all manner of mass media. This is not to say that Key's
claims are not credible or valid. They are perfectly valid with respect to the
"knowledge" of the urban legend even if they are not considered as such by the
"knowledge" of empirical psychology. Key's claims are grounded in the "truth" of
a modern urban legend which is recounted, accepted as credible, and believed to
have an ultimate basis in truth.
34. More akin with Vicary's original marketing intentions is Dr. Hal Becker's
development of the "Black Box," described by Time magazine as "basically a sound
mixer [which] mingles bland music with subliminal anti-theft messages ('I am
honest, I will not steal')" (Secret Voices, 1979, p.71). The premise is that such
messages can directly influence behavior in the manner prescribed by the message.
The premise is important because without it, the "black box" is just a muzak
player. The parallels of Becker's "Black Box" with Vicary's "subliminal
projectors" are striking. Basically, both are in the business of marketing a
device. Like Vicary, Becker also has "experimental evidence" purporting to show
the success of his product; in this case, the dramatic reduction in the number
of thefts in large department stores where his "black box" was introduced. Also
like Vicary, the results of these studies do not appear in scholarly journals and
their validity is open to question. The "results," however, do appear in general
news reports (Elias, 1979) and popular magazines (Secret Voices, 1979). Also, as
with Vicary's "subliminal projection" technology, Becker's device is shrouded in
mystery. Becker's technology is labelled as a "black box," whose workings must
remain mysterious; not because of patents, but so its dark secrets cannot be
manipulated by others for dishonest purposes. Again, the legend, with its
elements of unnaturalness and suspense, coupled with the suggestion of scientific
credibility, is drawn upon as the foundation of Becker's subliminal technology
to the extent that Becker formed a company, the Behavioral Engineering Center,
to market and sell it (Secret Voices, 1979).
35. Given this discussion, it possible to reconsider the basis of the success of
subliminal self-help tapes. If one accepts the tenets of the subliminal
persuasion urban legend, retold and transformed in oral discourse from September
12, 1957, when it was first told by James Vicary, then the idea of a positive
application for subliminal messages is intuitively valid and unproblematic. These
messages are an explicit manifestation of a form of knowledge that stands
alongside experimental psychology which people can draw upon for making
evaluations about the nature of their selves as individuals. The subliminal tape
phenomenon is important in so far as it reveals this other "knowledge:" a
knowledge that is considered credible and true, and yet is not reliant on the
tenets of scientific method in its claims to truth. The success or failure of the
subliminal tape enterprise will not be determined by the criteria of experimental
psychologists with their concerns for control, reliability, and validity. Far
more important in this case are the themes of a subliminal persuasion urban
legend, the story which is recounted time after time about the subliminal
messages which were flashed on a movie screen and people rushed to the lobby to
buy popcorn and coke. After all, there is always the possibility of the twist in
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