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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 the case.

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 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, p. 33).

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 out:

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 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 controversial issue.

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 government itself. 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 the tail.


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