The Advertising Apprentice

December 4, 2009

Do you Know Who James Vicary Was?

Filed under: Advertising — adamlauzon @ 2:30 PM
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One of the cool features of WordPress is that I can see the search terms used by people who visit my blog. Recently I’ve noticed a rather large spike in the number of people searching information on subliminal advertising. So it’s a topic I thought I’d discuss this week. (Following the format from previous entries, I had hoped to lead with a YouTube video on this topic, but despite searching for about a half hour I was unable to find anything “credible” enough.)

I have a bookcase full of advertising books and practically all of them take the opportunity to address the misconception about the existence of subliminal advertising.

Further, all of these texts give credit to one man for creating the myth about subliminal advertising: James Vicary.

In 1957 Vicary published a study in which he claimed subliminal advertising exists. He “proved” this by explaining how in an experiment moviegoers were repeatedly exposed to 0.003-second advertisements for Coca-Cola and popcorn. These exposures he argued resulted in a significant increase in sales for those products. This led to a report on subliminal advertising being released by the CIA and the Federal Communications Commission banning subliminal advertising. Vicary later admitted in 1962 in an interview with Advertising Age that his original study was a scheme and that the amount of research collected was too small of a sample to be considered representative. This essay from the Advertising & Society Review¬†provides a really good, in-depth description of James Vicary’s stunt and the impact it had, and still has today on the advertising industry.

Arens et al. in Essentials of Contemporary Advertising define subliminal advertising as “advertisements with messages (often sexual) supposedly embedded in illustrations just below the threshold of perception.”

Arens and his co-authors further go on to explain it under a heading appropriately called “The Subliminal Advertising Myth” by saying “to date no study has proved that such embedding exists or that it would have any effect if it did exist.”

Gerard J. Tellis in Effective Advertising: Understanding When, How, and Why Advertising Works offers up the following take on the subject: “the current thinking among professional psychologists and advertisers is that subliminal advertising is not effective for three reasons:”

  1. Many attempts were made to replicate Vicary’s study. Most failed to find any significant support for subliminal advertising.
  2. The original study itself did not have any strong control groups. Some researchers think the original study is seriously flawed if not actually fabricated.
  3. The major argument against subliminal advertising is that it is difficult for something to be effective if it is not even perceived by human senses.

(All three of these points come from page 122 of the above-cited Tellis’ text.)

Terry O’Reilly and Mike Tennant authors of The Age of Persuasion How Marketing Ate Our Culture chime in on the topic saying: “Advertising is completely transparent. It is completely upfront in its desire, and the assault is head on.” To further their argument that the notion of subliminal advertising is completely false, t “behavioural studies before and since (Vicary’s experiment in the late ’70s) have confirmed the principle that ‘zero perception’ equals ‘zero response,’ meaning subliminal messages have no known effect on human behaviour.”

The great David Ogilvy even addressed the idea of subliminal advertising in Ogilvy on Advertising. He stated, “The odds are against your being manipulated by advertising are now very long indeed. Even if I wanted to manipulate you, I wouldn’t know how to circumvent the legal regulations”.

Considering the thoughts of these experts, I have to agree that subliminal advertising is a figment of people’s imaginations. It is hard enough to for advertisers to incite action when the consumer is aware that they’re being advertised to. The process of creating action is exponentially harder if attempted when the consumer is NOT aware of the messages aimed at them.

In my next entry I will offer my two-cents on the unfolding Tiger Woods saga. Yet the focus will be specifically on the impact of these recent events on his image in the minds of marketers and how it may affect his endorsement deals.


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