Hidden messages that promote products in films once caused a moral panic. But is the much-feared technique really effective? The BBC’s Phil Tinline helped devise an experiment to find out.
Back in the 1950s subliminal advertising caused fear among people. But does it actually work? The BBC devised its own experiment to see test it out.
On 12 September, 1957, at a studio in New York, a market researcher in the Mad Men mould called a press conference.
James Vicary astonished the assembled reporters by announcing that he’d repeatedly flashed the slogans “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat popcorn” throughout a movie, too fast for conscious perception. As a result, he claimed, sales of popcorn had risen 18.1% – and Coke by 57.7%. This, he declared, was “subliminal advertising”.
Vicary thought his fellow Americans would cheer this prospect – annoying cinema and TV ads could now be replaced with his imperceptible flashes. But on both sides of the Atlantic, his announcement sparked fear and outrage. “Welcome,” cried one American magazine, “to 1984.”
His story took a more serious blow when the manager of the cinema involved told Motion Picture Daily that the experiment had had no impact. In 1962, Vicary finally confessed that he hadn’t done enough research to go public and that he regretted the whole thing.
Read the full experiment here.