Intellectual Affairs

Subliminal Nation

Do advertisers aim hidden messages at the public? Scott McLemee examines a cultural history of concealed influence.

February 15, 2012

The death of Wilson Bryan Key in 2008 received very little comment, nor does Google Scholar turn up many recent discussions of his legacy; the majority of references come from the 1970s and ‘80s, falling off in frequency and substance after that. His writings are unlikely to be taught, and it seems that they destroyed his academic career. But the central Keysian thesis – that the advertising industry conceals images of sex and death in its work, the better to control the consumer – has exercised more widespread influence than most other contributions in media criticism.

His first books, Subliminal Seduction (1973) and Media Sexploitation (1976) emerged from the freewheeling courses that he taught as a professor of communications at the University of Western Ontario. Later, in The Clam-Plate Orgy (1980), Key wrote at some length about being marginalized by colleagues and the administration, and says that a lawyer retained by the university offered him $64,000 to go away. (He accepted the money, and later said  that the $64,000 question was, “What is the cost of academic freedom?”) In an interview conducted a few years before he died, Key indicated that around 8.5 million copies of his books had sold, which is believable given how ubiquitous they once were at paperback stands. For a while he was in some demand as a lecturer, and I have no doubt that his theories were entertaining to hear about as he displayed large blow-up posters of commercial artwork to shore up his claims.

Key's interpretations had a wide-eyed, relentless quality -- an endless series of revelations, pursuing a logic all their own. He pointed out the obscene images you could find in the ice cubes of a liquor ad. He found covert lesbian scenarios implied by the exchange of glances in a fashion spread, and explained the real meanings of popular song lyrics, such as  “Hey Jude” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (an invitation to try heroin and an appeal to commit suicide, respectively). All of this stuff worked on the public’s unconscious mind, stirring up hidden desires and channeling them in ways that benefited our corporate overlords.

Sometimes even the products themselves aimed subliminal messages at us. The makers of Ritz crackers, for example, had managed to inscribe the word “sex” a great many times on each one's crinkled, buttery surface. How the manufacturer did this was never quite explained. Nor did Key adequately account for how the message would influence the consumer. The urge to stare at a Ritz cracker is just not that common.

Marshall McLuhan wrote in his preface to Subliminal Seduction that it resembled Foucault’s book The Archeology of Knowledge. The comparison proves as baffling as anything generated by Key’s free associations, if less titillating. I spent a while trying to figure out what McLuhan might have meant, only to conclude that the time would have been better used reading a good Pop-Tart.

Charles R. Acland never says anything so florid in Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence, published by Duke University Press. It’s a sober book covering an occasionally weird stretch of cultural territory. Acland, a professor of communication studies at Concordia University, in Montreal, calls the concept of subliminal influence a form of “vernacular cultural critique.” It operates in a zone lying somewhere between social science and urban legend. And the belief is a hardy one. Over the years, public-opinion surveys in the United States have found that between 50 and 70 percent of respondents think that advertisers used subliminal techniques, with comparably high levels of belief in their effectiveness.

“On an anecdotal and personal level,” Acland writes, “teachers of media and cultural studies know that the idea of subliminal influences enjoys popularity among students, a popularity that curiously exists side by side with the view that the media have little or no impact upon an individual’s thinking.” That contradictory outlook runs throughout the amazingly large archive of material he draws on to document Swift Viewing: newspaper editorials, Congressional hearings, science fiction novels, B movies, sociological treatises, and "Saturday Night Live" skits, among others.

The familiar thumbnail history begins in 1957, when the marketing researcher James Vicary announced the results of an experiment involving more than 14,000 patrons of a New Jersey movie theater. The words “drink Coca Cola” and “eat popcorn” were flashed on the screen for 1/3000th of a second every five seconds during the projection of a feature film, with the result that Coke sales went up by more than 57 percent, and popcorn sales by more than 18 percent. This revelation happened to come just after publication of Vance Packard’s first best-selling volume of pop sociology, The Hidden Persuaders, which reported on how Madison Avenue used psychological research to designing its campaigns.

Between them, Vicary and Packard created an uproar. At least one politician warned that subliminal advertising would lead to Communism -- an unusual perspective on postwar American consumerism, to say the least. But fascination with the possibility of subliminal influence was not just another Cold War anxiety, since public interest in it ebbed and flowed over time, picking up other cultural tendencies as it did. Wilson Bryan Key’s books are quintessentially mid-1970s texts. They appealed to a suspicion, post-Watergate and post-Vietnam War, that the powers-that-be were trying to trick and manipulate the public, and they also manifested some dread at the sexual revolution. (The powers-that-be were evidently were swingers.) Then in the late 1980s and early '90s, an industry in subliminal audiotapes and videos flourished, directing messages about self-esteem and weight loss at audience willing to put up with New Age music: all the benefits of self-improvement, with none of the distractions of putting in any effort.

Belief in subliminal influence established itself so thoroughly that the lack of evidence for it did not matter. Attempts to duplicate Vicary’s results from the New Jersey movie theater failed. And for very good reason: in 1962, Vicary admitted to Ad Age that he had embellished the data. Even that seems to have been a bluff: the manager of the theater knew nothing about the alleged study. (Subsequent tests of other techniques for subliminal influence have never yielded any evidence that it exists.)

The author is curiously protective of Vicary’s reputation, such as it is.  “While the veracity of his research was sometimes questionable,” Acland writes, “and he may have been a habitual liar or bad researcher, he was also an innovator of what he later referred to as ‘creative marketing research,’ for which he advocated.” (The comic value of that sentence is presumably unintended.) But there was more to Vicary than his explorations of the fine line between creativity and a con artistry. Acland notes that Vicary once worked at the Bureau of Social Research at Columbia University, run by Paul Lazarsfeld -- a seminal figure in the development of sociological research in the U.S. from World War Two on. Acland also corrects a number of errors in other scholars' accounts of Vicary, filling in the backstory on someone otherwise remembered, if at all, as hoaxster.

Stressing Vicary’s earlier career as a marketing researcher who published in the field's academic journals serves to reinforce Acland’s larger argument: the notion of subliminal influence -- however dubious its conception, however resistant to being tested in controlled conditions – is the product of ideas and innovations that had been churning around in modern culture since at least the late 19th century. It incorporates elements of Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd (1896), with its analysis of an irrational "mass" or "popular" mind, susceptible to the contagion-like spread of an influence. It also reflects the extremely wide diffusion of belief in levels of consciousness below awareness, if in less subtle forms than the theories of William James or Sigmund Freud. And Acland has a chapter on the tachistoscope, a device created to measure the speed with which research subjects could recognize an image.

The notion of subliminal influence, then, was a synthesis of these ideas, and some effort to combine them was probably a matter of time. But it happened to crystallize at a special moment, only a few years after the term “brainwashing” entered the English language – and just about the time television found its place in most American homes. Acland show that for every paranoid response to Vicary's claims, there was a sardonic or skeptical cartoon or TV skit. But either way, the reactions acknowledged the sense of being ever more intensely bombarded with messages intended to manipulate the public mind. Belief in subliminal influence could sink deep roots in the culture because there is such fertile soil to nurture it:  the growing  “speed, intricacy, and density of the media environment,” in Acland's formulation, as people dealt with “worries about the cost of affluence and conformity, about the boundaries of commercial culture, about media representation, and about social control.”

Discussing the preface to Subliminal Seduction, Acland says: "McLuhan wrote that new electronic technology was weakening restrictive monopolies of knowledge, opening general access to ideas and information that had been available only to a few expert eyes, a claim one hears applied to the Internet today." The usual techno-utopianism, then. But with an underside: "This weakening, according to McLuhan, created a clot of information, too abundant to systematize and study...." I'm not sure how this applies the claim that Ritz crackers are whispering lewd suggestions, but the broader implication seems clear: the supersaturated media is the subliminal message.



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