Subliminal messages have no effect!

The biggest problem with subliminal messages is that they have become a powerful media myth. Personally, I blame James Vicary but Wilson Bryan Key does have some answering to do.

In 1957, James was a small-time theatre owner with a failing advertising business. According to popular legend and his press release, he flashed the words "EAT POPCORN" and "DRINK COKE" onto the screening of a film for 1/3000th of a second each. The results were astonishing. Sales of the popular caffeinated beverage rose by 18.1%, and popcorn sales by 57.7%. Upon reading the subsequent news reports, people were outraged. Governments secretly studied it as a propaganda weapon. Vicary was paid an undisclosed sum. Whilst the meme was planted by James, it was Wilson Bryan Key who helped it germinate nicely.

In the years 1973 through 1989, Key wrote four fantastically paranoid, but nonetheless best-selling books on the subject, despite the fact that he was shamelessly ripping off Vance Packard's discredited 1957 text The Hidden Persuaders. Using a heady brew of pop Freudianism and dodgy science, Key argued that subliminal messages (and smut) were not only in the television or films that you watch, but in any printed image. People are shagging in the ice cubes. That cloud spells "Sex". In Key's own words,

Every person reading this book has already 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.

Again, the public was outraged. Australia, Britain and the US of A kept their illicit psy-ops research quiet, and outlawed this corrupting practice. A Nevada judge ruled that subliminal advertising wasn't covered by the First Amendment. However, accusations of the use of subliminal messages continued well into the end of the millennium. In the summer of 1990, death metal proponents Judas Priest were placed on trial for allegedly implanting the words "DO IT" into their one of their songs. Two young fans had committed suicide after repeatedly listening to the band's woeful 1990 release, Painkiller. Frankly, I don't blame them.

Sadly for rock aficionados, Judas Priest got away with it, thanks solely to the weight of evidence. In the 1980s alone, over 200 studies were published on whether subliminal messages influenced behavior. Almost all of the studies failed to find any effect, and those that did were either methodologically flawed or could not be repeated. In an excellent review article on the field in 1988, Anthony Pratkanis and Eliot Aronson conclude that

there is no empirical documentation of subliminal effects, such as inducing particular behaviors or changing motivation. Moreover such a notion is incompatible with experimentally based conceptions of information processing, learning, and motivation.

This raises the much scarier question, if subliminal messages don't have any effect, why do people believe in them? Why do people think that the supraliminal imagery in Fight Club is supposed to be subliminal? Why don't teenagers take off their clothes whilst watching a certain Disney film, for no apparent reason? For starters, I'll give two reasons why people believe in subliminal messages.

1. Blame the Media

Shadowy conspiracy and weird science makes damn good news. Damn good news sells more ads. When industry publication The Advertising Age interviewed James Vicary after he'd fallen out of vogue, he publicly admitted that he had made the whole thing up. He never did the experiment in the first place. Sadly, only marketing pundits were reading. As a rule however, when the topic of subliminal messages is broached by the mainstream media, it fails to mention the incontrovertible evidence against their effectiveness. If it does mention any decent study, generally the coverage will be cursory, lending to the appearance that the effectiveness of subliminal messages is controversial rather than nonexistent. News media doesn't want to create cognitive dissonance. It makes people feel uneasy. Uneasy people change channels. Or worse, they switch off.

2. Blame the General Structure of Society, etc.

A belief that something else controls you by an unseen mechanism is as old as the deity of your choice. The problem with looking at or for subliminal messages is that it directs attention away from the blatant persuasion tactics employed on an everyday basis. It takes a lot less cognitive effort to blame something unseen, rather than to structure and counterargue solid persuasion. The persistence of the subliminal persuasion myth is the result of people not thinking. It will be destroyed.

The Wilson Bryan Key quote is from Subliminal Seduction (1973). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Signet. Apparently one of his more recent books is titled The clam-plate orgy. I can hardly wait to find it. Pratkanis and Aronson quote comes courtesy of "Recent perspectives on unconscious processing: Still no marketing applications" Psychology and Marketing(1982) 5, pp.339-355. Another excellent review article is Moore, T.E. (1982)"Subliminal advertising: What you see is what you get." in Journal of Marketing 46, pp.38-47. On somewhat of an aside, its fascinating that the first round of subliminal panic occurred after the Korean War. Think of brainwashing and The Manchurian Candidate. Cold War paranoia, and such. The second round occurred during the Watergate years. Think of Arthur Jensen in Network. Government conspiracy paranoia, and such. Isn't subliminal advertising just The Invisible Hand whispering, convincing you to buy more shit, anyhow?