The Korean War
Circa 1957. The United States had just returned after a bloody war around the 38th parallel, after successfully resisting the invasion by Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea over the southern Korean peninsula. (As I write this piece, it is his son, Kim Jong-il, who is escalating tension at the same 38th parallel, on the nuclear test issue. But I digress.) Besides the repercussions in terms of thousands of deaths-in-action, with several thousands still missing, the war also elevated Cold War paranoia to a new height. The US public also got new education from the Communist regime of North Korea, as they came face to face with some new terms – “xǐ năo”, which literally means, “to wash the brain”, and “gǎi zào”, which means “reconstruction”.
As weary soldiers, held prisoners by the Communist forces and kept in confinement for long stretches of time, began trooping in, a horrified nation discovered that the once patriotic fighters had undergone deep behavioral changes. Instead of hailing the national flag, these soldiers parroted anti-American and pro-Communist doctrines. Puzzled researchers discovered that the soldiers were subjected to systematic psychological manipulations that were designed to first “brain-wash”, and then “reconstruct” prisoners’ thinking, behavior, and consequently ideology. Suddenly the terms “brainwashing”, “psychological persuasion”, “thought reform” and “mind control” became fashionable coinage.
The American mind found this concept fascinating, and literature began alluding to it in coffee-table magazines and pulp fiction. A perfect backdrop for what was to follow.
Vance Packard and “The Hidden Persuaders”
Among the writers who sensed the direction of the wind was Vance Packard. A journalist by education and profession, Vance Packard published his first book – “The Hidden Persuaders” in 1957, and was immediately heralded as an important study in sociology and the manipulation of the public by the media. With catchy taglines such as – “Why do men think of a mistress when they see a convertible in a show window?”, and “Why your wife buys 35% more in the supermarket than she intends to”, the book immediately caught popular imagination and topped the sales charts.
For the first time, this book fired the minds of the common consumer who now began wondering whether they were gullibly walking into the arms of the marketer every time they stepped out to do their purchases. The market researcher and their “depth probing” and “subthreshold” persuasions became the talk of the day.
Enter, James Vicary
As a market researcher himself, it behooved James McDonald Vicary to pick up the book by Packard from the corner bookstore and go through it himself. Just like the other, reading public, the book fired his mind, too, but from a different angle. The brilliant idea of “subliminal advertising” is his brainchild.
James Vicary conceived an elaborate “hoax” project, spanning six weeks, and involving a movie theater. The movie “Picnic” (starring William Holden, Kim Novak, (“Electrically attracted to each other…Overwhelmingly engulfed by it…Guiltily in love!”)) was showing in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and was a box-office hit at that time. After confirming that the movie did indeed run for more than six weeks at a stretch in the theater, he wrote a piece about an “experiment” conducted by him in the theater hall. Using a Tachistoscope, he wrote, he kept flashing two messages – “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coca Cola” – on the screen; once every five seconds, for three-thousandth of a second, throughout the first half of the film. In this six-week period, he claimed, a total of 45,699 people went to see the movie. What did he achieve through this experiment? What happened, he continued to write, was that popcorn sales went up by 57% and Coca Cola sales rose by 18.1% during the interval in these six weeks. Ergo, this was a result of “subthreshold persuasion”; and “subliminal advertising”, a natural extension of “hidden persuasion”, was born.
His figures looked authentic, solid. His qualifications and background added credibility to his words. The journals he published his “work” in were respected publications. When the general public got to read of it, quite predictably, James Vicary became an instant sensation. (When the news about Vicary’s experiment broke, I can imagine how it must have startled the public of Fort Lee in 1957. Not knowing whether they were part of this “project”, every one of the Fort Lee residents who had gone to that particular movie theater in the last two to three months must have felt a ball of excitement and fear in their stomach, as the idea of something reaching out in their subconscious and manipulating them to buy those foodstuffs hit them. I almost visualize the animated discussions taking place on street corners, pubs and restaurants, and drawing halls on this subject for days together, as people would anxiously exchange notes on how they exactly felt during the intermission of the movie. “Did I buy popcorn and Coca Cola, or did I not? Did you, too? Huh?” The only people left genuinely scratching their heads must have been the owner of the food counter at the movie theater, who may not have really detected any substantial jump in their earnings while the movie was screened. In all this melee, however, William Holden and Kim Novak’s dance in the Moonglow scene, and the lilting theme song of the movie must have been all but forgotten.)
It was after five years, in 1962, that James Vicary announced that the experiment never took place; and that the whole thing was made up by him to boost his marketing business.
Norman Cousins And The Domino Effect
Going back again to 1957, when Vicary’s “practical demonstration” of “subliminal advertising” and “hidden persuasion” was making waves, newspapers had begun to pick up the thread from academic journals and the story became a national issue. In New York, Norman Cousins, Editor-in-Chief of the weekly magazine “Saturday Review”, and a respected writer in his own right, penned an article titled – “Smudging the Subconscious”. He wondered that if James Vicary’s device could be used to promote popcorn, then the same device could be used to promote dogma. With the Korean War psychological experiments on American soldiers fresh in the public mind, his ponderings immediately struck a raw nerve.
Government and quasi-governing agencies reacted sharply. Broadcasting of subliminal messages was immediately prohibited in the US, UK and Australia. News began appearing of television networks banning ad agencies indulging in subliminal advertising. Thriller novels such as “The Manchurian Candidate” became popular, leading to movies being made from them, which too became hits.
Although the bubble burst when Vicary finally confessed his hoax to “Advertising Age” – a magazine focusing on the advertisement industry -, the concept of “subliminal advertising” became firmly entrenched in human thought.
Wilson Key’s Books And Researchers
Fortunately or unfortunately for the subject, attention on subliminality has for a large part continued to be focused from the narrow vision of how it was allegedly being used by advertisers to woo customers. Not only authors, but researchers too looked at the entire subject from the sensationalist prism of the subliminality as an advertising issue, and not an independent subject to be studied in its own right.
The literary and academic world has become polarized into two camps: authors, of which Wilson Bryan Key is a representative, whose books sought to poke the dark underbelly of advertising and how the marketers were out to fleece the world; and researchers who produced paper after paper that pooh-poohed the whole idea of subliminality – even going to the extent of equating subliminality with snake-oil.
A paper by Pratkanis and Greenwald categorized the different stimuli that proponents of subliminal advertising used to influence their target audience. The paper identified the following types of stimuli:
1. “Subthreshold” stimuli – These stimuli are so weak as to not register with the audience at all (at a “conscious” level). In the modern subliminal messaging soundtracks, I would associate this category with almost all the different components that go in the track (messages recorded in a below-whisper voice, reverse speech, and the like). 2. “Masked” stimuli – These stimuli, although present, coexist with some other aspect that is predominant. In the modern CDs, soundtracks with stereo confusion in them, or even below-whisper messages embedded in binaural beats, perhaps fall in this category. 3. “Unattended” stimuli – The researchers presumably clubbed all visual aspects in this stimuli type, which authors such as Key alluded to in their books – embedding them in the overall picture such that they do not stand out starkly on their own. (Key’s reference to the word “sex” lurking in those ice cubes, or the appearance of seductive figures in liquor ads fall under this category.) 4. “Figurally transformed” stimuli – These are audio or visual stimuli that are distorted / blurred to the point of being recognized at the conscious level. (Quite definitely, reverse speech is a figurally-transformed stimulus.)
The paper, as well as subsequent ones, records the results and conclusions derived from their experiments with subliminal tapes available at the time.
Subliminal Messaging – So Where Exactly Do We Stand?
Research work in the late nineties seems to have consciously distanced itself from the historical approach of looking at subliminality from the advertising and persuasion angle. As I write this piece, in another tab of the browser is a PDF copy of a research paper put on the web by four researchers under the aegis of the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Titled – “Long-term Effects of Subliminal Priming on Academic Performance”, and published in September 2006, this research is fresh from the oven, proverbially speaking. Focusing on the academic performance of undergraduate students after they were subjected to visual subliminal messaging (the paper uses the word “subliminal priming”), and comparing the results with their prior academic performance, the researchers have concluded that there _is_ a marked improvement.
Since this article is a historical perspective, I have refrained from elaborating on the actual concept of subliminal messaging. Readers interested in my articles on this subject may browse through my blog for the same.
While the controversy on whether subliminal messaging is- or is-not- effective continues, with both sides of the debate beating their own drums, I really wait for further research in domains such as Brain-Computer Interface (Bionics), to throw up more authentic, ground-level discoveries on how the mind and the brain interact. However, with whatever knowledge we have at our disposal, it is now becoming clear that “self”-directed subliminal messaging (as opposed to any subliminal-level advertising that the marketers may be attempting) has its merit. There are scores of companies that sell subliminal messaging merchandise today. If you are really interested in improving yourself, I suggest that you try them out today. (One very good place to buy visual subliminal messaging software that runs on your computer is this; while another good place to buy the audio version is this.)