In 1957, marketing executive James Vicary claimed that during screenings of the film Picnic, the words “eat popcorn” and “drink Coca-Cola” were flashed on the screen every five seconds for 1/3,000 second—well below the threshold of conscious awareness. Vicary said soda and popcorn sales spiked as a result of what he called “subliminal advertising.”
Psychologists had been studying subliminal messages since the late 19th century. It was Vicary’s ideas, presented in Vance Packard’s 1957 best seller, The Hidden Persuaders, that catapulted the concept of subliminal advertising into the public consciousness. Even though in a 1962 interview with Advertising Age Vicary admitted that the amount of data he’d collected was “too small to be meaningful,” subliminal messages continued to attract public—and commercial—interest.
In 1974, the FCC held hearings about the perceived threat of subliminal advertising and issued a policy statement saying that “subliminal perception” was deceptive and “contrary to the public interest.”
Concerns about subliminal advertising continued for decades. As recently as 2000 during the presidential race, the Republican National Committee ran an ad attacking the policies of Al Gore in which the word rats briefly flashed on the screen. Many suspected subliminal intent, which the ad’s creator denied.
Matthew Erdelyi, a psychology professor at Brooklyn College, says that while Vicary’s methods were controversial, new studies continue to suggest the use of subliminal perception in advertising could be effective. “There’s a lot of interest, but the subject matter is a little bit taboo,” he says. Still, if subliminal messages in advertising have a resurgence in the future, “nobody should be terribly surprised.”