From "Adcult USA" and "Oglivy On Advertising"
about Subliminal Advertising.
By James B. Twitchell
Where's The Beef?
The subliminal explanation of Advertising
"If you ask the ordinary man on the street (a character created by advertising in the 1940's, incidentally, along with brand X ) to tell you how advertising works, you will probably hear the actual word, or at least the concept of, subliminal. Most people believe that advertising sneaks some foreign matter under the surface, slides some message under the margin of consciousness, that stimulates us to feel some anxiety that we can relieve only by consuming a product we would ordinarily not buy. This is utter nonsense but utterly powerful nonsense
This paranoia began with the invention of the Tachistoscope by the Eastman Kodak Company in the early 1950's. This super-fast strobe light - It could flash at 1/60,000th of a second - was the reason we saw all those photographs of bullets in mid air and open-winged hummingbirds in the pages of National Geographic and Life. It was also the reason that an unemployed market researcher named James M. Vicary made a lot of money and mischief. In the spirit of his predecessor, P.T. Barnum, Vicary contacted marketing directors and advertising managers in New York, offering to instruct them ( on plump retainers ) in a new selling technique "subliminal advertising". Just as the flash would catch an image on thin-emulsion photographic film, so too could you project an image so fast that the brain would record what the eye did not see. The strobe analogy was that compelling. The viewer might have a vague sensation of déja vu, unaware of what caused it. All the better for advertising, because the viewer could not expunge it with conscious criticism.
America of the 1950's was a fecund pasture into which to cast this seed. The communist menace was working in exactly this way, spreading red spores throughout our adolescents, making them grow into juvenile delinquents, and psuedoscientists like Dr. Ernest Dichter were explaining the eerie MR ( motivational research ) to Madison Avenue for hundreds of dollars an hour. Foul contagion was loose in the land. Thank goodness for Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders, which told us what people with foreign names were doing on our shores. The book was a bestseller for months. Dichter was no more a doctor than Sanders was a colonel, but who cared? Dichter had a german accent, a mansion high above the Hudson River that housed his Institute for Motivational Research, and a repetoire of quotable statements like "a sedan is a wife but a convertible is a mistress."
Like Dichter, Vicary was the right man at the right time. He didn't have a phony title, an institute, a German accent or any proof of what he was peddling, but no matter. In the manner of Barnum, the grand poohbah of Adcult, Vicary made it up. He claimed that experiments had been done at an unidentified motion picture theatre on 45,699 unidentified persons at some unspecified but recent time. While watching a movie, the audience had been subliminally exposed to two messages. One said "Eat popcorn," the other "Drink Coke." Did they ever! Vicary swore that the invisible advertising had increased the sales of popcorn an average of 57.5 percent and increased the sales of Coca-Cola an average of 18.1 percent. No explanation was offered for the difference in size of the percentages, no allowance was made for variations in attendance, and no other details were provided as to how or under what conditions the purported tests had been conducted. Vicary claimed he could not discuss these inconsistencies, nor would he divulge the place of study or detail the actual technique used, because it was part of his patent application for his own version of the Tachistoscope. This was top secret stuff in a time when we believed in top secret stuff.
For paranoids Vicary's claims were manna from heaven. He leavened the loaf by continually asserting he would always use is subliminal technique for the good. In fact, subliminal advertising might immediatly improve the electronic media, because the ads could be removed from their pods and embedded in the programs so no one could be annoyed by "There is no spit in a Cremo." On the surface at least Vicary promised ad-free entertainment. The FCC was not so sure. After WTWO in Bangor, Maine, conducted a publicity stunt experimenting with on-air suggestion, the FCC ordered Vicary's firm, the Subliminal Projection Company, to conduct a closed-circuit demonstration in Washington, D.C. During January 1958, before and audience of members in Congress, bureaucrats from appropriate agencies, reporters and broadcasters, Vicary flashed his "Eat popcorn." Printer's Ink, the advertising trade journal commented, "Having gone to see something that is not supposed to be seen, and having not seen it, as forecast, the FCC and Congressmen seemed satisfied." After the show Senator Charles E. Potter waggishly said "I think I want a hot dog."
Vicary tempered his claims. His retainers were growing smaller. OK, ok, his patent claim had never been filled he admitted. No longer did he call it subliminal advertising. Now he referred to it as reminder advertising and likened it to what you see out of the corner of your eye. Vicary's time was over. He had earned millions of dollars in retainers and consulting fees from Madison Avenue firms, and it was time for a rest. In 1958 he disappeared, leaving no bank accounts, no clothes in his closet, and no forwarding address. Vicary has dubious immortality, however, as a chapter in American popular culture. His scam, along with such immortal tales as the vanishing hitchhiker, sewer alligators, eyelids Superglued shut, rat tails in soft drinks, and microwaved pets are parts of what Jan Harold Brunvand (The Choking Doberman, The Vanishing Hitchhiker ) calls "urban legends". If they are not true, they ought to be.
Vicary's lucrative franchise for selling American's paranoia back to them was picked up by a Canadian sociologist, Wilson Bryan Key. What separates Key from Vicary is that Key, a one-time professor, is sincere. He looks at ads and sees fuck written all over crackers, vaginas on the forearms of little children, and penises in the pictures of ice cubes. He really be lives that every day we are bombarded with a flood of images ( not just words, as Vicary believed ) to make us drink, smoke, and party in ways we never would normally.
Starting with Subliminal seduction in the 1970's, Key has churned out five books, all with the same thesis; advertising agencies secretly embed "sublime" in images in such a way as to make us so insecure that we will buy the product to find surcease. How do you spell relief? According to Key: p-u-r-c-h-a-s-e. I don't want to belabor his argument, but suffice it to say that any object longer than it is wide is a penis. Everything else is a vagina. Although Key has lost his tenure at a Canadian university, in part of his scholarly craziness, it makes no difference. He has earned more than Vicary plying his trade.
Two matters are important. First, Madison Avenue would howl at the Vicary-Key thesis were it not so preposterous. Remember, ad execs don't want you to buy crackers beers or cars. They want you to buy Ritz, Schlitz, and Studebakers. What they sell is brands, not products. It is not that they wouldn't love to sneak selling messages under the surface; it is just that the process has not proved effective. They've tried it. Advertisers love to mock subliminal selling, because they know it will be looked at, especially by the disaffected young. So Miller Lite recycled Saturday Night Live's Subliminal Man in a spot, and Toyota has a commercial for it's Paseo in which the car is sitting in front of a motel as the voice over proclaims, "We think you'll like the new Paseo so much, we don't have to use cheap advertising tricks to play on your emotions. So you won't see any young models in bikinis. There is no pressure." Between each sentence flash the words EXITING, SEXY, and ACT NOW. In 1994 Del Monte ran a commercial in which the words Del Monte and Fresh were inter cut with photographs of succulent fruits and vegetables. The word flashes were hardly subliminal, lasting almost a second, but you got the point; this was a playful way of resolving the problems of selling canned food.
The text of the Miller lite subliminal commercial that Adland's host happens to have recorded, this is not part of the book Adcult. The italics are what Kevin says "subliminally", ie; he just mumbles.....
Open on Kevin Nealon sitting in a crowded bar speaking to the camera:
Super: Kevin Nealon Subliminal Advertising expert "What they won't do In commercials these days, buy Miller Lite.
They'll resort to all sorts of Tactics brainwash. Now take Miller Lite six pack They would have you believe that it's americas favorite light beer because it has great pilsner taste gonna love it While at the same time they try to convince you that it's because it's less filling tastes great I mean c'mon buy Miller Lite What do they take me for big star
" VO: "Is Miller Lite Americas favorite because it's less filling or because it tastes great? Yes."
Kevin Finds a pretty blond at the bar:
"Hi your place would you like to join me for a Lite your treat its on me."
Blonde: "Ok, but it's my treat."
Kevin: "...Oh...great...Ok." 'smiles slyly to camera'
Before Ogilvy & Mather did the long running campaign for seagrams, the agency found that 62 percent of the public believed that subliminal ads do exist and that 56 percent believed that such ads worked in motivating other people ( not themselves, of course ) to buy unwanted things. O&M also found that 54 percent liked the idea of a subliminal spoof, presumably because they could see how others were suckered. Clearly, the notion of outwitting Svengali is pleasurable even if the reality means falling for his pitch.
Having said that subliminal seduction is tripe, Vicary and Key do have it right. The real work of advertising is subliminal. But not in the sense that we aren't aware of what commercial speech is saying."
This book is Published by
Colombia University Press
"Ogilvy On Advertising"
by David Ogilvy
"You may have heard it said that advertising is 'manipulation' . I know of two examples , and neither of them actually happened. In 1957 a market researcher called James Vicary hypothesized that it might be possible to flash commands on television screens so fast that the viewer would not be conscious of seeing them, but his unconscious would see them - and obey them. He called this gimmick 'subliminal' advertising, but he never even got around to testing it, and no advertiser has ever used it. Unfortunately word of his hypothesis found its way into the public prints, and provided grist for the mills of the anti-advertising brigade. The British Institute of Practitioners in Advertising solemny banned the use of subliminal advertising - which did not exist.
My only other example of manipulation will make you shudder. I myself once came near to doing something so diabolical that I hesitate to confess it even now, 30 years later. Suspecting that hypnotism might be an element in successful advertising, I engaged a professional hypnotist to make a commercial. When I saw it in the projection room, it was so powerful that I had visions of millions of suggestible consumers getting up from their armchairs and rushing like zombies through the traffic on their way to buy the product at the nearest store. Had I invented the ultimate advertisement? I burned it, and never told my client how close I had come to landing him in a national scandal."
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