Subconscious Seduction

The colourful history—and current understanding—of subliminal messaging

Whenever I teach my university course “Language and Advertising,” it is not long before students want to talk about the infamous episode in which thousands of movie-goers in the 1950s were exposed to quickly flashed subliminal messages such as “eat popcorn” and “drink Coca-Cola,” causing hordes of people to tramp obediently over to the snack bar to make their purchases without knowing what it was that sparked their sudden desire for refreshments. The example almost always provokes vigorous classroom discussion. The majority sentiment among my students is that advertisers’ use of such techniques is sneaky and unethical, that it subverts an individual’s right to make choices freely without being manipulated by unseen forces.

My students are not alone in voicing disapproval of subliminal messages (that is, messages that are presented too quickly or too inaudibly to be consciously registered, so that the viewer is unaware of having seen or heard them). When marketing researcher James Vicary announced the results of his movie theatre “experiment” at a press conference in 1957, claiming to have increased sales of popcorn by as much as 57 percent, the media responded with great agitation, as documented by Charles Acland in his recent book Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence. An editorial in The Nation warned that “subliminal advertising is the most alarming and outrageous discovery since Mr. Gatling invented his gun.” The editors of The Christian Century decried the impending “robotization” of the population and suggested that citizens mobilize against such forms of mind control by refusing to go to the movies or watch television.

The advertising incident in question, however, almost certainly never happened, at least not as originally reported by Vicary. His results were never published or reproduced, and he himself eventually admitted that he had exaggerated his findings. Many suspect the entire experiment to have been an outright fabrication. But far from fading into oblivion, the idea of subliminal advertising has become securely wedged in popular consciousness over many decades. In 1974, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission proscribed its use without any scientific evidence whatsoever of its effectiveness. And accusations of subliminal messaging surfaced during the 2000 U.S. presidential election when a TV ad attacking candidate Al Gore flashed the word “rats” for 1/30th of a second, prompting a media kerfuffle and huffy denials from the George W. Bush campaign.

Why is the idea of subliminal messaging so compelling, so durable and so out of proportion with its likely impact on consumers and citizens? This is the question that interests Acland in his richly documented book. “Regardless of its dubious nature,” he writes, “the subliminal thesis harbors a history of ideas about minds, media, and influence. In its strongest iteration the subliminal thesis claims, or at least worries, that the things of which we are not aware are more influential than those we can detect, that below consciousness is a wild and impressionable creature that can be reached through messages we cannot perceive.”

Acland argues that obsession with the subliminal was no mere offshoot of Cold War paranoia. He sees it as a much more profound response to being confronted with, on the one hand, strange and new media technologies that deliver ever larger doses of information through novel means and, on the other hand, an intellectual landscape that draws attention to the limits of rational thought and conscious action. The resulting anxiety crystallizes into an overblown belief in the possibility of remote mind control. Those who fell for Vicary’s boasts about the sturdy successes of subliminal advertising were by no means the first—or the last—to encounter this potent mix of circumstances.

Acland points to parallel developments at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. In 1895, the French social psychologist Gustave Le Bon published his influential work The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, in which he argued that the conscious personality of an individual could readily be swallowed up by a collective mind, leading to irrational behaviour and intellectual weakness. Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the unconscious were also becoming well known at this time, and hypnotism was common both as a therapeutic tool and a form of vaudeville entertainment. All it took was the introduction of radio technology to spark fantasies of this new medium being exploited for purposes of mass hypnotism. Such fantasies were fuelled by a sensational news story in 1923 when Joseph Dunninger hypnotized a subject over radio broadcast so successfully that the subject allegedly tolerated having a long needle inserted into his forearm without experiencing pain or bleeding. Dunninger predicted that it would soon be possible to use radio hypnotism to conduct painless and bloodless operations without need for chloroform.

We are obviously meant to view such cases of credulity as quaint and misguided beliefs about the great power of a technology that we as modern, sophisticated readers know to ultimately be both benign and limited in its impact. But Acland’s point is that today’s anxieties about the power of the media can easily look quaint and misguided from the vantage point of a later time. In fact, he suggests that the development of a new medium often provides the opportunity to simply transfer an old anxiety onto the new technology. For example, in 1948 television hypnotism was banned after a number of viewers in the United Kingdom claimed to have been hypnotized by a BBC television program. Fears of television hypnotism simply replaced unsubstantiated fears of mass hypnotism over radio.

Against this backdrop, Acland unspools the main portion of his book, which offers an exquisitely detailed and subtle accounting of the scientific, cultural and political context for Vicary’s famous announcement and its consequences, focusing most tightly on the 1950s and ’60s. Readers whose patience is taxed by Acland’s sometimes lumbering prose would do well to persist, as there is a great deal here in the way of ideas and riveting examples. He lays the scientific foundation for Vicary’s ideas about subliminal messaging, showing how psychologists were concerned at the time with observing just how much information could be squeezed out of a word or image under extraordinary time constraints. In a world soaked with information, and in which technology changed quickly, the ability to extract meaning from the briefest exposure to information was often seen as highly adaptive. School programs tried to instil the skills of extreme speed reading, and military programs taught Navy pilots to recognize planes in 1/75th of a second. (Indeed, efficiency was one of Vicary’s arguments for the benefits of subliminal advertising: the necessary commercial task could be accomplished more quickly, freeing up more of the viewer’s time for entertainment.)

But these attempts to harness the phenomenal processing speed of human brains coexisted with anxieties that such fast, reflexive human responses that bypassed conscious deliberation could also be used for nefarious, anti-democratic purposes. The projection of these anxieties was visible not just in the public response to Vicary’s tools of persuasion, but also in the themes that preoccupied mid-century writers of comic books and science fiction literature and films. Acland devotes an entire fascinating chapter to the culture’s fixation with the fragility of identity and agency in iconic pieces such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Robert Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, as well as in many lesser-known works in which the dominant narrative thread is “the adventure of waking up and becoming aware of the limits of freedom.”

Acland’s main agenda is to demystify the allure of the strong version of the subliminal thesis, all while emphasizing the lack of evidence for it. A more subtle agenda is to nudge the reader toward a deeper critical analysis of messages whose meanings and effects are not always obvious on the surface: “The idea of subliminal messages, in a weaker form, encourages us to be mindful of the inherently meaningful world of images and sounds. On this level, asking if subliminal messages exist is rather like asking if there is connotation, if there is an affective dimension to representation, if there is something we can call innuendo or even the suggestive, to which one must of course respond in the affirmative.” But in the end, it is hard to take Acland’s call to critical analysis seriously when he has so effectively disarmed the power of the subliminal idea. If our agency and volition remain largely unthreatened by the messages around us, what, other than an aesthetic curiosity, should compel us to peer at them more closely? And that is a shame, because in his book Acland ultimately understates the likely role of unconscious, reflexive human responses and, along with it, the urgency of conducting a more critical analysis of messages.

While the author provides ample details about psychological theories at the time of the Vicary controversy, there is no discussion of the most current scientific views held by psychologists and neuroscientists. Many contemporary scholars would likely assert that, in fact, most of what we know, remember or think does take place below the level of consciousness and that our experience of volition is often a cover story our own mind makes up to try to explain the outcome of processes that are mysterious to itself.

And Acland makes no direct mention of the vast number of psychological studies since the mid 1990s that have shown how actions can be shaped by the incidental exposure to messages that are not consciously processed. For example, the well-known studies of social psychologists such as John Bargh and his numerous colleagues show that, at least in the lab, people can be induced to walk more slowly after unscrambling sentences containing words that are associated with the elderly (grey, bingo, wrinkle); they buckle more easily in the face of peer pressure if they have seen a photograph of an accountant rather than a photo of a punk rocker; people are more inclined to be cooperative if they are sitting at a table that holds a backpack than one that holds a briefcase; and, if they are Dutch-English bilinguals, are more cooperative when undertaking a task in Dutch than in English. Many of these findings suggest that our actions reflect unconsciously learned associations or stereotypes that can be triggered by certain words or images, even if these images are flashed subliminally. For instance, one study showed that when white American students were exposed to subliminal images of African Americans while performing a computer test, they later behaved in a more belligerent manner toward an experimenter who told them that they would have to do the test over again, as compared with students who had been exposed to a Caucasian face. Revealingly, their behaviour was unrelated to the racial attitudes they consciously reported in the questionnaire.

Such studies, now numbering easily into many dozens, have caused psychologists themselves to take a second, closer look at the subliminal thesis. But there is no discussion of this body of work in Swift Viewing. For example, Acland brings up the controversy over the rats campaign example, but he does not mention the fact that psychologist Drew Westen subsequently published a paper demonstrating that subjects’ attitudes toward fictional political candidates could be tainted if they had been subliminally exposed to the word “rats” along with the candidate’s photograph.

These studies of “the new unconscious” come nowhere near demonstrating that citizens can be roboticized on a mass scale by covert aspects of messages. As often as not, the research also reveals substantial limits to unconscious effects: for instance, the subliminal flashing of a beverage’s brand name might indeed influence the likelihood that subjects will choose that brand—but only if they happen to already be thirsty at the time. But small effects can sway the fate of political or commercial interests. And at least some studies have shown that nudging the unconscious mind can meaningfully alter actions outside of the lab: In a 2011 American study, researchers led by Christopher Bryan from Stanford University found that a subtle change of wording on a survey question the day before an election increased voter turnout by almost 10 percent. An Israeli study led by Ran Hassin from the Hebrew University documented how subjects who had been exposed to subliminal images of the Israeli flag later reported voting for more moderate political candidates than their peers.

I fully agree with Acland’s view that starkly subliminal messaging is simply one end of a continuum that also includes those aspects of a message that are taken in implicitly. And yet something interesting happens when I question my students about their conviction that subliminal messaging is unethical. I ask: What about the wording of a slogan? What about the emotional resonances of a brand name? If these effects can also be shown to operate at an unconscious level, shouldn’t they be viewed as equally unethical? My students often respond no, they are not ethically equivalent; but they sometimes thrash about trying to make a reasoned distinction. They are apt to say something like playing around with the wording of a slogan preserves an individual’s choice to respond, while subliminal messaging does not. But when pressed to further clarify, they might concede that what it comes down to is that there is no realistic way to enforce how language is used, whereas it is possible to ban images flashed at a certain speed.

These responses too, I think, tell us something about why swiftly viewed messages have such a hold on our imaginations. We overestimate the agency we maintain in the face of everyday silver-tongued persuaders whose power over us is impossible to regulate. But we tend to underestimate the control we have as individuals in the face of messages that we have some means of controlling collectively. As with subliminal messaging, our society can create rules about the acceptable uses of radio; we can ban television hypnotism; we can even constrain the uses of the internet and social media. Perhaps our fantasies and anxieties tend to revolve around new developments in media in part because these are things that are external to ourselves, things that can be resisted and controlled. Perhaps we are simply not ready to wake up to the limits of our freedom that are imposed by our own minds in our day-to-day lives.