Wilson Key's magnum opus textbook about subliminal advertising was almost pure fiction.
by Brian Dunning
August 28, 2007
Put on your 3D glasses and grab a seat in the theater — it's time for a wild ride through the psychological cinematic world of subliminal advertising.
Alleged subliminal advertising is said to take place in two forms. In the first, a marketing message like "Drink Pepsi" is flashed on a screen so briefly that a person cannot consciously perceive it. In the second, sexual imagery is cunningly hidden within artwork to make it more compelling for no consciously discernible reason. Subliminal means below the threshhold of conscious perception. So, for any such message to be truly subliminal, it must not be consciously detectable. In fact sexual imagery is all over advertising, but if you're able to perceive it, it's not subliminal and thus not part of this discussion. Draping a bikini model across the hood of a Camaro is not subliminal advertising.
The magnum opus of subliminal advertising is a book written in 1974 by Wilson Bryan Key, Subliminal Seduction, inspired by Vance Packard's original 1957 book The Hidden Persuaders. Packard's book discussed ways advertisers might appeal to consumers' hopes, fears, and guilt. Key took it to a whole new level, "exposing" advertising methods that he had envisioned or perceived on his own. Subliminal Seduction has been highly successful over the decades, spawning at least two sequels (though they contain much of the same material). Key's assertions have inspired whole college curricula dedicated to propagating the claim that the advertising industry systematically influences the public with subliminal advertising. Just listen to what a few Amazon customers have said about Subliminal Seduction:
"Why You Should Read This Book"
I have studied subliminal techniques for 30 years. You have to understand psychology to appreciate that you can be manipulated by hidden messages in visual images. Why would commercial artists continue to do it if there were no evidence that it works?
"Read It Carefully"
Key has an uncanny insight into a subject that more people should become aware of. This is where you will miss the boat by not taking the information in this book seriously. The manipulation of our minds is more far reaching than even he could have guessed.
"Enlightening Eye Opener"
This comes from a time before digital computers, and should provoke anyone to ask "If they were that good then, what are they doing to us now?!?"
So what does the advertising industry have to say about subliminal advertising? As it happens, I took a series of advertising seminars earlier in my career with a panel of local ad executives. During one Q&A session, a guy stood up and asked about the findings made in Subliminal Seduction. As one, the panel collectively groaned and laughed. They said that book was the oldest joke in the advertising industry. The author Key has never worked in advertising and his books exhibit no practical knowledge of the advertising business, other than his own delusional perceptions of what he sees in ice cubes. Moreover, any ad agency that airbrushed naked women into pictures of their clients' products would find themselves fired very quickly. The student who asked the question showed a magazine ad, and pointed out how some curves in a swimming pool mimic the curve of a woman's back. One of the panelists pointed out that first of all, there is no subliminal aspect to the boldly pictured swimming pool; and second of all, please show us an ad in which you do not find hidden sexual messaging. The student could not. He was firmly convinced that hidden sexual imagery is present in all advertisments; even the curve of a letter S seemed to be in an especially suggestive typeface. All the panelists told him he's wrong and that none of their companies had ever done or seen such a thing. The student would not be dissuaded, and probably concluded that the panelists were covering up an industry conspiracy. He did not return to future classes. He was probably killed by Men in Black for discovering the truth.
By the way, here are a couple more Amazon reviews from people who seem to actually know something about advertising:
I worked in New York advertising for five years. Nothing like this was ever done. Key has no concept of what the advertising world is really about.
"The Great Urban Legend"
I've been in the advertising business for thirty years. I can't believe this guy has made a living spreading this drivel for so long. People in advertising continue to laugh about Key. He has no understanding about how advertising works, [or] how the people in it do their job.
But to study the issue with honest skepticism, we must dismiss the advertisers' statements as anecdotal and focus only on testable evidence. So let's turn our eye toward whatever research was done that found subliminal advertising to be effective, and see what justified this student's belief.
Right around the time that Packard's original book was published, a market research consultant named James Vicary set up a special projector inside a movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Over the course of six weeks, he chose certain showings of the film Picnic and throughout those showings, he flashed certain marketing messages onto the screen for .003 seconds (well below the perceptual threshhold), and kept doing it every five seconds through the entire movie. In all, 45,699 customers watched Vicary's movies. The messages said "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat Popcorn". The result? During movies when Vicary flashed his messages, sales of Coca-Cola rose by an average of 18%, and sales of popcorn rose by 58%.
And so there it was. Since that famous experiment, subliminal messages flashed on TV and movie screens have been a firm fixture in popular culture. Hardly a single student who takes a class on psychology or advertising will escape hearing about it and believing wholeheartedly in the effectiveness of subliminal messaging. The media had a heyday with the sensational headlines, and the rest is history.
Harcourt Assessment, which was known at the time as The Psychological Corporation, invited Vicary to repeat his experiment under controlled conditions. He did, but this time no increases in sales were shown at all. Pressed for an explanation, Vicary confessed that he had falsified the results from his original study. Indeed, five years later in a 1962 interview with Advertising Age, Vicary revealed that he had never even conducted the Fort Lee experiment at all. He had literally made up the entire thing. But of course, by then, it was too late. The headlines had run their course, and to this day it's a generally accepted fact that flashing brief messages onscreen produces a desired behavior, despite the fact it never happened.
Is there any evidence that subliminal messages or hidden sexual imagery produces higher sales? Evidently, no. At least, I couldn't find any. However I did find one relevant study from 2007, from the University of California Davis. The findings, surprisingly, were that subliminal sexual images had no effect on men, and actually produced lower levels of sexual arousal in women. Neither group went out and bought popcorn or Pepsi. The conclusion suggests "that the subliminal sexual prime causes women to activate sex-related mental contents but to experience the result as somewhat aversive." Not really a great advertising strategy.
Next time you eat a Ritz cracker, examine it carefully. Wilson Key believes that it has the letters S-E-X stamped on its surface, but in such a way that you can't consciously perceive it. Do try to find it, give Key the benefit of the doubt. And then decide for yourself whether it's actually there, or whether this whole urban legend is just another stupid, baseless, sensationalist headline.
By Brian Dunning
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Subliminal Seduction." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
28 Aug 2007. Web.
20 May 2018. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4063>
References & Further Reading
Brean, Herbert. "'Hidden Sell' Technique is Almost Here." Life. 31 Mar. 1958, None Listed: 102-114.
Gafford, Richard. "The Operational Potential of Subliminal Perception." Studies in Intelligence. 1 Mar. 1958, Volume 2, Number 2: 65-69.
Karremans, Johan C., Stroebe, Wolfgang, Claus, Jasper. "Beyond Vicary’s fantasies: the impact of subliminal priming and brand choice." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 14 Nov. 2005, Volume 42, Issue 6: 792-798.
Key, Wilson Bryan. Subliminal Seduction. New York: New American Library, 1974.
Moore, Timothy E. "Subliminal Advertising: What You See is What you Get." The Journal of Marketing. 15 Mar. 1982, Volume 46, Number 2: 38-47.
Packard, Vance. The Hidden Persuaders. Philadelphia: D. McKay Company, 1957.
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