Would a successful ad man lie? That was the somewhat incredible question buzzing around Madison Avenue in the fall of 1957. Marketing consultant James Vicary claimed to have the holy grail, a way of compelling the American consumer to buy without any awareness of having been manipulated. He called his invention "subliminal advertising." Invisible yet effective commercials could be inserted in TV programs without viewers knowing it. Advertisers and broadcasters were starting to jump on board, the public was largely aghast, and a very few, in advertising and in psychology, were deeply skeptical.
The serious, peer-reviewed experiments on subliminal perception had involved word games and tasks requiring subjects to judge the expression of an ambiguous face. It was a big leap from that to choosing one cola over another, or choosing to spend money rather than keeping it in one's pocket. Vicary’s claims made a sensation because they met America’s default criterion of significance: money.
Some on-air tests of subliminal ads were not encouraging. In January 1958 the Canadian Broadcasting Company ran an experimental subliminal message during a popular TV show. “Many reported they got up from their chairs during the program to ‘get something,’ but there was no trend in what they got,” Advertising Age wrote. “One CBC executive reported his family’s reactions thus: ‘I felt like a beer, my wife had an urge for some cheese and the dog wanted to go outside in the middle of the program.’”
The FCC was alarmed enough to ask Vicary to demonstrate subliminal advertising in Washington. Vicary complied, but there was nothing to see and no indication that it worked. (After the demonstration, Michigan Senator Charles Potter deadpanned: “I think I want a hot dog.”) Vicary was challenged repeatedly to supply more data. He refused, deferring to the talking point that, “on advice of counsel,” he could not supply details while his patent was pending. A reporter for the Motion Picture Daily was interested enough to contact the manager of the Fort Lee movie theater where Vicary had supposedly conducted his experiment. The manager was curiously evasive and denied that subliminal ads had had any effect on sales. Hofstra psychology student Stuart Rogers contacted the same manager, and this time the manager admitted that no experiment had been done in his theater.
Vicary had separated from his wife in Westchester and taken an apartment in Astoria. In June 1958, he dropped out of sight. He had reportedly emptied his bank accounts and his closets and left no forwarding address. It was rumored he had a made a fortune off consulting fees.
I've always wondered what became of Vicary. In the course of researching my book Priceless, I took a look at Vicary's papers, now at the University of Connecticut. Subliminal ads didn't make Vicary rich. He moved to the San Francisco bay area, apparently hoping to dodge the scandal and reinvent his life. According to letters and resumes, he spent the next few years in a string of jobs, never staying long in any. His Subliminal Projection Company went bust. In 1962 Vicary took a $15,500 position with Dun and Bradstreet, the equivalent of about $110,000 today.
That same year Vicary resurfaced in an interview with Advertising Age. He conceded that “this was a gimmick,” and his data on subliminal ads was “too small to be meaningful.” He spoke wistfully of opportunities lost:
"And for a man who makes a career out of picking the right names for products and companies, I should have had my head examined for using a word like subliminal.… As for those who thought it was all so terrible — well, I had the same reaction when I first thought of it.… But then, as a researcher, I've always pushed on as far as I could. Why, compared to some schemes that have popped into my head, subliminal is one of the most innocent of schemes. The others? Hell, I buried them."
TO BE CONTINUED