OZZY OZBOURNE: Accused of using hidden messages, parents unsuccessfully sued Osborne, claiming his music contained secret backmasked tracks that had driven their children to commit suicide. Image: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis
- For decades the public has feared subliminal advertising, viewing it as akin to brainwashing. Scientists, however, view it as largely a myth.
- Recent experiments demonstrate that subliminal messages flashed onto a screen or computer monitor can influence our decisions only if we are open to persuasion because of a particular need, such as thirst.
- Despite our fear of being manipulated, our surroundings exert an unconscious influence on our decisions every day. For example, the smell of grilling meats can make us feel hungry, and the music in a supermarket can steer us toward certain purchases.
The birth of subliminal advertising reads almost like a script from a television show. In this real-life story, the spotlight falls on James M. Vicary, an independent marketing researcher.
On September 12, 1957, Vicary called a press conference to announce the results of an unusual experiment. Over the course of six weeks during the preceding summer, he had arranged to have slogans—specifically, “Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola”—flashed for three milliseconds, every five seconds, onto a movie screen in Fort Lee, N.J., while patrons watched Picnic. Vicary argued that these messages were too fast for filmgoers to read but salient enough for the audience to register their meaning subconsciously. As proof, he presented data indicating that the messages had increased soda sales at the theater by 18 percent and popcorn sales by 58 percent.