History of Subliminal Messaging

The modern concept of a psychological threshold was formulated by 19th century German philosopher-scientists Herbart, Weber, and Fechner to separate consciousness from unconsciousness. (Rouder & Morey, 2009).

Public awareness of subliminal advertising began with the 1957 publication of Vance Packard's book, The Hidden Persuaders. Packard described new motivational research marketing techniques being employed to sell products in the burgeoning post-war American market. The advertisements focused on consumers' hopes, fears, guilt, and sexuality and they were designed to persuade them to buy products they didn't need. (Mikkelson, 2010).

James Vicary coined the term "subliminal advertising". During the summer of 1957 Vicary placed a tachistoscope in a New Jersey theater's projection booth. During the playing of the film Picnic, he flashed a couple of different messages on the screen every five seconds. Each message was displayed for only 1/3000th of a second at a time, far below the viewers' threshold of conscious perceptibility. The messages he displayed were: "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat Popcorn". There was an 18% increase in Coca-Cola sales, and a 58% jump in popcorn purchases.
(Bernstein et al., 2008).

When radio and television stations began airing subliminal commercials, this led to two congressional bills to ban the practice being introduced in 1958 and 1959. However, both these were shelved before being voted upon.

In 1973, Dr. Wilson B. Key picked up where Vicary left off, publishing Subliminal Seduction, an indictment of modern advertisements filled with hidden messages and secret symbols, leading to the 24 January 1974 announcement by the FCC that subliminal techniques, "whether effective or not," were "contrary to the public interest," and that any station employing them risked losing its broadcast license. (True Subliminals, 2005).