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James Vicary: Experiment & Overview

Instructor: Robin Harley

Robin has a PhD in health psychology. She has taught undergraduate and graduate psychology, health science, and health education.

In 1957, James Vicary claimed to have conducted an experiment in which he exposed moviegoers to brief messages about popcorn and Coca-Cola, stating that it increased sales. Learn about the experiment and the ethical and legal controversy of subliminal advertising.

What is Subliminal Advertising?

Have you ever walked by an ad in a store window and picked up on some subtle images or symbols 'hidden' within it? If you're a Beatles fan, maybe you've heard of barely audible or even backwards 'secret' messages in their songs. In fact, this phenomenon has occurred in millions of songs, advertisements, movies, and TV shows for decades. These messages rely on subliminal perception, the idea that we can perceive and react to subtle imagery and sounds without being consciously aware of them.

While some of the hidden images and symbols all around us may be placed there accidentally, many are deliberately placed to influence people. This practice is called subliminal advertising. The idea behind it is to use subliminal perception to make someone think favorably of a product -- and hopefully purchase it.

Around the turn of the 20th century, marketing experts found that inserting barely audible music along with pleasant images made people feel more comfortable about purchasing things. However, other research contradicted this claim. In fact, subliminal advertising has not been proven to make people do what is intended, and it's also considered unethical. Let's talk about a famous experiment that cast subliminal messaging into a not-so-subtle spotlight.

James Vicary's Popcorn Experiment

In 1957, a social psychologist and market researcher named James McDonald Vicary claimed to have conducted an experiment on 45,699 moviegoers in a New Jersey theater. In a press release, he stated that he exposed the moviegoers to .03 second flashes of 'Hungry? Eat Popcorn' and 'Drink Coca-Cola' during a movie to see if concession sales increased.

Vicary claimed that his experiment actually increased the sale of popcorn by 57.5% and Coca-Cola by 18.1%. These results prompted the CIA to write a report titled The Operational Potential of Subliminal Perception about their own plans for research with subliminal messages.

Later, it was determined that Vicary's experiment and claims were fraudulent. He admitted that it was done as a 'gimmick' and that there was very little support for the effectiveness of subliminal messages. Despite its ineffectiveness, the practice is still being used by advertisers today. It remains a controversial practice that is steeped in ethical and legal issues.

Ethical and Legal Issues

The ethical and legal issues of subliminal messages can be exemplified by the famous Judas Priest case. In 1985, two teenage boys attempted suicide with a shotgun after listening to one of their favorite heavy-metal bands: Judas Priest. One boy died on the spot, but the other survived with major facial damage and died three years later. The boys' parents took the band to court, claiming that their sons were induced to attempt suicide by a subliminal message in one of their songs. The surviving teen claimed that they were listening to the song Beyond the Realms of Death when they heard the words 'do it' and felt the urge to commit suicide. The band denied putting any subliminal content in their music, but claimed that it would be free speech if they had.

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