Although public awareness of subliminal advertising is dated back to 1957 we have found a subliminal suggestion - that people should ‘Buy bonds’ – slipped into a 1943 Donald Duck cartoon called ‘Wise Quacking Duck’. The words appear momentarily on a spinning shield.
Subliminal advertising is banned in many countries, even though there is no evidence that it works. The term was coined in 1957 by market researcher James Vicary, who claimed that he had induced people to buy more Coke and popcorn by flashing brief messages during a film. The practice was banned in the UK, US and Australia the following year, even though other tests (undertaken in haste in order to complete them before the ban came into force) had failed to confirm the experiment, and in 1962 Vicary admitted that he had falsified the results: ‘All I accomplished, I guess, was to put a new word into common usage . . . I try not to think about it anymore.’ The Canadian Broadcasting Company tried flashing ‘phone now’ over 350 times during a popular TV show, and asking viewers to write in if they had noticed any strange change in their behaviour. They didn’t get any calls but did receive hundreds of letters from viewers who had experienced unaccountable urges to drink beer, visit the bathroom or take their dog for a walk.
Nevertheless, many people remain convinced that subliminal messages (particularly sexual images) are routinely used in various media. In 1990 the band Judas Priest was taken to court by parents of two boys who had shot themselves after allegedly receiving the subliminal message ‘do it’ from one of their songs. The band said if they wanted to use subliminal messages they would tell people to buy more records, not to kill themselves, and also that ‘do it’ doesn’t mean ‘shoot yourself’.
The US ban is a Federal Communications Commission rule rather than a law, and in 1978 they waived it so that police in Wichita could send a subliminal message to a serial murderer called ‘the BTK Killer’ to turn himself in, hidden in a news broadcast. It didn’t work; he was eventually caught in 2005 by other means (irritated that the police had failed to link one of his murders to him, the Killer called them to ask whether it was possible to trace someone from a floppy disc. The police said ‘Er – no’, so he sent the disc, and they tracked him down by Googling the metadata it carried). The UK rules are in the OFCOM Broadcasting Code (‘broadcasters must not use techniques which exploit the possibility of conveying a message to viewers or listeners, or of otherwise influencing their minds without their being aware, or fully aware, of what has occurred’) and the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) TV Code (‘No advertisement may use images of very brief duration, or any other technique which is likely to influence viewers, without their being fully aware of what has been done.’)
If the grace of God miraculously operates, it probably operates through the subliminal door.
Learning through tapes (and, nowadays, downloads) do seem to work – but not because of their subliminal content. Experiments have shown that people given tapes of classical music labelled 'subliminally improve your memory' or 'subliminally improve your self-esteem' can get the desired benefit whether the tapes actually have subliminal messages embedded in them or not.
However, there’s no evidence that ‘hypnopaedia’, the idea that you can absorb specific lessons in your sleep, works. One Lawrence LeShan at a Summer Camp in 1942 tried to cure some boys of nail-biting. He recorded ‘My fingernails taste terribly bitter’ on a phonograph which played the phrase 300 times a night. One boy appeared to respond positively, but after five weeks the phonograph broke. To keep the experiment running, LeShan stood in the dormitory through the night and repeated the phrase himself. This seemed to be much more effective, and LeShan claimed it as a success, but the outcome has not been confirmed since and it is thought that the boys were just awake and freaked out by the experience, concluding that the only way to get LeShan to leave them alone was to stop biting their nails.
Movies accused of containing subliminal messaging include Pyscho, The Lion King and Who Framed Roger Rabbit