Subliminal Seduction

The Tostitos logo embeds two people partying with chips and salsa to make their brand festive and sexy, perhaps aided by other subliminal associations?

Can we be manipulated by marketers to buy?
Market researcher James McDonald Vicary wanted to find out, so in the summer of 1957 in Fort Lee, New Jersey, Vicary conducted an experiment. Over the course of six weeks, Vicary recorded the results of subliminal images flashed on screen during the presentation of the movie Picnic, starring William Holden and Kim Novak. Throughout the movie, the words “eat popcorn” and “drink Coca-Cola” were flashed on the silver screen for a mere 1/3,000th of a second. 45,000 people visited the theater in six weeks and Vicary was astonished at the results. Purchases of popcorn soared by 57.5 percent and Coca-Cola sales jumped 18 percent. The results were reported in the September 16, 1957 edition of Advertising Age, sparking widespread public outrage and paranoia about the study’s implications.

The hysteria was further fueled by the publishing that same year of Vance Packard’s influential book The Hidden Persuaders, which suggested that the public was being monitored and manipulated by marketers and advertisers without their conscious awareness or consent. A year later, an investigation by the CIA led to a ban on the use of subliminal flashes on movie and television screens. The public was now not only aware of subliminal advertising techniques but were reassured that laws were in place to protect them from corporate and hollywood mind control.

There was only one problem: Vicary’s experiment was a hoax. He admitted as much in a 1962 interview with Advertising Age, stating that the original market research study was “a gimmick” and admitted that the amount of data collected was “too small to be meaningful.” But the damage to public opinion had been done and the urban myth lives on, perpetuated by blogs, conspiracy theorists and even Hollywood, with movies like “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Inception”.

The word “subliminal” has latin roots: “sub” meaning “below” and “limen” meaning “threshold of consciousness”. Ironically, even though a bogus market research study in the 1950s had the nation feeling unnecessarily anxious, today’s studies in neuroscience have disturbing implications for consumers. As it turns out, most of the day to day decisions we make happen below our threshold of consciousness. So while we worried that corporations might be controlling our minds in the fifties, we should be wondering if we are ever completely in control. That’s because we believe that our conscious or rational mind is in control because it’s the part of our mind that “talks” to us. It’s the voice inside our head that speaks as we silently read the words of this blog or mull over a decision.

Neuroscience suggests that we remain happily unconscious most of the time.
In 2008, a group of scientists led by a researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, used brain scans to accurately predict participants’ decisions seven seconds before they consciously made and voiced their decisions. The researchers reported in Nature Neuroscience in April, 2008 that “Many processes in the brain occur automatically and without involvement of our consciousness.
This prevents our mind from being overloaded by simple routine tasks. But when it comes to decisions, we tend to assume they are made by our conscious mind. This is questioned by our current findings.”

Marketers, aided by dozens of research findings in neuroscience made in the past ten years, have become keenly aware that we often make mostly unconscious, snap decisions first, then use the “voice” of our conscious mind to validate and rationalize our decisions. The implications are as fascinating as they are unsettling. We’ll explore some of these in the coming weeks…


Fear Factors


Fear is a delicious sensation.

Which is why it’s used to sell us a plethora of products. Everything from scary movies to hand sanitizers to political candidates.

From 2009-2012, Publishers Weekly‘s annual list of best-seling books averaged a staggering 12 of its Top 15 best-sellers that fit into the “Thriller” category. Take Stephen King. Even though he’s not the household name he once was, King’s new offerings like Dr. Sleep are still snapped up by the hundreds of thousands and he has sold more than 500 million copies of his novels to date. Very scary.

Still not convinced? Just look at the runaway success of TV shows like Dexter, CSI, Bones, and reality shows like Fear Factor and Ghost Hunters. The show that terrifies me? “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”, but that’s another article.

What neuroscientists and marketers know is that there’s a solid biological basis behind our attraction to fear. Fear raises our adrenaline, creating the primal, fight-or-flight response. This in turn releases epinephrine, a hormone and neurotransmitter that produces a deeply satisfying rush. Just ask any adrenaline junkie. According to Yerkes National Primate Research Center neuroscientist Kerry Ressler, the amygdala, our brain’s fear center, “Gets just as activated by fear as it would in the real world, but because your cortex knows you’re not really in danger, that spillover is rewarding and not frightening.”

Fear also brings us together by uniting us against a common enemy. It’s why we take such perverse pleasure in spreading fearful rumors, sometimes blowing them out of proportion to heighten the sense of danger. It’s why many urban legends still persist (highway murder gangs, alligators in the sewers) and why even a simple power outage can have neighbors calling each other with theories about terrorist attacks or government-sponsored “men in black” squads.Wacky, yes, but an article on political fear-mongering from the left-leaning web site Daily Kos, states that “When a threat is perceived, the body goes into automatic mode, redirecting blood to certain parts of the body and away from the brain. The respiratory response also decreases the blood supply to the brain, making a person unable to think clearly. In other words, the loss of blood to a person’s brain can make him or her stupid, literally.” An academic study in Communication Monographs by Kim White entitled “The Extended Parallel Process Model” explains that “People who are exposed to fear appeals think carefully about the responses posed in these messages, then follow the advice of the persuasive message in an attempt to neutralize the danger.”

Fear is a powerful persuader, so it’s no surprise that marketers, advertisers and political consultants look for ways to exploit our fears to the fullest. In the coming weeks we’ll explore some of the ways our minds are subtly manipulated so that we’re driven to purchase. I don’t mean to scare you, but it happens every day.

Feed Your Head

food_for_thoughtIf you want to improve your focus and efficiency, here’s food for thought: eat a balanced breakfast.

“But I don’t have time for breakfast! I’ll just grab a cereal bar and coffee and eat it on my drive to work. That’s real time management, right?”

Wrong. Our mom assured us that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” and it turns out she was right. Since our brains work non-stop to process information and make connections, particularly while sleeping, we use up a great deal of our brain fuel even as we rest our bodies. Refilling the “think tank” with complex carbohydrates like oatmeal or multi-grain toast, washed down with fresh squeezed orange or carrot juice provides the foundation for a day that’s physically energized and mentally productive.

Gotta have your morning java? Sure, but try deferring it until mid or late morning when the caffeine jolt can help you power through a taxing brainstorming session or mind-numbing meeting. And try to limit your coffee intake to one cup in the morning and, if you must, one in the mid afternoon.
I love my coffee, yet I found that the extra caffeine and sugar from that second morning cup meant I felt jittery and extra hungry by lunchtime, robbing me of my concentration. I replaced that extra cup of joe with 32 ounces of water, drunk in three glassfuls throughout the morning. In the afternoon when I’m feeling peckish, I’ll have a healthy and satisfying smoothie made with orange or apple juice blended with bananas and any other fruit that’s handy. My favorite additions are blueberries (full of anti-oxidants), peaches or whatever’s in season.

Top efficiency tip: Tackle your most important task early. Once you’re properly fueled by a nutritious breakfast, commit to addressing your top priority early on, before the interruptions, meetings and unexpected mini crises derail your day. Hey, life happens. Just don’t let the inevitable road bumps stop you from handling the one thing that must be addressed for you to move your primary goal forward. I’ve found this works best for me at work and home, and it’s amazing how much better I feel knowing that no matter how the rest of my day turns out, I dedicated quality thinking time to moving my top goals forward.

It’s easier than you think. Starting Monday (or this weekend, for that matter), make breakfast your first priority. Combine feeding your head with one uninterrupted hour of focused, quality time each morning to dive into the one task that will move your main goal forward. Then step back and watch what happens.

Your number one professional and personal goals will come into focus, you’ll make progress faster, and you’ll feel better doing it. Bon Appetite!


In praise of crazy.

Apple_Think_Different_vectorized.svgHere’s to the crazy ones.

The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.

The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo.

You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things.

They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

I love this advertising copy. It has stuck with me since it was first broadcast in 1997, not because it sold truckloads of Apple computers
(it did), but because it reminds me that we need to be a little (or a lot) crazy to make a difference in the world.

The copy was written by Apple’s Steve Jobs and Lee Clow, along with Clow’s team at TBWA/Chiat/Day. If the grammar bugs you, here’s the rationale, according to Jobs: If “different” was supposed to modify the verb “think,” it should be an adverb, as in “think differently.” But Jobs insisted that he wanted “different” to be used as a noun, as in “think victory” or “think beauty.” Also, it echoed colloquial use, as in “think big.” Jobs later explained, “We discussed whether it was correct before we ran it. It’s grammatical, if you think about what we’re trying to say. It’s not think the same, it’s think different. Think a little different, think a lot different, think different.”

What does “think different” mean to you? I use it as my reason to blog, write books, perform magic, speak to strangers and generally be silly and in awe of the miraculous world around me. On my best days I do these things without guilt or apology because I believe that’s what the Einsteins, Campbells, Gandhis, and Jobss of the world did. My email signature includes my absurdly audacious promise to “Change the world, one mind at a time.” Ballsy? You bet? Irreverent? Maybe. Necessary? Yes (for me, anyway). I get up every day with the intention of delivering on that promise. When was the last time you did something that was courageous, inspiring and a little crazy? Did it make a difference?

Even if our actions didn’t knock the world off its axis, isn’t it important that we tried, and that we’ll try again? Here’s to the crazy ones.

Aliens stole my car keys!!!

Ok, they probably didn’t.
It was most likely my cats, who are also secretly building a mind control device in my basement

Often we silly humans find that it’s more convenient to make outlandish claims and concoct absurd conspiracy theories than to look for rational, balanced answers and (maybe) accept personal responsibility for our actions. As human beings, we have the remarkable ability to seek out opinions and half truths that support our personal belief systems and allow us to create an “alternate reality.” It’s enough to give me pause.

Below are excerpts from an April 2013 article written for Scientific American by Sander van der Linden, a visiting research scholar with the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication at Yale University. The entire article can be read at

As for me, I think global warming and my missing car keys are linked to a sinister plot to control the world. I’ll let you know when I figure out who or what, is behind it…

Excerpted from the April 30, 2013  Scientific American article “Moon Landing Faked!!! – Why people believe in conspiracy theories” by Sander van der Linden:

In the book “The Empire of Conspiracy,” Timothy Melley explains that conspiracy theories have traditionally been regarded by many social scientists as “the implausible visions of a lunatic fringe,” often inspired by what the late historian Richard Hofstadter described as “the paranoid style of American politics.” Influenced by this view, many scholars have come to think of conspiracy theories as paranoid and delusional, and for a long time psychologists have had little to contribute other than to affirm the psychopathological nature of conspiracy thinking, given that conspiricist delusions are commonly associated with (schizotype) paranoia.

Yet, such pathological explanations have proven to be widely insufficient because conspiracy theories are not just the implausible visions of a paranoid minority. For example, a national poll released just this month reports that 37 percent of Americans believe that global warming is a hoax, 21 percent think that the US government is covering up evidence of alien existence and 28 percent believe a secret elite power with a globalist agenda is conspiring to rule the world. Only hours after the recent Boston marathon bombing, numerous conspiracy theories were floated ranging from a possible ‘inside job’ to YouTube videos claiming that the entire event was a hoax.

So why is it that so many people come to believe in conspiracy theories? They can’t all be paranoid schizophrenics. New studies are providing some eye-opening insights and potential explanations.

Interestingly, belief in conspiracy theories has recently been linked to the rejection of science. In a paper published in Psychological Science, Stephen Lewandowsky and colleagues investigated the relation between acceptance of science and conspiricist thinking patterns. While the authors’ survey was not representative of the general population, results suggest that (controlling for other important factors) belief in multiple conspiracy theories significantly predicted the rejection of important scientific conclusions, such as climate science or the fact that smoking causes lung cancer. Yet, rejection of scientific principles is not the only possible consequence of widespread belief in conspiracy theories.  Another recent study indicates that receiving positive information about or even being merely exposed to conspiracy theories can lead people to become disengaged from important political and societal topics. For example, in their study, Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas clearly show that participants who received information that supported the idea that global warming is a hoax were less willing to engage politically and also less willing to implement individual behavioral changes such as reducing their carbon footprint.

Since a number of studies have shown that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with feelings of powerlessness, uncertainty and a general lack of agency and control, a likely purpose of this bias is to help people “make sense of the world” by providing simple explanations for complex societal events — restoring a sense of control and predictability. A good example is that of climate change: while the most recent international scientific assessment report (receiving input from over 2500 independent scientists from more than a 100 countries) concluded with 90 percent certainty that human-induced global warming is occurring, the severe consequences and implications of climate change are often too distressing and overwhelming for people to deal with, both cognitively as well as emotionally. Resorting to easier explanations that simply discount global warming as a hoax is then of course much more comforting and convenient psychologically. Yet, as Al Gore famously pointed out, unfortunately, the truth is not always convenient.

Clap On, Clap Off

ApplauseAs social creatures, we are easily influenced by others, even when we express our appreciation or dissatisfaction through applause.

In fact, it’s amazing how easily a group of strangers can be swayed. I’ve tried the following informal experiment at five different movie theaters. At the end of each movie, I paused for five seconds, then began clapping loudly and continuously. Invariably, others joined in the applause, which swelled to include at least half of the audience. At five other movie screenings, I waited five seconds, then five more. In fact, I never began clapping, even though at three movies, I really wanted to. The result? No one clapped.

Was my little experiment just a fluke or are we more susceptible to “group think”, I mean, “group clapping” than we care to admit? Here’s what reporter Amy Kraft for Scientific American discovered about the phenomenon:

Applause is a sign of appreciation after a good performance. Right? Actually, a new study finds that how enthusiastically you clap can be strongly influenced by the volume and frequency of the audience clapping around you.

To test how applauding behavior spreads in groups, researchers filmed six different sets of university students who were told to clap after listening to an academic lecture.

The videos showed that people were strongly swayed by other audience members, or even by just one particularly influential clapper. Applause incidents averaged 9-15 claps per person, but would swell to as many as 30 claps solely based on an individual applause leader. The spasm stopped in much the same way: when one person ceased clapping it triggered a larger group dynamic.

The study is in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface and is part of a larger effort to understand social behavior and how it can spread within a group. [Richard P. Mann et al., The dynamics of audience applause]

So the next time you see a dull performance, remember, the desire to hold back on clapping might be out of your hands.

Well put, Amy. That deserves a round of…. oops! I’ll just sit on my hands.


Feeling Super at 50 (+)

AmazingSpiderMan1Look! Up in the sky! It’s 50-something man!

Ok, so my 57th birthday on July 1 didn’t elicit exclamations from swooning women or awestruck kids.
Holy lowered expectations, Batman! Since it isn’t always easy feeling super in our youth-obsessed culture, it’s comforting to know that I’m not the only guy reflecting on his age. Peter Parker, the socially challenged science nerd who just happened to get in the way of a radioactive spider and absorbed its powers turns 50 this year. Happy birthday, Spidey!

Although I haven’t read a “funny book” in ages (today’s term is “graphic novel” – Bazinga!), as a birthday treat I dipped into my modest collection of comix and pulled out Amazing Spiderman #3 from 1964. Take that, evil Gen-Xers and Millennials!  Thumbing through my retirement hedge, er, comic books, fills me with the exuberance of ten mortals. Go ahead, unleash your worst, Green Goblin, I’m feeling invincible. Ok, maybe not invincible, but at this moment I barely notice my swollen joints and expanding waistline (sigh).

I prefer to think of myself as someone who understands the mid-life angst of the “younger” superheroes. Not that age is slowing down any of my favorite costumed crusaders. Heck, Superman just turned 75 and he’s starring in his own summer blockbuster. Oh, and let’s not forget the original Avengers who turned 50 this year and are going strong. Iron Man, the Hulk and Thor have all gotten their mojo back and are thrilling a new generation of movie goers. That said, I’m not sure what happened to Ant-Man, one of the original members. Hope he has a decent pension. Even several mutants hit the big 5-0 this year and I’m happy to report that it’s done nothing to slow down the burgeoning X-Men franchise.

I guess what I’m saying is that it’s a stupendous, colossal, action-packed privilege to put another notch in my utility belt and celebrate 2013 on planet earth. After all, 60 is still a long way off, isn’t it?

Mindfulness is its own reward

buddha-faceDo you really need the concentration of a Buddhist monk to benefit from mindful meditation? Not at all.
I meditate just 10-15 minutes each morning and find myself more relaxed, focused and energized as I tackle the day. So can you. Replace the daunting word “meditation” with “mindfulness”, which is simply the ability to focus on the present moment. Anyone can do that, and you don’t need a saffron robe or years of selfless dedication to see results. Try the following for the next two weeks and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how you can begin your day more relaxed and less stressed.

Below are tips to starting your mindfulness practice. Remember, it is an ongoing practice, so don’t worry about “perfecting” anything. It’s the practice that brings results.

Here’s how:

• Sit in an upright, stable position, hands resting lightly on your thighs. You can do the cross legged thing on a carpet, but I recommend sitting in a straight backed chair, bare feet on the ground (socks are ok, too). It’s safer to sit in a chair and lot easier on the knees.

Lower your eyes so they are barely open or close your eyes altogether, whatever works best for you.

• Pay attention to your breath, and follow its movement throughout your body. Breathe in slowly through your nose, filling your belly (diaphragm) with air, then slowly exhale through your mouth. You can count to ten silently on the exhale, if you like.

• Notice the sensations around your belly as the air flows into and out of your nose and mouth. We take our breathing for granted, so use this time to really notice your breath.

• Select one area of your body affected by your breathing (your lungs, throat, belly, etc.) and focus your attention there. Breathe slowly. You are focusing on a single area of your body, not the breathing itself.

• When you notice your mind wandering (believe me, it will), bring your attention back to your breath and then to the selected area of your body.

• After 5-10 minutes, switch from focusing to “monitoring”. Consider your mind as a vast, open sky and your thoughts, feelings and sensations as passing clouds.

• Feel your entire body move with your breath. Notice your sensations. Be attentive to the changing quality of the experience, such as ambient sounds, aromas, a breeze, even fleeting thoughts. Do this for roughly another five minutes.

• Slowly, focus on your breath once more, then gently open your eyes. Continue to breathe deeply for a minute or too, then complete your waking mindfulness. Pay close attention to the first thoughts that enter your mind and how you feel about them. If it’s an important task or a niggling worry, don’t judge the thought, just breathe in and exhale deeply. Now, on with your day…

NOTE: If you’re enjoying this practice, add another 10-15 minutes before you go to sleep at night. It’s a great way to release the tension and stress of the day and prepare your body and mind for deep, rejuvenating sleep.


Rules of engagement


Lots of magicians earn their “stage time” at a young age by performing for neighbors or entertaining at children’s birthday parties. My path was a little different. By age 16, I was performing at local and regional trade shows and I learned quickly what worked and what didn’t with harried, jaded business people. I needed an approach that would immediately hook passersby to stop, or at least slow down, long enough to engage them. I would point to an imaginary spot just above my head, reach up and produce a real flame between my fingertips. At the same time I would say “Here’s something impossible and maybe a little dangerous!”

I didn’t look at the flame licking my fingers, but instead smiled and made eye contact with the individual. I tossed the flame toward my left hand and when it landed, the flame had become a gold coin. I handed the coin to the business person as I explained “This is my gift to you. You may keep it or try your luck to win one of these amazing prizes.” Nine times out of ten, the individual would laugh, then hand the coin to a salesperson in return for a spin of the prize wheel.
Shilling for companies as a teenager was my introduction to the art of engagement. I still use the same techniques today.

The steps to engagement are simple:
1. Be intriguing. You don’t have to pluck flames from the air to capture attention (although it couldn’t hurt). Simply engage the person with a smile and an intriguing comment or question, such as “Are you having an amazing day?” If they say yes, follow up with “Me, too! What amazing thing has happened to you today?” If they say no, state “Well, it’s not too late! Tell me about an amazing experience you’ve had recently.” People are drawn to those who find them fascinating, so be genuinely interested in others and you’ll never be at a loss for good conversation.

2. Give a gift. It could be the gift of your attention and a useful comment such as a compliment, a savvy observation or even a suggestion of a hot new restaurant, movie or book. Sharing insights and recommendations show that you’re really listening and that you’ve placed the other person’s needs front and center.

3. Offer choice. Let the person drive the conversation and let them choose the path. You can always give the topic a little nudge, but take your lead from the other person’s comments and interests. The best interviewers and conversationalists are those who listen intently and ask questions sparingly.

To be engaging means to be engaged. Enjoy meeting people, leave your ego and agendas at home, and be genuinely interested in others. You’ll quickly become engaged with everyone you meet and they will love you for it.

Houdini Logic

Houdini Eyes copy
Harry Houdini. Who doesn’t know the name?
His daring escapes, his legendary stamina, his amazing resourcefulness and
 his uncanny gift for self-promotion have secured his name among the icons of the 20th century. Much more than a performer, Harry was an explorer, inventor, researcher and savvy businessman who almost single-handedly created the field of “escapology” by freeing himself from locks, shackles, jail cells and all forms of bizarre restraints. Harry constantly searched out new and exciting challenges. He was encircled in chains, handcuffed, and stuffed into a packing crate which was nailed shut and thrown into a frigid river. He was crammed into a metal can filled with milk, even a giant stein brimming with beer. Harry got out of all of them.
Houdini also 
created “ghost-busting,” the tireless search for legitimate apparitions and the exposing of phony “mediums” or psychics who preyed on wealthy, bereaved patrons reeling from the horrors of World War I.

Harry’s real name was Ehrich Weiss. He was a Hungarian immigrant who spoke little English, had few formal skills, and was just 5 
foot, two inches tall. What he had in large supply was a deep love for his family and his adopted country, along with a steely 
resolve to conquer any challenge. Today, America faces challenges not witnessed since the Great Depression. In 2013, our country is still navigating a tenuous “recovery” and faces the specter of a government shutdown. Every time I speak with a neighbor, a business owner, or a family member I hear a slight quiver in their voices and see doubt in their eyes. Houdini’s greatest accomplishment was conquering his fears and embracing opportunity wherever he found it. We can do the same. But first we have to free our minds of constricting beliefs, irrational fears and negative self-talk. More than 80 years after his death, Harry Houdini can still show us the way. 

Lessons from the remarkable life of Harry Houdini:

1. Believe in Yourself 
Only then will others truly believe in you and embrace your gifts.
2. Recreate Yourself
Use your talents and channel your singular combination of abilities to create a new 
service, product or unique way of seeing the world to solve problems at work and home. Provide value to the world and the world will reward you with opportunities to thrive.
3. Promote Yourself
Your accomplishments can only be leveraged if the world knows about them. 
Be humble, but don’t be invisible.
4. Be resourceful
Read voraciously, become an expert, then apply your knowledge to solve tough 
challenges and open up new avenues for advancement. Plus, you’ll be a more interesting person at parties!
5. Set lofty goals 
Even if you don’t achieve every goal, your extra efforts open new doors and help you grow in areas you never thought possible.
6. Learn from your mistakes
Houdini had an encyclopedic knowledge of locks and kept a diary of 
all his escapes – what worked, what didn’t, and what he would do the next time he found himself in a similar predicament. Do you have a success diary? How do you build on lessons learned, especially from your failures?
7. Anticipate and embrace change
Harry saw that vaudeville wasn’t the future, so he made movies, presented lectures, wrote books and created the fields of “escapology” and “ghost-busting”.
8. Think differently to solve problems
Use your past experience and apply it in a completely new way to find unexpected approaches and possibly reveal entirely new opportunities, product ideas, inventions, even an entire school of thought!
9. Look for new combinations
Harry turned an interest in locks, magic and athletics into “escapology” and helped define entertainment in the early 20th century.
10. Free your mind
Houdini loved to explore and try new things. He was the first man to fly solo in Australia, not long after the Wright Brothers’ groundbreaking accomplishments at Kitty Hawk. Try meditation or yoga, browse through the library and check out a book chosen at random and read it. Listen to different types of music on the radio or at home. Go to a new restaurant this month. See a play. Go to a magic show. Watch a foreign film. Just do something new! New experiences stimulate your brain, stretch your mind and keep life interesting.