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.