The subject of subliminal messaging in relation to consumer behavior presents an interesting dichotomy between the scientific community and the general public. The purpose of this paper is to discover what, if any, effect subliminal messaging has on consumer behavior, as well as shed light on the differing positions regarding this controversial subject, and provide a brief historical background on the material.
Before the topic of subliminal messaging can be addressed, one must first understand subliminal perception. Subliminal perception is defined as "the processing of stimuli presented below the level of the consumer's awareness." (Solomon, p.629) Subliminal messaging is the process of using embedded content within a visual or aural stimulus that the recipient is not cognitive of receiving or processing. (Solomon, pp 63-65)
The subject of subliminal messaging is hardly a secret. The topic has been a main storyline is recent Hollywood movies such as Josie and the Pussycats, Zoolander, Fight Club and Serenity. According to a recent survey of American consumers, "it is found that almost two-thirds believe in the existence of subliminal advertising, and more than one-half are convinced that this technique can get them to buy things they do not really want." (Solomon, p. 63)
Although the concept of subliminal stimuli and perception had been around for more than 50 years, it was not until 1957 when a market researcher by the name of James Vicary held a press conference to declare the formation of his corporation, the Subliminal
Projection Company, which was designed to utilize what he referred to as a recent breakthrough in advertising: subliminal stimuli. Vicary claimed to have come to this finding by projecting the words "Drink Coca-Cola" and Hungry? Eat Popcorn" in 1/3000 of a second at 5-second intervals during showings of a movie entitled Picnic. Reported sales for popcorn rose 57.5% and Coca-Cola rose 18.1% respectively over a six-week period as a result of using this stimulus, Vicary claimed. (Adams) Vicary's claims led to public outrage and in 1958 the National Association banned the broadcast of these messages. (Rogers, p. 15) Vicary's claims were also promoted in the book The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard, which raised notoriety for the concept. These findings have also launched four decades worth of research and novels dedicated to substantiating and expanding the hypothesis put forth by Mr. Vicary. One such person who has taken this task and made it his own is Dr. Wilson Bryan Key.
Dr. Key has written several books on the subject of subliminal messaging and its widespread use by government and advertising companies. In his book Subliminal Seductions, Key states, "Subliminal perception is a subject that virtually no one wants to believe exists, and - if it does exist - they much less believe that it has any practical application" and then goes on to contend "The techniques are in widespread use by media, advertising and public relations agencies, industrial and commercial corporations, and by the Federal government itself." (Key, p.1) Later in his book Dr. Keys states, "Merchandisers, by embedding subliminal trigger devices in media, are able to evoke a strong emotional relationship between, say, a product perceived in an advertisement
weeks before and the strongest of all emotional stimuli - love (sex) and death." (Key, p. 28) Examining these statements by Keys, it is clear that he believes subliminal messages not only exist, but furthermore that they clearly affect consumer behavior since they appeal to the strongest of primordial forces within the human psyche. Later in his book he states, "Ice cubes likely sell more alcohol for the distilling industry than attractive models in cheesecake poses. The inconspicuous ice cubes often hide the invisible sell - invisible, that is, to the conscious mind."...