Subliminal Selling by Dr David Lewis

By David Lewis

Over a six-week period, in the summer of 1957, fifty thousand Americans became the unwitting Guinea pigs in a mind control experiment intended to change advertising for ever.

James McDonald Vicary, a 42-year-old market researcher, claimed to have installed a subliminal projector of his own design in a New Jersey movie house. During the run of Picnic, a popular romance film his machine flashed two advertising messages onto the screen. One read: ‘Thirsty? Drink coca-cola’ the other ‘Hungry? Eat popcorn.’

Because each was displayed for just 3 thousandths of a second, audiences remained unaware of them at a conscious level. Yet, according to Vicary, by influencing their subconscious, he increased Coke sales by 18% and of popcorn by 58%.  “This innocent little technique,” he boasted, “is going to sell a hell of a lot of goods.”  Far from applauding his ingenuity, however, press and public were outraged. Journalists accused him of ‘brainwashing’ the American people while Newsday described his device as ‘the most alarming invention since the atomic bomb.”

Five years later Vicary admitted it had all been a hoax. A publicity stunt designed to generate business for his struggling firm.
Largely as a result of his deception and the furore it generated  ‘subliminal advertising’ virtually vanished from mainstream research for nearly half a century.  Subliminal advertising not only works, it is probably at work in a supermarket or shopping mall near you.
In one study, Johan Karremans and his colleagues at the Department of Social Psychology at Radboud University, Nijmegen, displayed the name of a popular brand of iced-tea, for 23 milliseconds, as their subjects worked on a computer based task. Later, when offered a choice between iced-tea and mineral water a majority chose the tea. (1)

Equally effective is supraliminal priming. Here, although in plain sight, the priming is seldom noticed due to what is termed Inattentional Blindness. We don’t perceive what we don’t attend to.
Take in-store music.

Charles Gulas at Wright State University and Charles Schewe at the University of Michigan found baby boomers were more likely to buy things against a background of classic rock. Yet two-thirds were unable to say what music was playing as they shopped. (2) In another study, wine buyers exposed to classical music did not buy more wine but they bought more expensive wine. (3)

Aromas too play a far more influential role as supraliminal primers than generally realised.  During a ten-day study, Lieve Doucé and her colleagues at Belgium’s Hasselt University, infused a bookshop with the scent of chocolate for half its opening hours. Despite being too subtle to be easily detected, the aroma increased the time customers spent browsing, the number of titles they reviewed and the number of books bought. The greatest effect was on books about food or drink together with romantic novels sales of which increased by an impressive 40 percent when chocolate aroma was present. (4)

So the next time you shop, ask yourself.  “Do I really want to purchase this item – or is my subconscious being manipulated to make me think I do?

Dr David Lewis-Hodgson



(1) Karremans. J. C., Stroebe, W. & Claus, J. (2006) Beyond Vicary’s fantasies: The impact of subliminal priming and brand choice, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 42, 792–798.
(2) Gulas, C. S. & Schewe, C.D. (1994). Atmospheric segmentation: Managing Store Image With Background Music, Enhancing Knowledge Development in Marketing, Ravi Achrol & Andrew Mitchell (Eds.), Chicago IL: American Marketing Association, 325-330.
(3) Milliman, R. E. (1982). Using background music to affect the behaviour of supermarket shoppers. Journal of Marketing,  46 (3), 86-91.
(4) Doucé, L., Poels, K., Jansssens, W. & De Backer, C. (2013) Smelling the books: The effect of chocolate scent on purchase-related behavior in a bookstore marketing: The role of fragrance and its interaction with other atmospheric and non-atmospheric cues in a shopping experience, Journal of Environmental Psychology (July)

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