Psychology Yesterday

Stories from the behavioral past

Freud on Madison Avenue

Subliminal advertising was a literal craze in America in 1957.

“Unless we are much mistaken, the next phrase that is going to be on everyone’s tongue is ‘subliminal advertising.’”

- The Nation, October 5, 1957

 

In 1957, an intense, very real fear regarding a new form of advertising swept across the American landscape. It was called subliminal advertising- a major portion of a psychological phenomenon known as subliminal perception or “SP.” Before Sigmund Freud gave it some respectability, the concept of subliminal perception had quite the dubious history, made most famous by one F.W.H. Myer, a 19th century seer. For Myer, SP entailed methods such as automatic writing, table rapping, and the ouija board in order to communicate with the dead, forever imprinting the idea with a sense of both mysticism and surrealism. Scientific experiments in subconscious perception also dated back to the 19th century, with studies first appearing in academic journals around 1900. It would be Freud, however, who put SP on the psychological map through his focus on the human subconscious. One of Freud’s theories was that subconscious “observations” often appeared in dreams, this idea tested in 1917 by an Austrian neurologist, Otto Poetzl. In his experiment, Poetzl flashed slides of landscapes for one-hundredth of a second to a group of subjects, the images hardly registering in their consciousnesses. Asked what their dreams were the next day, however, the subjects reported details found in the landscape scenes, confirming Freud’s theory. The seeds of subliminal perception had been planted, no one suspecting that one day millions of people around the world would be keenly interested in and concerned about the results of similar, rather esoteric tests.

It would take a different continent, a different field, and four decades for these seeds of SP to fully bloom. Subliminal possibilities for advertising were first raised in 1913 but there could not have been a more fertile time and place for them than psychology-obsessed, watch-your-back postwar America. A year or so before subliminal advertising exploded on the scene, E.B. Weiss had been prescient about its rise, writing a column about something very similar for Ad Age in May 1956. After hearing about some experimental research going on which involved electrical stimulation of the brain, Weiss immediately understood the possibilities for trying to manipulate people’s behavior.  "It is entirely probable that some day at least some of the brain’s functions may be controlled by external electrical penetration," Weiss warned, admitting that, "I get frightened as I write this!"  "Will advertising, some day, consist of broadcast electrical discharges beamed to penetrate specific brain areas for the purpose of shaping specific buying behavior patterns?," he asked.

Just a little more than a year later, many of Weiss’s fears were realized as a technology-based form of external brain control swept through the advertising industry and American society like a tornado. News of subliminal advertising first leaked out sometime in late 1956, few people really sure what it was or if it even existed. “For a year or so tantalizing rumors have been drifting around the fringes of Madison Avenue,” reported Business Week in September 1957, “rumors about a startling kind of ‘invisible’ advertising that sells products while leaving buyers unaware they are getting a sales pitch.” With a press conference held by a never-heard-from-before company named Subliminal Projection Inc. in mid-September, however, the cat was fully out of the bag, Not just the business press but mainstream media jumped on the story, although some reporters did have to look “subliminal” up in a dictionary, not familiar with the word or how to use it in a sentence. Many readers too no doubt consulted their handy Webster’s to learn the word meant “below the threshold of consciousness or beyond the reach of personal awareness,” this not easing their concerns in the least.

Subliminal Projection’s big news was that it had conducted a test of subliminal advertising in an undisclosed New Jersey movie theater over a period of six weeks. A “strange mechanism” had been fitted onto the film projector, as page 1 of the Wall Street Journal reported, and, over the next month and a half, 45,699 movie patrons were “subjected to ‘invisible advertising’ that by-passed their conscious and assertedly struck deep into their subconscious.” Once every five seconds, a message was flashed throughout a film for 1/3000th of a second- too fast to be seen by the human eye but supposedly long enough to be registered in the subconscious of the unsuspecting movie-goers. After “COCA-COLA” and “HUNGRY? EAT POPCORN” were invisibly blinked on the screen, sales of each reportedly jumped (18% and 58% respectively), these results quickly becoming the talk of not just Madison Avenue but Main Street USA. After a century or so of lurking in the dark netherworlds of science and psychology, subliminal perception had been suddenly thrust into the light of day. The SP craze didn’t last very long- just about a year, in fact-, but represented a seminal moment in postwar American history, both reflecting and shaping the hyper-paranoia of the times.

Lawrence R. Samuel, Ph.D., is an American cultural historian who holds a Ph.D. in American Studies and was a Smithsonian Institution Fellow.

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