William Poundstone, Photo: Russel Taylor

William Poundstone


Maddest of the “Mad Men”

The "Mad Man" behind the subliminal advertising controversy

Posted Jan 17, 2010

TV's Mad Men presents the advertising world of the early 1960s as an exercise in moral ambiguity. That perception owes much to Vance Packard's 1957 exposé, The Hidden Persuaders. Packard describes Madison Avenue's embrace of psychology and psychoanalysis, an era in which cars were phallic symbols and "motivational research" sought to uncover the American consumer's most secret desires. The maddest of Packard's mad men was perhaps James Vicary (1915-1977). Like Don Draper, Vicary came from a humble background, lost his father (an opera singer) in childhood, and was raised by godparents. He became a Gatsby-like figure, rewriting his life story and rising to power on Madison Avenue as his marriage crumbled. Vicary had a peculiar genius for discerning what the American consumer wanted. Much of his business consisted of devising names for new products. The Dodge "Dart" was his handiwork, chosen after polling such alternatives as the Belvedere, the Proton, and the Zing. Asked to critique the trademark of Bethlehem Steel (also a client of the fictional Sterling-Cooper), Vicary mordantly counseled, "The word ‘Bethlehem' has warm, religious connotations as well as those of ‘Bedlam'..."

Vicary is best remembered for a diabolical hoax. His long shadow fell over Madison Avenue throughout the Mad Men era and still affects attitudes toward psychological marketing in the age of Google. In my new book Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (And How to Take Advantage of It), I explore how the new psychology of decision making has transformed marketing, raising some novel issues of free will. What if the smart retailer is able to persuade the consumer to buy, or to pay more, without any awareness of having been "manipulated"? That question isn't so new, after all. It was raised—loudly—in Vicary's time.

It all began on the afternoon of September 12, 1957, in a small mid-Manhattan office. At Vicary's invitation, about fifty press people watched an underwater documentary, "Secrets of the Reef." Hidden in the film were ads for Coca-Cola, flashed on the screen for 1/3000 of a second. For that Vicary used a tachistoscope, a high-speed slide projector widely used in post-war psychological experiments. Though the ads were inperceptible, Vicary claimed that they worked. He said he had done an experiment flashing similar split-second ads for Coca-Cola and popcorn at a regular movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey, showing the film Picnic. The ads boosted concession stand sales of Coke 18 percent, and popcorn 58 percent. Vicary had founded a Subliminal Projection Company to capitalize on the technique. He boasted, "This innocent little technique is going to sell a hell of a lot of goods."
This brought Vicary into conflict with another of Packard's mad men, Ernest Dichter. The Vienna-born "Doctor Dichter" allegedly used his psychoanalytic training to fine-tune such pitches as "Put a tiger in your tank." More to the point, Dichter was the high guru of motivational research. In his not-so-humble opinion, subliminal ads were not innocent. Dichter feared they would give psychological marketing a bad name (or a worse name, as the cynics would have it).
The tiff only fanned interest. Soon, subliminals were in the news and on the air. Stations from coast to coast began running subliminal messages with various degrees of seriousness. Chicago radio station WAAF began selling subliminal ads (faint pitches played behind the music) for $1000 per week for 500 ads. "Phantom selling has quietly become a growing and ghostly industry," enthused the Wall Street Journal. A United Artist theater in Los Angeles began flashing "Buy Popcorn" ads during its movies. This was not an experiment but an earnest attempt to boost sales, and United Artists talked of expanding the ads to 350-some theaters.
"We've already had a Los Angeles automobile retailer and a furniture store tell us they‘re interested in buying subliminal advertising time," said a KTLA-TV manager, who offered such weird possibilities as "the subliminal projection of pleasing geometric shapes" to increase the acceptability of overt ads, and enhancing ham commericals by subliminally overlaying "a beautiful invisible ham cooking in the background."
The public reaction to subliminal ads was outrage. "Himmler and Goebbels had, at least, the decency to commit suicide," ran one letter to an editor. "In the absence of any such display of ethical sense on the part of James M. Vicary, I submit that said gentlemen be shot out of hand." Hopeful rumor had it that subliminals could be unmasked by waving the hand, fingers outstretched, in front of the eyes. Life magazine ran a photo of this practice, vying in weirdness with the near-contemporary one of a 3D-movie-spec'd audience.
"It takes neither a psychologist nor a moralist to explain the feeling of revulsion felt by so many people toward the whole idea," wrote George Brooks in Consumer Reports. "The concept of free will underlies that of free society."
Vicary had hit a nerve. Atomic-age America had grown ambivalent about advertising and science. Intellectuals such as Aldous Huxley and Norman Cousins editorialized that Vicary had combined the worst of both. "There is only one kind of regulation or ruling that could possibly make any sense in this case," Cousins wrote, "and that would be to take this invention and everything connected to it and attach it to the center of the next nuclear explosive scheduled for testing."