William Poundstone, Photo: Russel Taylor

William Poundstone


Maddest of the “Mad Men” (Part 3)

The “Mad Man” behind the subliminal advertising controversy (conclusion)

Posted Jan 21, 2010

From today's perspective, James Vicary was looking through the wrong end of the tachistoscope. He assumed, as did those duped by him, that an agent of unconscious influence would have to be a technological marvel, invisible and faster than the blink of an eye. In fact the important kind of "mind control" is human, lo-tech, pervasive, and in plain sight. [See Part 1, Part 2.]
By coincidence, Vicary's alma mater, the University of Michigan, was a cradle of behavioral decision theory. This has demonstrated that the act of choosing is subject to all sorts of "hidden persuaders." In a 1999 experiment, A.C. North, D.J. Hargreaves, and J. McKendrick had a supermarket play French background music one day and German music the next. The research team kept track of the type and amount of wine the market sold. The French music gave sales of French wine a statistically significant bump, and the German music boosted sales of German wine.
If you think this is completely absurd, you are not alone. The researchers interviewed some of the shoppers. Most said they paid no attention to the background music - criminy, who would? It's elevator music! When asked whether the store's music could influence their choice of wine, the answer was a most definite no.
The music wasn't "subliminal." It was played at the normal volume for background music. Yet the effect was as sneaky as anything Vicary contemplated. Music that no one pays attention to made people buy something they wouldn't have bought otherwise.
You may be saying, I'd never buy a bottle of Bordeaux just because the store was playing 'La Marseillaise'!" Indeed so, if you despise Bordeaux or have a compelling reason to buy something else. But most of the decisions that fill our days, and our shopping carts, are not so clear-cut. (Should I have another cup of coffee or check my e-mail? Tide or store-brand detergent?) In these situations, as Stanford psychologist Robert B. Zajonc dryly noted, "no cognitive mediation, rational or otherwise, is involved." Environmental factors can then tip the balance.
The effect of such things is statistical, of course. It took carefully designed experiments to prove the effects were real. Today, the digital age is making it easier than ever to do marketing experiments. Google is supplanting Madison Avenue as the toll collector of advertising dollars, bar codes are everywhere, and in today's wired world, everything is quantitative. The practical value of background music may be limited, but there is one ubiquitous, all-powerful persuader: price. Everything comes with a price tag, and those prices affect decisions in ways we don't realize. Few consumers will buy a $400 pair of shoes, unless they're displayed next to $800 shoes (which make them look like a bargain). A rebate or mythic "list price" bewitches buyers into paying more than the logical market value. The new profession of price consultants is advising companies on how to "engineer choices" to extract the most dollars from consumer wallets. This is the brave new world I address in my book Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (And How to Take Advantage of It).
"Subliminal advertising" was a hoax, but James Vicary posed an ethical thought-experiment for our own time. What if it is possible to persuade consumers to buy without their awareness? The issue, as Vicary's critics noted, is "free will." Yet free will is not quite what we imagined. What we want - and how much we're willing to pay for it - are invented on the fly. These constructed desires are readily manipulated by those who know a modicum of the new psychology. This is as ethically fraught a vision as the one Vicary cooked up, and which Mad Men brilliantly satirizes. But this one's for real, and we're only beginning to come to terms with it.

North, A.C., D.J. Hargreaves, and J. McKendrick (1999). "The influence of in-store music on wine selections." Journal of Applied Psychology 84, 271-276.
Rogers, Stuart (1992). "How a Publicity Blitz Created the Myth of Subliminal Advertising." Public Relations Quarterly, Winter 1992-1993, 12-17.
Warrick, Jeff (2010). Programming the Nation? A new documentary film on the enduring mythos of subliminal advertising.