The first recorded subliminal experiment was conducted by James Vicary in 1957. He claimed that an experiment in which moviegoers watching a film called Picnic were repeatedly shown 0.03-second advertisements for Coke and Popcorn, increased their foyer sales by 58% and 18%. Since the publication of his experiment the effectiveness of hypnotic messages in advertising has been hotly debated.
A CIA review of subliminal messages titled “The Operational Potential of Subliminal Perception”, suggested that “Certain individuals can at certain times and under certain circumstances be influenced to act abnormally without awareness of the influence”. Because of this, subliminal cuts were effectively banned in the US when the FCC ruled that the use of subliminal messages could result in the loss of a broadcast license. In the UK and Australia subliminal advertising was also banned, so it has never been possible to verify Vicary’s original claim one way or the other. Until recently.
To commemorate its 50th anniversary, the Vicary experiment was replicated at the International Branding Conference, MARKA2007 as part of the Hypnosis, Subconscious Triggers and Branding presentation. The 1,400 delegates watched the opening credits of the movie used in the original experiment, PICNIC into which subliminal messages had been placed at six second intervals. Then, the delegates were asked to choose between two fictitious brands. One brand “Delta” had been suggested using the subliminal messages and the other “Theta” had not.
When choosing between the two brands, 81% of the audience chose “Delta” in preference to “Theta”. This suggests a convincing substantiation of Vicary’s results. “Even though this technique is 50 years old, and there are more sophisticated techniques being used in advertising today, this demonstrates the powerful influence of subliminal messages” the presentation told us. “The subliminal cut was the mother of all hypnotic techniques and today her children walk all around you. They are everywhere, in posters, press advertising, on the radio and the T.V. They are the legal siblings of a banned parent.”
Real life examples were then shown of the three most common hypnotic techniques used in advertising today. Each example was chosen because of its spontaneous recall amongst the public and its ability to dramatically increase sales. The first was the most watched advert on YouTube in 2007, the Cadbury “Gorilla”. This Cadbury’s Dairy Milk chocolate advert features a gorilla playing drums to a Phil Collins soundtrack. The cult advert has been viewed around 10 million times on the internet claimed a chart, published by the TellyAds.com website. Commercially the ad was responsible for increasing Cadbury’s market share by 30%.
The second example shown was the U.K’s greatest ad ever as voted by Channel 4 viewers, the Guinness “Surfer”. Despite being originally shown nearly 10 years ago this ad has left its mark because it still has front of mind awareness and very high levels spontaneous recall amongst the public.
Both ads use a number of well known and legal hypnotic and subliminal techniques to promote their products. This is by no means unusual. An analysis of the 20 most popular ads ever reveals that all of them use some form of hypnosis or subliminal techniques to sell their message. It seems that despite early attempts to ban it, the use of hypnosis and subliminals to increase market share are widespread in advertising.