Posted by woodjb on June 13, 2010
It has been called “a virtual social H-bomb,” and it detonated at a press conference in New York on September 12, 1957. Advertising researcher James M. Vicary announced that he had successfully tested a device that could implant subliminal messages in the minds of moviegoers. Vicary, Rene Bras, and Francis C. Thayer were partners in Subliminal Projection Company, Inc. Their “Trinity Site” had been the Fort Lee Theatre in New Jersey. There, a special projector known as a tachistoscope (capable of flashing an image at 1/3,000th of a second) conveyed secret messages to the audience, one every five seconds, during the run of the movie Picnic (1955).
There were two messages: ”Eat popcorn” and “Drink Coca-Cola.” Vicary boasted that, during the six-week test, sales of popcorn increased 57.5% and Coke 18.1%.
The press went haywire, and articles appeared in Life, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The Sunday Times (London), The Washington Post, and the trade publications Printer’s Ink and Advertising Age. The news media marveled at the awesome new technology but — this being the height of the Cold War — expressed concern that the method could be misused as a tool for political brainwashing.
Historians state that advertisers flocked to the Subliminal Projection Company, but are vague in reporting whether or not any money actually changed hands, or if any subliminal services were rendered. We do know, however, that opposition to Vicary and Co. was swift and severe. Two months after Vicary unveiled his system, Congress urged the FCC to intervene, test, and possibly ban the use of subliminal messaging on television. Its political ramifications were frightful. The New York Times reported on December 8, 1957, that the major television and radio networks had agreed not to employ such ads — a sudden move no doubt intended to evade tighter government regulation. Meanwhile, the FCC found provisions within the Federal Communications Act that — if properly interpreted — would forbid the employment of a TV version of Vicary’s tachistoscope and possibly revoke the licenses of any offenders.
The severity of the response to Vicary’s wonder projector is better understood if one pauses to recall the climate in the advertising world in the 1950s. The postwar Mad Men’s rise to power — and the subtlety and complexity of their techniques — had not gone unnoticed by cultural critics of the day. April, 1957, saw the publication of Vance Packard’s hugely popular exposé of the advertising world: The Hidden Persuaders, just a few months prior to the unveiling of Vicary’s “virtual social H-bomb” (William H. Kalis, of the Stanford University Research Institute, coined that expression in March, 1958, in the pages of Public Relations Journal). Vicary’s name appears often in The Hidden Persuaders, as an example of a particularly sinister advertising specialist who combined the psychological insights of Sigmund Freud with the mind-manipulative power of Orwell’s Big Brother.
Packard wrote about how Vicary used a hidden motion picture camera to analyze the eye-blinking pattern of women as they shopped in a supermarket. ”The results were startling, even to him. Their eye-blink rate, instead of going up to indicate mounting tension, went down and down, to a very sub-normal fourteen blinks a minute. The ladies fell into what Mr. Vicary calls a hypnoidal trance, a light kind of trance that, he explains, is the first stage of hypnosis.” In the late 1950s, Vicary engaged in a pseudoscientific endeavor he called the Taboo Language Checking Service, which analyzed the effect of brand names and words used in advertisements upon the unconscious. Vicary is what was known as a “depth prober,” one of the new breed of high-tech advertisers who employed sophisticated psychological tools to study consumers and instill demand for their products.
Packard’s book, which had been a number one best-seller, was taken very seriously, and by extension, Vicary had a lot of credibility in the media. It is no surprise that Congress believed America was about to fall prey to psychological warfare. But did Vicary’s tachistoscope actually work? One such projector had, in fact, been installed at the Fort Lee Theatre but various researchers have shown that his results were greatly exaggerated.
The film industry periodical Motion Picture Daily investigated the site of Vicary’s original experiment (part of the B.S. Moss theatre chain), and theatre manager Marvin Rosen claimed there had been no increase in concession sales during the six-week test.
To settle the controversy, Subliminal Projection Company hosted a demonstration of their tachistoscope on January 13, 1958, before a reported 300 members of the news media, Congress, the FCC and FTC, according to Advertising Age (quoted in Kelly B. Crandall’s thorough analysis of the controversy “Invisible Commercials and Hidden Persuaders: James M. Vicary and the Subliminal Advertising Controversy of 1957″). Vicary revealed the mechanics of his system, and slowed the duration of the tachistoscope blips so they became discernible to the audience. In an effort to put a kinder, gentler face on subliminal advertising, one of the messages Vicary inserted was “fight polio.” The demonstration was a flop. The attendees experienced no noticeable change of appetite or soft drink preference.
Ironically, the attendees were there to view something invisible, and were disappointed when they didn’t see it. The threat level of Subliminal Projection Corp. was dialed down to yellow, and the excitement over a revolution in advertising likewise began to cool. And Vicary began his gradual descent from mind manipulator to pop cultural footnote.
Regardless of the effectiveness of the tachistoscope, subliminal messaging had touched a nerve in the public, the media, and the government. And wherever there’s controversy, there’s always a crafty entrepreneur ready to capitalize on the public’s fascination and gullibility.
If stroboscopic images could be used to sell popcorn, couldn’t they also be used to evoke other reactions in the audience? What if an ordinary film was “spiked” with emotional cues — nothing malicious, just something to intensify the dramatic impact of a picture? Enter the Precon Process and Equipment Corp. of New Orleans (founded by Robert Corrigan and Hal Becker), which appeared on the cultural radar immediately after Vicary’s unveiling. While Vicary wrestled with Congress, the FCC and the moral quandaries of the subconscious mind, Precon was ready to make money. It successfully filed two patents for subliminal stimulants and immediately set about exploiting their commercial potential.
Precon announced that the new technology was being used to subliminally enhance two low-budget films by producer William S. Edwards: A Date With Death (1959) and My World Dies Screaming (1961, later retitled Terror in the Haunted House).
What exactly was Psycho-Rama? A five-minute introduction to A Date With Death allowed a commentator to explain. ”By using this machine, a word or a picture can be flashed on the screen so fast that, although you don’t see it consciously, it can put information directly into your mind. By this method, it can affect your emotions so that anger, fear, or suspense will race through your subconscious mind.”
“It amazes me, but it scares some people. The United States government and various state governments have debated making it illegal, because of the fear of brainwashing. And it’s been banned on television as being too powerful, because people have been afraid that it might make them buy something that they don’t want. But scientists, among them Dr. Corrigan, have proven there’s nothing to be afraid of. They have proven that your subconscious mind, like your conscious mind, senses everything that you see or hear. Psycho-Rama cannot make you do or believe anything that you don’t want to.” He then adds, lest the viewer fear being coerced into purchasing unwanted popcorn and Coca-Cola, “And there’s no advertising in the picture you’re about to see.”
By way of demonstration, the commentator shows a scene from the film, then slows it so that the viewer can see the hidden messages: ”kill,” “blood,” and the graphic representation of a skull. Afterwards, the same scene is replayed, and the once obvious messages are suddenly invisible, just like Vicary had done at his fateful January press conference. In Vicary’s case, the words became invisible because the tachistoscope was cranked up to full speed. In the intro to A Date With Death, the words became invisible because they were no longer there. The proper execution of subliminal messaging required the use of a second projector, and this posed a significant problem to film distributors and exhibitors.
Producer William S. Edwards must have wrestled with how far to carry the Psycho-Rama process. Could tachistoscopes be manufactured and shipped out to accompany the prints? No, of course not. It appears — and lacking any evidence to the contrary, we can therefore assume — that neither A Date With Death nor My World Dies Screaming were ever shown in true Psycho-Rama. The whole thing was a hoax. They were selling something invisible and hoping the public would buy it.
The public was certainly primed to believe it. They had read all about the Vicary controversy. ”Subliminal” was a new word in their vocabulary and they were eager to pay for the privilege of becoming human guinea pigs. Who wouldn’t want to immerse themselves in a new form of motion picture that might prove more impactful than CinemaScope or 3-D?
Was Edwards concerned that, after the screening, ticket-buyers would complain about the lack of psychological influence? Since the messages were supposed to be invisible to the eye and unrecognizable by the conscious mind… who could say whether they had or had not been subconsciously manipulated?
That five-minute intro to A Date With Death which “sells” the invisible Psycho-Rama process is pure gold — a bit of cinematic humbug that would have made P.T. Barnum proud, and deserves to stand alongside the exhibition stunts of William Castle (The Tingler). Near the end of the piece, the commentator can’t resist “spooking up” the intro a bit. He concludes his discussion of subliminal images with a dramatic flourish, jabbing a blade into the head of the anatomical model on his desk: “that’s the way they appear throughout A Date With Death, stabbing into your subconscious mind, all through the picture. Psycho-Rama won’t hurt you… if you live through it.”
Ultimately, the clever ploy didn’t help the success of either film, which never rose above their station as B-pictures. Like the government officials who attended Vicary’s January presser, audiences were disappointed that they didn’t experience an immediate, palpable response to Psycho-Rama.
Also jumping on the bandwagon were the producers of It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958). There is no subliminal messaging in the film, but the theatrical trailer includes numerous liminal non-tachistoscopic messages flashed before the eyes of the viewer.
Eventually, the brouhaha over subliminal images chilled. The topic was briefly reheated in the 1970s by Wilson Bryan Key, a McLuhan-influenced culture critic who devoted a series of fascinating books to the topic of subliminal images in popular advertising. While some of Key’s assertions belong in the paranoid conspiracy theory drawer, his essay “The Exorcist Massage Parlor” in the book Media Sexploitation, on the marketing and visual iconography of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), is an accomplished bit of film analysis – though I’m still looking for the ghostly face said to have been painted into Max von Sydow’s steamy breath in the cold bedroom scene.
America’s fascination with the subliminal will never completely die out. I recall in the 1980s, seeing an infomercial for some product with supposed subliminal power. The spokesperson perpetuated the Vicary myth by claiming that flashing “popcorn” messages were commonly employed by theatres in the Golden Age. As an example, they used a doctored sequence of William Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937). This is hardly an isolate example. Subliminal CDs and DVDs are commonly marketed today as self-help tools. The subject is too intriguing, so almost-believable that we want to learn more. Anyone who has ever played a LP backwards understands this attraction to pop-culture subliminal hoodoo. Speculation is fun.
In a report declassified in 1994, the Central Intelligence Agency revealed that its own research into subliminal messaging had been fruitless: ”There appears thus to be such a myriad of factors that even the most simplified empirical tests carried out with the best possible cooperation of the subjects are rarely marked by really significant reliability…It must be concluded that there are so many elusive variables and so many sources of irregularity in the device of directing subliminal messages to a target individual that its operational feasibility is exceedingly limited.”
In the end, there are no shortcuts to the human mind. No magic bullets. If theatres want to sell more popcorn they merely need to lower the price and use the most aromatic butter substance available. If a filmmaker wants to induce a visceral reaction in the audience, he or she simply needs to focus more attention on the script and the editing. And if someone wants to tamper with someone’s political loyalties, a frank conversation has been proven to have a deeper, longer-lasting effect than any other form of brainwashing.
Special thanks to repertory programmer Bruce Goldstein and film historian Tom Weaver, who viewed A Date With Death at New York’s Film Forum, at a revival screening more than twenty years ago (part of a retrospective of “Gimmick” films). They recall seeing no secret messages, and not being exceptionally engaged in the film’s plot. Weaver also reminded me of the liminal messages in It!
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