My feeling was that there never had been convincing evidence that subliminal messages were effective in persuading us to do or buy something, but I needed to update my information. Now, I have. So, if you've ever wondered about the dastardly practice of directing messages into our brains underneath the radar of consciousness, here is the story.
It all started back in 1957, when a man named James Vicary claimed that he had slipped subliminal messages into a movie being shown at a New Jersey theatre. The messages, which appeared so briefly on the screen that patrons were unaware of them, were "Eat popcorn" and "Drink Coke." Vicary claimed that sales of popcorn rose an incredible 58 per cent and Coke 18 per cent.
His announcement created an immediate furor. Mere months later, The National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters commented that "there may well be grave concern over the idea of advertising, which affects people below their level of conscious awareness, so that they are not able to exercise conscious control over their acceptance or rejection of the messages."
The initial research turned out to be meaningless, but several studies since then have shown that subliminal advertising works, although only slightly. As we understand the human brain better, it will problemably become possible to improve subliminal advertising techniques. But that just raises the larger ethical question of… if we can manipulate the biological basis for decision making, should we? Some would argue that marketing is just that, already. Others would say that the difference is one of resolution, and that being able to fine tune marketing tactics to individual brains would be unethical. The future holds some difficult decisions for business leaders.