In 1957, subliminal advertising became a public controversy. Marketing man James Vicary, claimed to have demonstrated that sales of Coca-Cola and popcorn rose dramatically when he tested flashing the phrases “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Eat popcorn” up for 1/2000 of a second during film showings.

The word subliminal means that the content is perceptible only to your sub-conscious – literally ‘beneath the threshold’ of what you are aware of. On the surface, it goes unnoticed.

The test in fact turned out later to be a gimmick, but for Vicary, a bona fide marketeer, who used branding techniques to select the names for his own daughters, Christine and Ann, the timing was unfortunate. The same year, Vance Packard’s book “The Hidden Persuaders” was published, detailing how advertisers used motivational research and psychological techniques to manipulate the public. Packard claimed that the words ‘knife’, ‘blood’ and ‘murder’ were shown subliminally in Hitchcock’s movie Psycho to raise fear in his audience.

In the background to this debate, there was also the relatively new concept of brainwashing, which emerged out of the Korean War as a way to explain why so many American prisoners of war defected to the enemy. Brainwashing (and manchuriancommunist conspiracy) became the plot of the classic late ‘50s cold war novel The Manchurian Candidate, by Richard Condon.

As a result, in 1958, after consumer campaigning, the use of subliminal advertising was banned in America, followed by other countries such as the UK. The idea behind the ban was that advertising needed to be something that we could be conscious of, so that we could choose whether to accept or reject it. It was designed to protect us from a form of persuasion we are incapable of resisting.

As I may possibly have mentioned, over recent years I have collaborated with marketing academic Agnes Nairn, on a book, now published, called Consumer Kids. It is no surprise that children live in a seamless world of commercial persuasion, much of which they enjoy. But one development that did emerge of concern is the extent to which marketing to children today uses techniques to influence children’s brains in ways that are also hard for them to resist, albeit using stimuli that they can see, hear or smell – i.e. that are supraliminal.

According to psychologist Cordelia Fine “stuff we can see, hear or smell – supraliminal stimuli – can be just as effective [as subliminal advertising], if not more so. Supraliminal stimuli work in just the same way, so long as we don’t realise how we’re being affected. Since we are usually unaware of the many marketing tricks that can influence us, or optimistically assume that we are impervious to them, we may be in this state of blithe ignorance much of the time.”

Agnes and I write about supraliminal marketing in this month’s Prospect Magazine, the companies that are wiring up children’s brains to see how they respond and the need for a new agenda of neuro-ethics as we learn more about who we are and how our minds work.

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