Although there has been no scientific research that has ever proven the effectiveness of any form of subliminal influence on the human mind, subliminal advertising is a conspiracy theory that has entered popular culture as a generally accepted truth. In the main, this is a result of a general cultural paranoia over the rise of the media industry to a position where it dominates the production of cultural meaning and ideology in society. The fact that most media forms (television, radio, newspapers, and films) are dominated by large companies or corporations, in addition to their commercial and mass imperatives, creates an anxiety over their apparently systematic control of the beliefs and political opinions available in society.
The fear of subliminal advertising unsurprisingly begins in the 1950s at the inception of the television age, although the first claims about its use actually involve the broadcast of subliminal messages at cinemas. Vance Packard was the person responsible for bringing subliminal advertising to the public’s attention in his 1957 book, The Hidden Persuaders, when he mentioned experiments undertaken by an advertising executive, James Vicary. Vicary had apparently tested subliminal advertising in cinemas by flashing the messages “Eat Popcorn” and “Drink Coke” on the screen for a fraction of a second. As a result of these trials, Vicary claimed an 18 percent increase in sales of Coke and a 58 percent rise for popcorn, which led not only to an acceptance of the reality of the effectiveness of subliminal advertising, but also to fears that the U.S. public was being insidiously brainwashed simply by going to the cinema or watching television. An investigation was launched by the Federal Communications Commission and a ban on the use of subliminal advertising was imposed in some U.S. states as well as in Britain and Australia.
A few years later, Vicary admitted that he had exaggerated the impact of subliminal advertising and, indeed, that there had been no noticeable effect on the tested cinema-goers. However, subliminal advertising had already become accepted as a “fact” (62 percent of Americans currently believe in its existence) and has remained as a pervasive cultural paranoia that has reappeared at various times. For example, the liberalization of U.S. society as a result of the 1960s counterculture led to fears that media industries were using subliminal messages not to brainwash people into buying certain products, but to corrupt the minds of the public. In a series of books, published from the 1970s onward, Wilson Bryan Key claimed that both television and print advertising contain subliminal commands that bombard Americans with images of sex, drugs, and death. According to Key, groups of people he tested felt sexually aroused when shown certain adverts, including one for Gilbey gin in which the word “sex” is apparently embedded in an ice cube. When he was later called to give “expert” testimony at the Judas Priest trial in Reno, Nevada, in 1990, he even went as far as claiming that Ritz crackers had subliminal messages imprinted on them.
In recent years, attention has moved away from advertising to a more pervasive fear of subliminal messages in commercial and cultural products. The Columbine killings led to a fear that contemporary music (notably Marilyn Manson) included messages that were having an effect on the unconscious minds of American youth. This, however, was a continuation of paranoias that had begun with the trial of the heavy metal band Judas Priest when they were accused of placing subliminal messages in one of the songs from their Stained Class album. These messages had allegedly induced suicidal impulses in two teenage listeners, James Vance and Ray Belknap, who had, as a result, attempted to kill themselves. Although the band were found not guilty of any wrongdoing (which may be fortunate for Nike, as the phrase at issue was “Do It”), the fact that a trial took place at all demonstrates how far subliminal messages have become accepted as a reality.
The reason for this general belief in subliminal advertising and unconscious commands is primarily a result of fears that media industries have too much power in the creation of American values and have replaced traditional values (such as religion and the family) with a secular and materialist ideology. The implications of brainwashing that attach to subliminal advertising have also led to a belief that the mass media is in the service of a government propaganda machine or in the hands of a conspiracy group that is attempting to corrupt American minds in order to make its “perverted” values acceptable when it comes to power. Most frequently this is the New World Order (with its anti-American totalitarian vision), but other groups are also seen to be using the media, such as the Illuminati or Skull and Bones, both of whom wish to impose a satanic or occult religion on America.