Subliminal Advertising The Tachistoscope

About the tachistoscope, the first machine designed to aid subliminal advertising, history of the film projector, examples of its effectiveness.

Must Be Unseen to Be Believed: The Tachistoscope

"... We have reached the sad age when minds and not just houses can be broken and entered."

--The New Yorker

"The subconscious mind is the most delicate apparatus in the universe. It is not to be smudged, sullied or twisted in order to boost the sales of popcorn or anything else. Nothing is more difficult in the modern world than to protect the privacy of the human soul."--Saturday Review

"Frightening though it may appear, devices to induce subliminal stimuli mechanically are much more than mere marketing toys. They are being used commercially every day in northern America, but they do imply a certain risk of discovery and public denouncement. There are other, nonmechanically induced, subliminal techniques which are just as effective.--William Bryan Key, in Subliminal Seduction.

In 1957, an affable young American market researcher by the name of James Vicary set off a controversy which exploded across the country, confettied State legislatures with a barrage of new bills, and came knocking loudly at the Senate's fine oaken doors. The controversy concerned "subliminal stimuli," the means by which a person's mind can be entered and seeded with suggestions without his knowing about it. In 1957, James Vicary demonstrated the tachistoscope.

The tachistoscope, essentially, is a simple film projector with a high-speed shutter capable of flashing messages 1/3000 of a second long, at 5-second intervals. One hears about it from time to time in relation to a 6-week experiment conducted in a movie theater where, on alternate nights, the words "Drink Coca-Cola!" or "Hungry? Eat popcorn!" were flashed tachistoscopically--without the audience's knowledge--over the regularly scheduled features. A 60% increase in the sale of popcorn was reported for that month and a half; while Coca-Cola sales climbed about 20%. Quite a little conversation piece.

While the shutter speed of the tachistoscope can be varied--making it useful in experiments testing for attention and retention--the device has for the most part been a tool of the market researcher. One of the more interesting experiments, however, involved 2 groups of university students, and one slide of a male model in a Playboy advertisement. Each group would analyze the ad's model, using a scale of 1-to-5, as to how masculine he was considered.

So the 1st group was shown the slide and asked to mark down its scores. And the 2nd group was asked to watch the slide and mark down its scores. The only difference was that the 2nd time, superimposed over the slide every 5 seconds, at 1/3000 of a second, there appeared the word: "Man!" . . . "Man!" . . . "Man!"

Only one member of the 1st group used the most masculine rating of 1 in the experiment, while 26 members of the tachistoscoped group chose that evaluation. Whereas 2 members of group 1 scored the model as 2 (fairly masculine), 35 members of the 2nd group gave that same scoring. The differences between the perceptions and evaluations of the 2 groups, needless to say, were striking.

Despite the brouhaha stirred by the tachistoscope, no laws have been passed to prohibit its, or any other subliminal or subaudial technique's, use in advertising or broadcasting.

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