Re­cently, there was a lot of ex­cite­ment among mar­keters about sub­lim­i­nal ad­ver­tis­ing.

It was the new tech­nol­ogy, the lat­est thing – it would rev­o­lu­tionise mar­ket­ing. Ex­cept it wasn’t and it didn’t. The first, and big­gest, sub­lim­i­nal ad­ver­tis­ing craze was in 1957. James Vi­cary was a mar­ket re­searcher in Detroit. He con­ducted an ex­per­i­ment among 45,699 peo­ple at a cinema in New Jer­sey.

In the mid­dle of a fea­ture film, he had one sin­gle frame of film re­touched with the words “Drink Coca- Cola”.

He had another sin­gle frame re­touched with the words “Eat Pop­corn”.

Film runs through a pro­jec­tor at 24 frames per sec­ond, so a sin­gle frame was way too fast for any­one to no­tice.

But Vi­cary had the num­bers: Coca- Cola sales were up by 18.1 per cent in that cinema, and pop­corn sales were up by 57.7 per cent.

That’s pretty im­pres­sive proof, and sub­lim­i­nal ad­ver­tis­ing im­me­di­ately be­came a craze.

This be­ing the height of the Cold War, the CIA got in­volved.

Their re­port on “The Op­er­a­tional Po­ten­tial of Sub­lim­i­nal Ad­ver­tis­ing” re­sulted in it be­ing banned in 1958.

That’s how ef­fec­tive sub­lim­i­nal ad­ver­tis­ing was, ex­cept it wasn’t.

Years later, a jour­nal­ist, Stu­art Rogers, went to check out that cinema in New Jer­sey. The man­ager said no such test ever took place. In a 1962 tele­vi­sion in­ter­view, Vi­cary ad­mit­ted mak­ing the whole thing up.

He needed a “gim­mick” to at­tract clients to his mar­ket re­search busi­ness.

That “gim­mick” was re­spon­si­ble for at­tract­ing $ 4.5m in fee-pay­ing clients. They rushed in like lem­mings off a cliff. Ex­cept they didn’t be­cause lem­mings don’t ac­tu­ally rush off a cliff – that’s also not true. So where did that fal­lacy come from? In the 1958 movie White Wilder­ness, Dis­ney showed masses of lem­mings jump­ing off a cliff into the sea.

Sup­pos­edly this was mass sui­cide be­cause of over­pop­u­la­tion. Ex­cept, again, it wasn’t. Dis­ney fab­ri­cated the whole thing. It was shot in Al­berta, where there are no lem­mings – they had to be im­ported.

They filmed a few dozen lem­mings up close to cre­ate an il­lu­sion of scale.

Lem­mings filmed on turnta­bles to make it ap­pear they were rushing to the sea.

Lem­mings tossed into Bow River, nowhere near the Arc­tic Ocean.

The Alaska Depart­ment of Fish and Game were unim­pressed.

Thomas McDonough, the state wildlife bi­ol­o­gist, said Dis­ney con­fused dis­per­sal with mi­gra­tion and em­bel­lished a ker­nel of truth.

Dis­per­sal and ac­ci­den­tal death is a far cry from the in­stinc­tive, de­lib­er­ate mass sui­cide de­picted in White Wilder­ness.

Gor­don Jar­rell, an ex­pert from the Univer­sity of Alaska Fair­banks, said: “Do lem­mings re­ally kill them­selves? No, the an­swer is un­equiv­o­cal – no, they don’t.”

So, two things we be­lieved sim­ply be­cause we didn’t ques­tion what we were told. That seems to be the pat­tern for mar­ket­ing folks. If there’s a fad, a craze, if ev­ery­one’s talk­ing about it, we must join the herd. Get in quick, don’t be left be­hind. We be­lieve it sim­ply be­cause ev­ery­one else be­lieves it. But maybe we should learn to ques­tion things a bit more first.

Maybe we should stop rushing off non-ex­is­tent cliffs af­ter non-ex­is­tent fads.

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