A VIEW FROM
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.