Subliminal Survives

Today the power of subliminals to motivate viewers and listeners remains unproven. As psychologist James V. McConnell puts it, "secret attempts to manipulate people's minds have yielded results as subliminal as the stimuli used." But fears of subliminals have survived, as many people's notions of subliminals are still influenced by the imaginative writings of Key and the anecdotal and varied rumors based loosely on the experiments of motivational researcher James Vicary, who inserted allegedly effective subliminal ads in movies shown at a New Jersey theater for several weeks in the late 1950s. Vicary's venture sparked the first large-scale subliminal scare, and his projections into the subconscious, though never documented or replicated, are still frequently cited as "evidence" of the insidious power of subliminals.

Like Wilson Key's embeds and Judas Priest's supposed suicide call, if you look and listen hard enough you just might find something resembling a subliminal message -- though rarely are such hidden messages established as intentional. Many accusations of subliminal manipulation are just as hokey as they sound. Sometimes groups who are particularly alarmed about subliminals see them in the most surprising of places.

Take the Virginia-based Christian conservative group American Life League (ALL), for example. In recent years ALL has vociferously protested what it says are veiled, naughty messages in recent animated films by the Walt Disney Company. In The Little Mermaid, ALL saw a suspect bulge on a character that appeared to be an erection. In The Lion King, ALL announced the presence of a wispy S-E-X spelled out in the clouds in one scene. And in Aladdin, when a character said "Scat good tiger, take off and go," ALL heard "Good teenagers, take off your clothes." (Disney's alleged subliminals are discussed at length at the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society's Disney Urban Legends web site.)

Sometimes religious groups are accused of employing subliminals. A web publication called Watchtower Observer features subliminal embeds allegedly used in Jehovah's Witness publications. The site features a heavily illustrated analysis that makes an interesting case, whatever its accuracy.

The latest spate of subliminal spottings took place against a back-drop of persistent public concern over subliminal manipulation. A decade after Wilson Key's first book on subliminal advertising, awareness of the existence of the technique had spread significantly, according to a study conducted in the 1980s. As described in the Journal of Advertising, the study found that at least some knowledge of subliminals was claimed by 78 percent of those surveyed. Of those who had heard of subliminals, about 50 percent believed the technique was used in ads "always" or "often," and 23 percent thought subliminals are used "sometimes." The authors of the study concluded that beliefs in subliminal manipulation are alive and well: "Respondents believe that subliminal advertising is widely and frequently used and that it is successful in selling products. They also tend to believe it is an unacceptable, unethical and harmful advertising technique."

Though subliminals still scare many, they are sometimes marketed as a desirable means of contacting and tinkering with the subconscious. Subliminal tapes on everything from losing weight to quitting smoking have become a popular self-help fad. These tactics have entered the computer age. An Arizona company recently introduced software called "InnerTalk" that flashes the user's choice of 9,000 subliminal messages briefly on the screen, regardless of the program running. According to the company: "Messages such as 'I am energy,' 'Money is good,' and 'I am unafraid' are flashed every fifteenth of a second, providing a constant flow of positive affirmation." No one can affirm conclusively that InnerTalk will change behaviors or even attitudes, but for $49.95, computer users can now bombard their brains with hidden messages.

Another piece of subliminal software was marketed recently. Time Warner sold a computer game called "Endorfun" that contains unnoticeably brief messages such as "You create joyous thought" and "In my own way I am a genius." Time Warner's slogan for the game proclaimed: "Play more. Feel Better."

While such products either make light of or praise the power of subliminal persuasion, at least one researcher sees more alarming potential for the technique. In the summer 1989 issue of the Journal of the Mind and Behavior, Robert Bornstein presented a detailed and lengthy analysis of "Subliminal Techniques as Propaganda Tools." He concludes that some subliminal methods might successfully deliver propaganda messages, although most likely any influence would be weak at best. Because subliminals bypass awareness, they may be particularly effective -- "the undetectability of subliminal stimuli may diminish their resistibility relative to other persuasion techniques."

Effective or not, subliminals are here for the long haul. In a recent ruling, the FCC approved a plan requiring TV broadcasters to convert from analog to digital transmissions by the year 2006. With the widespread use of digital television on the close horizon, it won't be long before the technology is in place in most homes to insert subliminal messages more easily and effectively than ever before. Will the tactic be used? Will millions at last be manipulated by subliminals? And, as they have done periodically over the last four decades, will Americans react to the appearance of a new technology by spiraling into a subliminal scare?