Vicary Tells All

The man most responsible for the late-1950s subliminal scare later stated that the whole affair was much ado about nothing. In a 1962 interview with Advertising Age, subliminal entrepreneur James Vicary explained that he did not foresee the furor over his technique:

"You know, I first had the idea for subliminal many years ago, but I was ashamed of it. It struck me as a form of high jinks I didn't want to have anything to do with. I never regarded myself as a wheeler-and-dealer. But years later, there I was in my own business and the people who were putting up the money thought I should stir things up. They thought it was a good time to pull subliminal out of the drawer. Maybe it would help business. The story leaked out to some newspaper guys and we were forced to come out with subliminal before we were really ready.... we hadn't done any research, except what was needed for filing a patent. I had only a minor interest in the company [Subliminal Projection Co.] and a small amount of data -- too small to be meaningful."

Though Vicary's subliminal research was "too small to be meaningful," fears of his methods were all too real. But soon the public obsession with subliminals faded, and by 1962, the Subliminal Projection Co. was out of business. Vicary lamented over his role in launching subliminal mania, but insisted he meant well:

"All I accomplished, I guess, was to put a new word into common usage. And for a man who makes a career out of picking the right names for products and companies, I should have had my head examined for using a word like subliminal. I try not to think about it any more.... This was a gimmick. But I really thought it would help increase the commercial time for broadcast media by enabling advertisers to reach audiences between the regular commercial breaks -- while the show was going on and everyone was sitting there, not leaving the room for a drink of water. We thought we'd put a weak commercial message on. They weren't annoying and they would be perceived only by those already motivated. Only people on the threshold of awareness would see the message."

Vicary's subliminal "gimmick" resulted in far more than just another word added to our vocabulary. His Fort Lee subliminal projection tests have become the stuff of urban legend, and are frequently (if somewhat vaguely) cited by people who assert a belief in the effectiveness of subliminal persuasion. Though he had planted the seeds of the subliminal uproar, Vicary told Advertising Age that he refrained from using some of the more disturbing tricks from the motivational research arsenal:

"As for those who thought it was all so terrible -- well, I had the same reaction when I first thought of it.... But then, as a researcher, I've always pushed on as far as I could. Why, compared to some schemes that have popped into my head, subliminal is one of the most innocent of schemes. The others? Hell, I buried them."