Washington Reacts

The concern over subliminal manipulation spread to Washington, D.C., where a handful of legislators launched a brief campaign to eradicate the subliminal menace by banning the technique. Representative William Dawson, a Republican from Utah, led the congressional charge against subliminals. In October 1957 Dawson asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to get to the bottom of the "secret pitch" that had reared its ugly hidden head on a New Jersey movie screen. Dawson said the subliminal method, if successful, entailed "worrisome, if not frightening aspects." For instance, he warned, "put to political propaganda purposes, [it] would be made to order for the establishment and maintenance of a totalitarian government."

Weeks later, the FCC issued a public notice on subliminal projection stating that "caution in using the new technique would evidence proper regard for the public interest." Such meager statements would not satisfy the likes of Representative Dawson. For months he unsuccessfully prodded the FCC to shut down subliminals for good.

Struggling to allay Congress' fears and save his subliminal advertising clientele, in January 1958 James Vicary took his subliminal show to the nation's capital, where several members of Congress and FCC chairman John Doerfer viewed a demonstration of the controversial technique. In a Washington television studio, Vicary showed the group a few minutes of a movie with split-second "Eat Popcorn" messages inserted in the film.

During the screening, Senator Charles E. Potter of Michigan quipped: "I think I want a hot dog." Jokes aside, Potter said he believed the technique should not be used on television until federal regulations were established.

Vicary took the occasion to downplay the power of subliminals, calling them "a mild form of advertising" and "a very weak persuader." The man behind the outbreak of subliminal fears assured his official audience that he would insist that television viewers be informed in advance by stations who were planning to use subliminals. What's more, said Vicary, whatever power subliminals do have could be put to good use spreading public service messages like "Fight Polio."

Throughout the debate over subliminal ads, Vicary said that he would welcome government regulation of his methods, but would challenge any attempt to ban subliminal speech. "We have a freedom to communicate," he said. "If we get into a hassle, we'll go to the Supreme Court and some decision will be made."

Representative Dawson, who also attended Vicary's subliminal demonstration, remained a vocal opponent of the new technique. In a statement he submitted to the congressional record two weeks later, he made the case that the subliminal matter deserved immediate action by the FCC. "If it does not work, television stations should be so informed," he said. "If it does work, it should be strictly regulated, if permitted at all. Heaven knows, the blandishments of visible advertising are hard enough to resist. Contemplate if you will the effect of an invisible but effective appeal to 'drink more beer' being poured into the subconsciousness of teenage television viewers." Despite Dawson's pleas, the FCC shied away from regulating subliminals. Chairman Doerfer explained in letters to Dawson that the Commission was uncertain it had the legal authority to ban advertising content, even if it was hidden.

While Vicary visited Washington, Los Angeles station KTLA announced plans for subliminal telecasts. The station promised that the subsurface messages would be pre-announced to viewers and, at least initially, non-commercial. "We'll flash on something like 'Join the Army' or 'Give to the March of Dimes,'" said KTLA general manager Lew Arnold. "The next step would be to promote our own shows. Then -- and I have a feeling this is a long way off -- we might go into the commercial end of it."

A long way off indeed, as weeks later, the subliminal segments were canceled before even one of them was aired. According to the New York Times, news of the planned broadcasts did not sit well with KTLA viewers, many of whom registered their suspicions about subliminals in letters to the station. In addition to the negative public reaction, the FCC's vague policy on television broadcast of subliminals forced KTLA to reconsider its venture "beneath the threshold of awareness."

Meanwhile, America's neighbors to the north were also delving into the uncharted area of subliminal perception. In February 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation announced it had recently attempted its own subliminal persuasion, flashing a hidden message -- "Telephone now" -- 352 times during a half-hour show. The results were not encouraging for subliminal specialists like James Vicary: of 500 viewers surveyed, only one reported an urge to make a phone call. Many viewers said the broadcast made them feel hungry or thirsty.

Such incidents focused additional press coverage on the subliminal method. In an editorial titled "The Ad That Isn't There" the New York Times warned that KTLA was "certainly playing with fire" by planning to use subliminal communication. While noting that "no one can say how effective it might be," the Times argued that "any form of message-delivery that sneaks up on the subject without his consciously seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling or feeling it is an invasion of privacy such as George Orwell hardly dreamed of."