I met one of my mates for dinner a few weeks ago. He’s training to be a clinical psychiatrist. That means he’s been a bona-fide ‘medical doctor’ for a few years, and now he’s going to specialise.

Over a starter of spicy chicken wings, he told me all about his tuition. He’s been in and out of NHS psychiatric hospitals around London for the last six months. He even spent a few weeks at Broadmoor, the infamous hospital-cum-prison for the criminally insane.

“Honestly mate, some mornings you get the urge to say, ‘Look, just stop being silly!’”

Anyway, as the main course arrived he asked how my work is going.

subliminal—    “All good thanks. It’s great fun you know, advertising.”

Leaning back in his chair, and nonchalantly tossing a sweet potato fry into his mouth, he replied:

“It’s mainly subliminal though right? That’s how a lot of adverts work.”

Now, dear reader, you may think that my mate is a dickhead for thinking this. I’ve often been tempted to ponder his dickhead’ery myself. He’s a ‘medical doctor’ after all, and hoping to be one that deals exclusively with the human brain.

But I reckon that’s because you probably work in an area related to advertising or marketing.

And we haven’t just seen behind the curtain, we live behind it.

I’ll wager that when average people hear the word ‘advertising’, many minds jump to a myth that first arose from a bestselling book by Vance Packard called The Hidden Persuaders.

Here he is. And here’s his book.


It was first published in 1957, and the overall message is that advertising shamelessly exploits the general public, manipulating them into buying things they don’t really want or need.

subliminalIn his fourth chapter, Packard refers to research that aimed to find out why a man repeatedly chose a certain make of car. And how under hypnosis he “was able to repeat word for word, an ad he had read more than twenty years before”.

Then having raised the reader’s concerns about how vulnerable we are to mind-probing techniques such as hypnotism, Packard described an experiment reported in the Sunday Times. This experiment apparently happened in a New Jersey cinema and comprised pictures of ice cream being shown at a “sub-threshold” level, meaning below the level of conscious perception.

The result was apparently a ‘clear and unaccountable boost in ice cream sales’ — the first ever documented case of subliminal advertising.

But it was all bollocks.

We now know that the boost in ice cream sales was due to exceptionally hot weather. And that Packard’s arguments were conflated with another experiment, set up in the same year by a chap named James Vickery.

In Vickery’s experiment, phrases like ‘Drink Coke’ and ‘Hungry? Eat Popcorn’ were exposed at 0.3 milliseconds, and apparently created an increase in Coke and Popcorn sales of 18% and 59% respectively.

But that was all bollocks too. Vickery later admitted it was a hoax.

We now know from continuous experiments that ‘sub-threshold’ messages repeatedly exposed at a frequency below about forty milliseconds, don’t have any enduring effect on us whatsoever. Certainly no ability to affect our brand choices.

subliminalBut Packard’s book set a ball rolling which clearly rolls to this day.

Despite ‘subliminal advertising’ being banned in the UK and USA from 1958, as recently as the 2000 US presidential election, the newspapers were plastered with stories about a TV ad aimed at the Democratic Party candidate, Al Gore, in which the word ‘rat’ had supposedly been inserted below the level of conscious perception.

Again, bollocks. (And I’m sure you’re gratified to see that American politics has become far more grown-up and sensible since then)

One of America’s most influential admen of the 1960s, Rosser Reeves, wrote a book named ‘Reality in Advertising’.

Here he is. And here’s his book.


In a chapter titled ‘The Freudian Hoax’, Reeves wrote (in shouty capitals):


Perhaps I’ll send a copy to my psychiatrist-to-be mate this Christmas.

Well, that’s it. I hope you think this was a good blog.



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