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The findings from controlled studies indicate that subliminal perception, when it occurs, reflects a person's usual interpretations of stimuli. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that people initiate actions on the basis of subliminal perception. The weight of the evidence indicates that people must be aware of perceiving stimuli before they initiate actions or change their habitual reactions to these stimuli. Thus, although subliminal perception may allow us to make accurate guesses regarding the characteristics of stimuli, subliminal perception cannot lead a person to drink Coca-Cola or to eat Ritz Crackers, and it cannot be used effectively to improve a person's tennis skills or to cure a person's bad habits.
Merikle, P. M., & Daneman, M. (1998). Psychological investigations of unconscious perception. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 5, 5-18.
It was James Vicary who coined the term "subliminal advertising." Vicary had conducted a variety of unusual studies of female shopping habits, discovering (among other things) that women's eye-blink rates dropped significantly in supermarkets, that "psychological spring" lasts more than twice as long as "psychological winter," and that "the experience of a woman baking a cake could be likened to a woman giving birth." Vicary's studies were largely forgettable, save for one experiment he conducted at a Ft. Lee, New Jersey movie theater during the summer of 1957. Vicary placed a tachistoscope in the theater's projection booth, and all throughout the playing of the film Picnic, he flashed a couple of different messages on the screen every five seconds. The messages each displayed for only 1/3000th of a second at a time, far below the viewers' threshold of conscious perceptibility. The result of displaying these imperceptible suggestions -- "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat Popcorn" -- was an amazing 18.1% increase in Coca-Cola sales, and a whopping 57.8% jump in popcorn purchases. Thus was demonstrated the awesome power of "subliminal advertising" to coerce unwary buyers into making purchases they would not otherwise have considered.
Or so goes the legend that has retained its potency for more than forty years. So potent a legend, in fact, that the Federal Communications Commission banned "subliminal advertising" from radio and television airwaves in 1974, despite that fact that no studies have ever shown it to be effective, and even though its alleged efficacy was based on a fraud.
Vicary lied about the results of his experiment. When he was challenged to repeat the test by the president of the Psychological Corporation, Dr. Henry Link, Vicary's duplication of his original experiment produced no significant increase in popcorn or Coca-Cola sales. Eventually Vicary confessed that he had falsified the data from his first experiments, and some critics have since expressed doubts that he actually conducted his infamous Ft. Lee experiment at all."
Source: Rogers, Stuart. "How a Publicity Blitz Created the Myth of Subliminal Advertising."