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The innocent little technique is going to sell a hell of a lot of goods.
William Poundstone explores how the new psychology of decision making has transformed marketing in his book Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value. He raises some good points on free will in his blog:
What if the smart retailer is able to persuade the consumer to buy, or to pay more, without any awareness of having been “manipulated”? That question isn't so new, after all. It was raised—loudly—in Vicary's time.
It all began on the afternoon of September 12, 1957, in a small mid-Manhattan office. At Vicary's invitation, about fifty press people watched an underwater documentary, “Secrets of the Reef.” Hidden in the film were ads for Coca-Cola, flashed on the screen for 1/3000 of a second. For that Vicary used a tachistoscope, a high-speed slide projector widely used in post-war psychological experiments. Though the ads were inperceptible, Vicary claimed that they worked. He said he had done an experiment flashing similar split-second ads for Coca-Cola and popcorn at a regular movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey, showing the film Picnic. The ads boosted concession stand sales of Coke 18 percent, and popcorn 58 percent. Vicary had founded a Subliminal Projection Company to capitalize on the technique. He boasted, “This innocent little technique is going to sell a hell of a lot of goods.”
The public reaction to subliminal ads was outrage. Himmler and Goebbels had, at least, the decency to commit suicide, ran one letter to an editor. “In the absence of any such display of ethical sense on the part of James M. Vicary, I submit that said gentlemen be shot out of hand. Hopeful rumor had it that subliminals could be unmasked by waving the hand, fingers outstretched, in front of the eyes. Life magazine ran a photo of this practice, vying in weirdness with the near-contemporary one of a 3D-movie-spec’d audience.
It takes neither a psychologist nor a moralist to explain the feeling of revulsion felt by so many people toward the whole idea,” wrote George Brooks in Consumer Reports. “The concept of free will underlies that of free society.