When I teach economics and talk about how difficult it is for
advertisers to sway consumers, someone always brings up
The student then tells me about the classic experiment when a
movie theater repeatedly flashed the words "Eat Popcorn, Drink
Coke" on the screen so quickly that the audience couldn't see
them. The subliminal suggestion caused people to surge into
the lobby buying popcorn and coke in a frenzy.
The technique was so dangerous, they tell me, that subliminal
advertising had to be banned.
I've always been mystified by this story. If you found
yourself in the lobby, lined up with your fellow zombies,
wouldn't you pause for a moment and ask yourself if you were
hungry or thirsty? How could the message continue to
brainwash you once you were out in the lobby?
Besides, wouldn't the ad have been more effective if you could
actually SEE the words rather than perceiving them
The story plays to our belief in the subconscious and a
paranoia about the power of marketing and advertising to
Too bad the story isn't true. It's an urban legend. Or a
marketing legend. Or something.
There WAS an experiment. And the words "Eat popcorn, drink
Coke" WERE flashed on the screen. But there was no increase
in sales. The guy who claimed there was an increase was
trying to drum up demand for his services. He made up the
numbers to convince people he was an advertising Svengali.
I feel pretty much the same way about the flap over the
subliminal RATS in the Republican ad. Wouldn't it be better
just to call the Democrats RATS, straight out? Maybe show a
picture. Well maybe not. That's negative campaigning. Very
But could Republicans be so sinister as to plant the word RATS
hoping that in that 1/30th of a second, they could get the
American electorate to view the Democrats as vermin?
Can you see it? A nice, normal midwestern family is having
breakfast. The wife notices the husband doodling
absent-mindedly on the morning paper. "Honey, why are you
drawing the tail of a rodent on that picture of Al Gore?" "I
don't know, dear. I don't know what I was thinking."
If that was the plan, the Republicans are in for a big
disappointment and the Democrats can rest easy.
But be careful anyway. While I'm reading this, I have a
student next to me playing the dramatic theme for the Olympics
on a dog whistle. Very subliminal. You may find yourself
with an urge to watch the Olympics. But if you find yourself
wanting to watch even more than your dog wants to watch, be
afraid, be very afraid.