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ADText: Advertising Curriculum
Unit 3: "Subliminal" Advertising

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It's the summer of 1957 in the suburbs of New York City. The afternoon is hot and you're trying to stay cool. A recent polio scare makes public swimming pools seem dangerous. Department stores are air conditioned, but you're trying to save instead of spending all your money. A movie theatre — the dark, cool movie theatre with the big screen — seems a perfect place to spend the hottest hours. You decide on Picnic starring William Holden and Kim Novak at the Lee Theatre.

Now imagine yourself inside — relaxing, cooling off, and watching the story unfold. You managed to pass up popcorn, candy, and a soft drink on your way in, but you did find a great seat. To simulate this experience, click on the image in Figure 1 and watch Kim Novak sashay her way down the stairs toward William Holden. It's a memorable scene. Relax, enjoy it, and try to put yourself in the frame of mind of a moviegoer in 1957.

All of a sudden, you start thinking about popcorn and a Coke. You try to put the thought out of your mind, but it keeps coming back. You don't want to miss any of the movie, but you've got to have popcorn. You can't stop thinking about it.

This seems like a perfectly plausible situation — a movie, popcorn, and a Coke on a hot summer afternoon. But are your urges your own, or are you being subliminally manipulated?

Thus begins the story of subliminal advertising in America. It's a story that has been told over and over but not without frightening the public, making advertisers angry, and increasing the general level of suspicion and distrust of the advertising industry. This unit examines subliminal communication, its supposed applications in advertising, and the public's fascination and horror of it.

1. The Furor over Subliminal Perception

Early in 1958, Life magazine described "hidden" selling techniques in basic layman's terms to its extensive readership — images that flash too quickly for the conscious mind but nonetheless register unconsciously. It went on to suggest that several repetitions of such messages could affect a person's actions.

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