James Vicary

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James McDonald Vicary (April 30, 1915 – November 7, 1977) was a market researcher best known for pioneering the concept of subliminal advertising with an experiment in 1957. It was later suggested that the results of his experiments had been fraudulent. Vicary was unable to ever reproduce the results of his experiments.

Vicary himself admitted that he had never conducted the subliminal “experiment” — it was concocted as a gimmick to attract customers to his failing marketing business.


Born in Detroit, and trained at the University of Michigan (A.B 1940), he pioneered the use of eye-blink analysis to obtain clues about subjects' levels of emotional tension when exposed to various stimuli.[1] He also studied the phenomena of impulse buying and word association.

He was also known to have a childhood fascination with snakes. [2] He was called Detroit's youngest snake charmer by the Detroit News.

He is most famous for having perpetrated a fraudulent subliminal advertising study in 1957. In it, he claimed that an experiment in which moviegoers were repeatedly shown 1/3000-second advertisements for Coca-Cola and popcorn significantly increased product sales.[3] Based on his claims the CIA produced a report "The operational potential of subliminal perception" [4] in 1958 that led to subliminal cuts being banned in the US[dubious ]. It suggested that “Certain individuals can at certain times and under certain circumstances be influenced to act abnormally without awareness of the influence”. When challenged later to replicate the study, he failed to find significant results. Vicary provided no explanations for his results or any other details about his study to the public, claiming that it is part of a confidential patent. When Rogers (1992)[5] interviewed the theater that supposedly conducted this experiment, the manager declared that there was no such test ever done (Rogers 1992)[6]

In a television interview with Fred Danzig in 1962 for Advertising Age, Vicary admitted that the original study was "a gimmick" and that the amount of data was "too small to be meaningful".[7][8] He shied away from media attention after the disclosure.[9] His papers are held by the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Numerous commentaries have appeared on this affair since 1957.[10]


  • "How Psychiatric Methods Can be Applied to Market Research", Printer's Ink, v. 235, no. 6, May 11, 1951, pp. 39–48.
  • "Seasonal Psychology", Journal of Marketing, April 1956
  • "The Circular Test of Bias in Personal Interview Surveys." Public Opinion Quarterly 19, no. 2, Summer 1955 215-218

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