FCC Information Bulletin on Subliminals
| In 1977, twenty years after the first
reported use of subliminal ads in movies, the Federal Communications Commission
released this 8-page information bulletin on subliminal projection. The
document reviews the history of controversial subliminal telecasts and provides
an interesting description of FCC action on the issue.
Federal Communications Commission
"Subliminal projection" is a technique of projecting information below the viewing audience's threshold of sensation or awareness. It involves flashing a message lasting only a fraction of a second on the television screen. Theoretically, a viewer could receive such a message without realizing he or she had observed it.
The Commission is aware of only a few cases of television stations' engaging in on-the-air experiments using "subliminal projection" as an advertising technique.
During a two-week period in September 1957, WTWO, Bangor, Maine, tested subliminal messages in station promotional announcements. The words "if you have seen this message, write WTWO" were flashed every 11 seconds for 1/80th of a second, on alternate days. The station said there was no noticeable increase in WTWO's mail, so the experiment was abandoned.
During a five-week period in the Spring of 1958, two members of the Indiana University faculty, Melvin L. DeFleur, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology, and Robert M. Petranoff, Lecturer in the Department of Radio and Television, conducted a combined closed-circuit and on-the-air subliminal projection experiment over WTTV, Bloomington, Indiana. The Summer 1959 edition of the Public Opinion Quarterly (Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 168-180) contains a report on their "Televised Test of Subliminal Persuasion."
The first known experiment with subliminal projection occurred in 1956, when a special projector was installed in a Fort Lee, N.J., movie theater by a New York City firm, Subliminal Projection Co., Inc. During a six-week period, patrons reportedly were exposed to two advertising messages projected subliminally on the screen during the regular presentation of the motion picture "Picnic."
The words "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat Popcorn" were flashed on the screen every five seconds at the subliminal level of 1/3000th of a second. Although the Subliminal Projection Co. reported that the sale of popcorn and Coca-Cola increases as a result of this stimulation, it refused to release either its statistical data or the details of the experimental study.
The first television experiment with subliminal projection also occurred in 1956 in England. The BBC-TV, on a regular broadcast, transmitted a message at a speed assumed to be subliminal. At the end of the program, viewers were asked to report whether they had noticed anything unusual. Of the relatively few responding, only a small percentage correctly identified the message. Considering the few responses, it was suggested that some of the viewers possessed thresholds sufficiently low that, for them, the message was supraliminal.
On January 19, 1958, during a half-hour CBC-TV network program carried on 27 Canadian stations, an undisclosed subliminal message was flashed on the screen 352 times, alternately 1/5 and 1/2 of a second in duration. Viewers were asked to report their reactions. The CBC said the experiment proved inconclusive as to the effectiveness of the technique.
Early in 1958, some radio licensees reported experiments with an audio version of subliminal perception. Short, barely audible phrases designated "phantom spots" were pre-recorded by disc jockeys and faded in under musical recordings or dropped into pauses in their dialogue in quick low voices.
Stations WAAF, Chicago; WCCO, Minneapolis; KLTI, Longview, Texas; KOL, Seattle; and KYA, San Francisco, reportedly experimented with these so-called "added recall devices." However, it should be noted that these whispered quickie announcements were in fact consciously audible to the listening audience, and accordingly could not truly be termed subaudible messages.
>From the Fall of 1957 through the Spring of 1958, subliminal advertising received extensive coverage in the news media. As a result, the Commission received numerous inquiries about the new technique.
The questioners complained that the technique was being used as an advertising medium for the invisible transmission of messages on television as well as on movie screens. Widely publicized opinions contended the technique was a "sneaky" advertising device used to influence audiences to react, in a manner contrary to their normal likes and dislikes, to information they could not "see" or "hear". The inquiries expressed alarm at the enormous political possibilities in a technique that they alleged could be used to brainwash Americans with foreign ideologies.
Questions were raised about the ethics of televising concealed information because of the possible effects on audiences.
A Commission investigation made the following contacts:
1. In October 1957, with the two major companies known to be promoting "subliminal projection" for information concerning their work in this new technique.
2. With Experimental Films, Inc., a company said to have a patent application then pending in the United States Patent Office for a process of subliminal communications that would compete with Subliminal Projection Co., Inc. The FCC asked whether the facilities of any network or television station had been used for application of the techniques.
3. With the major television networks as to whether they had engaged in "subliminal perception" advertising. Each network stated that it had not, and the Columbia Broadcasting System said it had no intention of using the technique in the immediate future.
4. With WTWO, the television station in Bangor, Maine, concerning reports that it had experimented with on-the-air tests of subliminal advertising. WTWO reported on its September 1957 experiment and the consequent negative reaction.
5. With the Television Code Board of the then-named National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters (NARTB) (now the National Association of Broadcasters) which had issued a news release on "Subliminal Projection", stating that it had recommended to its subscribers that "any proposals to use the television medium in the process called subliminal perception be referred to the board immediately for review and consideration," and that "experimentation or use of the process should not be permitted on the television broadcast medium pending such review and consideration."
A letter from then U.S. Representative William L. Dawson of Illinois urged the FCC to request that networks and all television stations "forego" subliminal advertising pending a Commission study. On November 27, 1957, the Commission wrote to Representative Dawson stating that since the FCC's consideration of the issue must be governed by the Commission's authority under law, a warning to licensees was inappropriate at the time.
FCC Public Notice
On November 27, 1957, the Commission issued a Public Notice (FCC 57-1289) entitled Use of Subliminal Perception Advertising by Television Stations, noting that the FCC recognized subliminal perception was a matter vitally concerning the public interest and pointing out that the cautious approach of television licensees in use of the technique offered ample proof of their recognition of the public interest.
On October 24, 1957, then Senator Charles E. Potter of Michigan wrote to the Commission asking: "Does the [Communications] Act cover the use of this technique; if so, what section? Is it covered under 'public interest' section? How can a Federal Communications Commission ruling be obtained on this technique?"
In its reply, the Commission pointed out the general applicability of the Communications Act. It noted that there was no specific language in the Act anticipating subliminal projection but said reasonable public protection was available under the general provisions of the Act.
For instance, through the Commission's licensing procedures, the United States maintains control of and regulates radio transmissions in interstate commerce. Various sections of the Act, including Section 303, make it clear that in exercising control and regulation the Commission must be guided by public interest, convenience, or necessity.
In addition, the FCC said "subliminal perception" techniques might be subject to the Commission's rulemaking authority under Section 303 subparagraph (b) on the nature of the service to be rendered by each station; subparagraph (a) on the types of apparatus to be used; subparagraph (g) authorizing studies of new and experimental uses; and subparagraphs (f) and (r) as well as Section 4, subparagraph (i) giving the Commission wide authority to make rules and regulations in carrying out its functions and the provisions of the Act.
Under existing law, the Commission does not determine the particular programs or types of programs to be presented over the air, the contents of advertising copy, or its method of presentation. Moreover, Section 326 prohibits the FCC from censoring broadcast material, including advertising. However, regulation of "subliminal perception" would not necessarily constitute censorship.
Ever since it became apparent that broadcasting was developing along commercial lines, Government regulation has upheld the principle that listeners and viewers are entitled to know who is trying to persuade them. As far back as the Radio Act of 1927 and continuing with Section 317 of the Communications Act of 1934, there has been an unvarying requirement that all matter broadcast by any station for a valuable consideration is to be announced as paid for or furnished, and by whom.
During the 1957-1958 period of Congressional and public concern over subliminal advertising, Section 317 of the Communications Act read as follows:
All matter broadcast by any radio station for which service, money, or any other valuable consideration is directly or indirectly paid, or promised to or charged or accepted by, the station so broadcasting, from any person, shall, at the time the same is broadcast, be announced as paid for or furnished, as the case may be, by such person.
Undoubtedly Section 317, then and now, would prohibit broadcasters from subjecting audiences to messages received from undisclosed sources.
Application of Section 317 to sponsored subliminal program material presented, for example, at five-second intervals, would, in practical effect, ban unrestricted use of the technique. In addition, Sections 73.1212 and 76.221 (applicable to broadcasting and cable television, respectively) of the Commission's Rules require that sponsored program matter be announced as such. Therefore, it appears that sponsored telecast or cable-originated material that is subliminally projected falls within these rules.
Demonstration of Techniques
On January 13, 1958, the Commission, certain members of Congress and the news media witnesses a demonstration of subliminal projection on closed-circuit television facilities provided by WTOP-TV, Washington. The Subliminal Projection Co., Inc., conducted the demonstration.
Short messages were flashed subliminally (1/20 of a second) at five-second intervals during a showing of "The Gray Ghost." The messages were made visible to the audience later.
The company explained that the key elements of subliminal perception are speed and intensity of image. If intensity of the image (brightness) is decreased as length of viewing period is increased, the message presented can be kept below the threshold of conscious perception. The company's technique used low contrast and brightness.
The company offered the Commission assurances that this type of communication could not persuade or influence -- it could only remind; that an individual's perceptual defenses subconsciously rejected an unwanted message. In other words, a subliminal message cannot make a person do something he really does not want to do. The company argued the two-fold advantages of subliminal advertising were that the audience could enjoy television programs without interruptions and the advertiser could present his sales message when viewing attention was at its highest.
On February 13, 1958, representatives of the Precon Process and Equipment Co. of New Orleans addressed the Commission and members of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in Washington, presenting a demonstration of its process and equipment.
At the May 1958 convention of the NAB, its TV Code Review Board amended the NAB Television Code and banned subliminal perception. Current editions of the NAB's radio and television codes state: "Any technique whereby an attempt is made to convey information to the listener [TV code says "viewer"] by transmitting messages below the threshold of normal awareness is not permitted."
On February 8 and March 12, 1958, Representatives Wright and Hosmer introduced Bills H.R. 10802 and 11363, "to make unlawful the use of subliminal advertising on television and prescribing penalties." Both bills were referred to the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, but no hearings were held. Mr. Wright reintroduced his bill January 9, 1959, H.R. 1998. Again, the bill was referred to but never reported out of committee.
Complaints Received In November, 1962, complaints were received that an announcer on the CBS program "To Tell the Truth" had told the audience it was seeing a subliminal advertisement during the program credits. The announcement proved to be false and CBS took steps to ensure the hoax would not be repeated.
Shortly before Christmas 1973, the Commission received complaints that some television stations had broadcast an advertisement containing a statement of such short duration that most viewers were unaware of it -- or at least consciously unaware of it. The message was "Get It", urging purchase of the produce advertised in the commercial.
An FCC inquiry disclosed that the NAB TV Code Authority had learned of the use of the subliminal message in late November and had received a statement from the advertising agency that it was sending telegrams to all stations to which the advertisements had been sent.
The agency told the Code Authority it was informing the stations of the subliminal statements, authorizing them to delete the statements from the spots, and telling them that film prints that did not contain the "Get It" flashes would be sent to them. Despite the Code Authority's action, some stations apparently continued to broadcast the subliminal spots, and some said they had no record of having received the telegram from the agency.
On January 23, 1974, the FCC adopted a Public Notice which it sent to all its broadcast licensees and which stated, in part:
We believe that use of subliminal perception is inconsistent with the obligations of a licensee, and therefore we take this occasion to make clear that broadcasts employing such techniques are contrary to the public interest. Whether effective or not, such broadcasts clearly are intended to be deceptive.
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