James McDonald Vicary (born April 30 1915 - died November 7 1977) was a market researcher best known for pioneering the notion of subliminal advertising in 1957.


Born in Detroit, and trained at the University of Michigan (A.B 1940)[1], he pioneered the use of eye-blink analysis to obtain clues about subjects' levels of emotional tension when exposed to various stimuli.[2] He also studied the phenomena of impulse buying and word association.

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 0.03-second advertisements for Coca-Cola and popcorn significantly increased product sales. Based on his claims the CIA produced a report "The operational potential of subliminal perception" [3] in 1958 that led to subliminal cuts being banned in the US. 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. Some doubt the original study was ever carried out at all.

In a 1962 Advertising Age interview, Vicary admitted that the original study was "a gimmick" and that the amount of data was "too small to be meaningful".[4] He shied away from media attention after the disclosure.[5] 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 [6] [1]


  • "How Psychiatric Methods Can be Applied to Market Research", Printer's Ink, 1950
  • "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


  1. James A. Vicary Papers University of Connecticut
  2. Vance Packard, The Hidden Persuaders, Penguin, 1961 paperback edition, p. 41, 93
  3. CIA "The operational potential of subliminal perception"
  4. Snopes
  5. Stuart Rogers, "How a Publicity Blitz Created the Myth of Subliminal Advertising", Public Relations Quarterly, Winter, 1992-93
  6. Kelly B. Crandall, Invisible Commercials and Hidden Persuaders: James M. Vicary and the Subliminal Advertising Controversy of 1957. HIS 4970: Undergraduate Honors Thesis, University of Florida, Department of History, April 12, 2006

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