Subliminal Telecasts

Rep. Dawson on Subliminal Telecasts (History)

This collection of materials was entered into the Congressional Record on January 28, 1958 by

Representative William Dawson, who led the legislative fight against subliminal advertising when the

technique first came into use. In a statement included here, Dawson gives his arguments for banning

subliminals. Also included are several letters between Dawson and the chairman of the Federal

Communications Commission, in which the two men debate the FCC’s power to clamp down on the use of subliminal’s

Proceedings and Debates of the 85th Congress, Second Session

Volume 104 — Part 1, pp. 1228-1230.

House of Representatives, January 28, 1958

NEED FOR REGULATING USE OF SUBLIMINAL PERCEPTION TELEVISION

ADVERTISING

Representative William Dawkins (R-UT): Mr. Speaker, I hate to add to the current troubles of the

Federal Communications Commission. But I feel that it is my duty to inform the Members of the

House of my to-date unsuccessful campaign to get the Commission to take action to protect the

public from a new television-advertising technique, at least until such time as it can definitely be

determined whether the technique is effective.

I refer to the so-called subliminal projection advertising, or sneak pitch, as I prefer to regard it.

Using this technique, a television station flashes a slogan of advertising message on the television

screen so instantaneously that the viewer cannot see it. The promoters of this technique, however,

maintain that the message infiltrates the viewer’s subconscious and is all the more effective because

the viewer does not realize that he has been subjected to salesmanship or propaganda. .

This teclmique should not be used until it is definitely determined by a controlled experiment

whether or not it works. If it does not work, television stations should be so informed. If it does

work, it should be strictly regulated, if permitted at all. Heaven knows, the blandishments of visible

advertising are hard enough to resist. Contemplate, if you will, the effect of an invisible but effective

appeal to drink more beer being poured into the subconsciousness of teen-age television viewers.

I first called this matter to the attention of the FCC in early October. At that time and again on

November 5 and still again on December 17, I asked the Commission to advise stations against

using this SP advertising technique until its effectiveness could be determined

As I said in my most recent letter — as yet unanswered — the Commission should make its position

clear.

I wrote–

“In the present limbo, television stations are not sure whether they can use subliminal advertising,

but the public is not sure they cannot. I see no reason for extending this ambiguous situation when

most of the television industry itself agrees that the process should not be used until it has been fully evaluated”

In defence of the FCC’s inaction, I can say that the Commission has received assurance that it will

not be used over the major networks. It does not have the assurance, however, that SP will not be

used by independent stations. And because of the nature of the advertising, the viewer himself does

not when he is being subjected to it.

Now, apparently emboldened by the FCC’s inaction, at least one independent station is going for

sneak pitch propaganda. I submit to the RECORD a copy of an Associated Press story which

appeared in the Alexandria, Va., Gazette, January 24.

Once again, I urge Members of the House and particularly those in the Interstate and Foreign

Commerce Committee to join me in getting the FCC to take a definite position on subliminal

advertising.

For the information of the House I also am submitting a chronological copy of my letters to the

FCC and replies thereto.

[From the Alexandria (Va.) Gazette of January 24, 1958]

SUBLIMINAL PERCEPTION: LATEST METHOD OF COMMUNICATION

HOLLYWOOD. — Let’s suppose, now, that in a couple of months some strapping young chap

springs from his chair in front of the TV, grabs his coat and streaks downtown to join the Army —

without knowing why.

Well, some people might say it was a simple case of subliminal perception.

This hard-to-pronounce combination is actually nothing more than a somewhat creepy device for

sneaking things into your head without your conscious knowledge.

Television station KTLA here says that in 60 days or so it will become the first station in the

country to undertake a planned program of subliminal communication.

To pull the trick off, the station will employ special transmitting equipment that will an image or a

message across the screen. It will be on and ofi’ so fast that the home viewer won’t consciously

know he’s seeing anything But, if it works, the flash will leave an impression in his mind.

Lew Arnold, KTLA’s general manager, said the gimmick will be used at first only for public service

messages. “We’ll flash on something like ‘Joill the Army’ of Give to the ‘March of Dimes.”‘

“The next step would be to promote our own shows. Then — and I have a feeling this in a long

way off — we might go into the commercial end of it.”

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Washington, D.C., October 5, 1957

John C. Doerfer,

Chairman, Federal Communications Commission, Washington, D.C.

Dear Chairman Doerfer:

Publicity has been given recently to a new device in television advertising — the so-called subliminal

perception, usually referred to as SP, for brevity‘s sake.

Secret pitch perhaps would be more meaningful to the uninitiated. An advertising symbol or slogan

is flashed on the television screen so instantaneously that the viewed cannot see it. Allegedly,

however, the message infiltrates the viewer’s subconscious, all the more effectively because the

viewer does not realize he has been subjected to salesmanship.

A call to your Commission has disclosed that the Commission has no official knowledge of this

new process and that there is some doubt whether the Commission would have the authority to

regulate or supervise such advertising methods.

The ptnpose of this letter is to request that you look officially into the entire proposal under your

general regulatory powers, determining whether controls are necessary and whether additional

legislation would be required to provide such controls, if needed.

Ifthis revolutionary advertising means is as effective as claimed, it offers some worrisome, if not

frightening, aspects. Put to political propaganda purposes it would be made to order for the

establishment and maintenance of a totalitarian government. Even in the commercial usage for

which it is intended, surely the potential customer has a right to know he is being advertised at. His

prerogative of exercising buyer’s resistance is as much an American tradition as the advertising

industry itself.

Sincerely yours,

William A Dawson,

Member of Congress.

FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION

Washington, DC, October 10, l957.

Hon. William A. Dawson,

House of Representatives,

Washington, D.C.

Dear Congressman Dawson:

This is with reference to your letter of October 5, 1957, concerning subliminal projection

advertising. You request information concerning this matter.

You may be interested to know that I have referred this matter to the stafi to determine whether

this method of advertising may be adapted for use on television under om’ present rules and, if so,

what further action on the part of the Commission may be necessary or advisable in handling this

problem. I will advise you of the developments in this matter.

Sincerely yours,

John C. Doerfer,

Chairman.

FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION

Washington, DC, November 1, 1957.

Hon. William A. Dawson,

House of Representatives,

Washington, D.C.

Dear Congressman

Dawson:

This is in further reference to your letter of October 5, 1957, concerning subliminal perception

advertising, and to the telephone conversations between our staff and the Connnission’s staff

concerning the subject.

Subliminal perception advertising appears to be a new technique conceming which the Commission

has little information and no experience. According to the trade press, subliminal perception is

described as “the faculty of absorbing fleeting visual infonnation without being consciously aware of

it. ” It is stated that the technique was tested by having the symbols of a nationally known soft drink

flashed for one three-thousandths of a second once every 5 seconds during a dramatic fihn

presentation in a theater. At this writing, there is some indication in the trade press that the above

technique may have been used on television.

The Commission is, of course, interested in the above matter and its staff is accumulating pertinent

available information on the subject. When sufficient data has been acquired, it will be studied by

the Commission. Please be assured that the matter will receive the Commission’s most cxeful »

consideration, consistent with its authority under the Communications Act of 1934, as amended.

As you may know, under existing law, the Commission does not determine the particular programs

or types of programs to be presented over the air, the content of advertising copy, or the marmer

of its presentation. Indeed, under the provisions of section 326 of the Communications Act, the

Commission is prohibited from exercising the power of censorship over broadcast material.

Accordingly, the selection and presentation of program material, including advertising, is the

responsibility of the individual station licensees. However, such licensees are required to operated

in the public interest and periodically, usually upon application for renewal of license, the

Commission reviews the overall operation of station licensees to determine whether their obligation

to operate in the public interest has been met. If, for example, it were determined that a particular

station had knowingly or deliberately engaged in fraudulent or deceptive advertising, or permitted

its facilities to be so used, or to be used for some other unlawful purpose, a substantial question

would be raised as to the station’s continuing ability to serve the public interest. The Commission

would consider such activities in the course of its licensing proceedings involving the station

As we have indicated above, this problem is so new that specific data is not readily available and

no conclusive information has been received which we can predicate an informed opinion. At the

present time, we are unable to state whether controls are necessary or whether additional.

legislation may be required in the event controls are needed. I am sure you will understand that, as

additional facts are made known to us, we will be in a position further to evaluate the situation and

to arrive at a definitive position. You may be sure that you will be advised or our ultimate

determination.

Sincerely yours,

John C. Doerfer,

Chairman

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Washington, DC, November 5, 1957.

Mr. John C. Doerfer,

Chairman, Federal Communications Commission,

Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Doerfer:

Thank you for your letter of November l (reference 8420) advising me of the present status of

your staff‘ s investigation into the new television advertising technique, subliminal perception.

I can appreciate the difiiculties of compiling substantial information about such a new and

little-known process, and I commend you for the progress made so far.

However, I am concerned — as I am sure you are — at your finding that SP may already have

been used on television. Reports reaching me indicate that the device is being perfected and

actively promoted by at least two commercial firms. It would certainly seem anomalous to pennit

random usage of this device during the very time a study is being made to determine whether the

the public interestrequires its regulation

For that reason I strongly urge the Commission to protect the buying public against any possible

advertising abuses by advising all television stations and networks that subliminal perception is

under investigation and requesting them to forego its usage until a determination has been made. I

am sure the stations would lend their cooperation in the public interest upon which their licenses are

based.

The bulk of the mail which I have received has been in definite opposition to this type of invisible

selling. I am convinced that the general public feels it is entitled to know when it is being subjected

to advertising. If subliminal projection techniques are eventually allowed to be used at all, a

minimum regulation should require prominent announcement during the program of products being

so advertised

Again let me congratulate you and the Commission stafi‘ on the energetic and direct way in which

you have addressed this problem.

May I be advised whether you agree that the television stations should be asked to reject

subliminal advertising pending your study?

Sincerely yours,

William A Dawson,

Member of Congress.

FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION

Washington, DC, November 12, 1957.

Hon. William A. Dawson,

House of Representatives,

Washington, D.C.

Dear Congressman Dawson:

This is with reference to your letter of November 5, 1957, concerning subliminal perception

advertising In your letter you urge that, to protect the buying public from possible abuses by this

advertising technique, the Commission advise all television stations and the networks that subliminal

perception advertising is being investigated by the Commission and request the stations and

networks to forgo its usage until a detennination has been made.

As you are doubtless aware, the determination to take the action you recommend could be made

only by all of the Commissioners. Accordingly, you will be interested to know that I have made

arrangements to have your recommendation presented to the full Commission. I wish to assure you

that the Commission will give careful consideration to the views you have expressed in your letter

in arriving at a decision.

I appreciate your writing to me concerning this matter. You will, or course, be advised promptly of

the disposition of this problem.

Sincerely yoms,

John C. Doerfer,

Chairman.

FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION

Washington, DC, November 27, 1957.

Hon. William A Dawson,

House of Representatives,

Washington, D.C.

Dear Congressman Dawson:

This letter conceming subliminal perception advertising is with ftuther reference to your letter of

November 5, 1957, and supplements the response thereto dated November 12, 1957. In your

letter, you urge that the Commission advise all television stations and the networks that subliminal

perception advertising is being investigated by the Commission and request that they forgo its

usage until a determination has been made.

At the outset, it should be pointed out that on November 21, 1957 , the Commission was advised

that one station in Bangor, Maine, had tried the technique of subliminal messages with respect to

station promotional announcements and hadn’t been able to make them work The Commission

knows of no other television station which has engaged in subliminal perception advertising. As you

indicate in your letter, tow companies are known to be promoting the above technique. They are

the Subliminal Projection Co., Inc., and Experimental Films, Inc. Since the previous letter to you,

we have communicated with the first-named firm and have been advised that there has been no.

Demonstration of the technique on a television broadcast station; that the firm has used the facilities

of a private closed circuit system for testing the technical operation of its apparatus; and that the

firm is prepared to demonstrate the technique on a closed circuit system should the Commission so

desire. This offer is being considered by the commission.

We have also communicated with the local representative of the second company and are awaiting

a reply to specific questions submitted to him for transmittal to the company.

As you may know, on November 13, 1957, the television code of the National Association of

Radio and Television Broadcasters aimounced 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 The board stated that “experimentation or the

use of the process should not be permitted on the television broadcast medium pending such

review and consideration.” Additionally, we have communicated with representatives of each of the

major television networks and have been advised that have not used the above technique.

The Commission, at this time, with the exception of the unsuccessful attempt noted above, is not ..,

aware that subliminal perception advertising has been used by any television broadcast station in

view of this, and the fact that the Commission’s consideration of this matter includes consideration .

of the extent of its statutory powers with respect to thereto, it is believed that a caveat to the ‘

licensees may be inappropriate at this time. In this connection, we would like to point out that the-

Communications Act contains no provisions which deal specifically with subliminal perception

From present indications, however, it seems fair to say that reasonable protections may be

available to the public under the general provisions of the act. For instance, by the Commission’s .,

licensing procedures the United States maintains control of and regulates radio transmission in the ._

chaimels of interstate commerce. Various sections of the act, including sections 303, make itclear ‘

that in exercising the power of control and regulation the Commission must be guided by public

interest, convenience, or necessity. It would appear that the use of the subliminal perception

technique may be subject to our control under such provisions of section 303 as subparagraph (b)

on the nature of the service to be rendered by each station; subparagraph (e) on the type of

apparatus to be used; subparagraph (g) authorizing studies of new and experimental uses; and

subpaiagraphs (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.

As you may know, under existing law the Commission does not determine the particular programs

or types of programs to be presented over the air, the content of advertising copy, or its

presentation. Moreover, the act prohibits the Commission from exercising the power of censorship

over broadcast material, which includes advertising. However, at this time it does not appear that

the regulation of this particular technique would necessarily constitute censorship.

It may be pertinent to draw attention to section 317 of the Communications Act of l934, as

amended, which reads 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 so broadcast, be announced as

paid for or ftuther furnished, as the case may be, by such person.”

Undoubtedly section 317 would prohibit broadcasters from subjecting audiences to messages

received from undisclosed sources.

We have attempted to discuss the question with you fully at this time even though the matter is in its formative stage. We are sure you will understand that as additional facts are made known to us,

we will be in a position to further evaluate the situation and to arrive at a definitive position. You

may be assured that you will be advised of our ultimate determination herein.

By direction of the Commission:

John C. Doerfer,

Chairman.

HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Washington, DC, December 17, 1957.

Hon. Jolm C. Doerfer,

Chairman, Federal Communications Commission,

Washington, D.C.

Dear Chairman Doerfer:

Recently I suggested that, in view of the widespread interest in, and the apparent imminence of,

subliminal advertising, the Commission put the television broadcasting industry on official notict: e

that this technique is being investigated by the Commission to determine what regulation may be i

needed in the public interest.

Your reply indicated that the Commission feels “a caveat to the licensees may be inappropriate at <

this time.” You go on to say, however, that reasonable protections may be available to the public

under the general provisions of the act.

It is true that a major part of the television broadcasting industry, including the major networks and I

the television code board, voluntarily have recognized the potential dangers of subliminal

advertising Nonetheless, my mail continues to reflect widespread public concem over this method

Of manipulating minds.

That these fears are not entirely baseless is implied in the enclosed article from the Wall Street

Journal of December 5, 1957, concerning the reaction of one of the subliminal projection firms to

the networks‘ ban on the secret pitch. I direct your attention to the quotation attributed to_.one of ,_

the company’s vice presidents:

“We never tried to sell TV networks subliminal advertising. All we wanted was an industrywide

test. But if they don’t want to use it, we’ve still got plenty of interested independent stations.”

In view of the concern over premature usage of this invisible selling method, it would appear timely

to me for the Commission to remove the uncertainty by a definite prohibition against television use –

of subliminal advertising until your investigation has been completed and a final determination made.

In your letter of November 17 you point out that one of the available protections is section 303 of

the Cormnunications Act giving the Commission control over services rendered and apparatus .

used by stations. Another is section 317, requiring sponsor identification, which you say –

“undoubtedly would prohibit broadcasters from subjecting audiences to messages received from

undisclosed sources.”

Since the Commission does have this authority, I recommend that subliminal advertising be ~

specifically prohibited for the duration of your present study.

In the present limbo, television stations are not sure whether they could use subliminal advertising

but the public is not sure they could not. I see no reason for extending this ambiguous situation

when most of the television industry itself agrees that the process should not be used until it has

been fully evaluated.

May I be advised whether there is any reason why this definite prohibition should not be put into

eifect?

Kind regards and best wishes for a joyous holiday season,

Sincerely yours,

William A Dawson,

Member of Congress.

FCC Notice on Subliminals

A rare official statement on subliminal communication, this January 24, I974 public notice states

the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) position on the issue. “We believe that use of

subliminal perception is inconsistent with the obligations of a [broadcast] licensee,“ the FCC states,

and “broadcasts employing such techniques are contrary to the public interest. Whether effective or

not, such broadcasts Cleary are intended to be deceptive.”

[text transcript begins]

PUBLIC NOTICE

Federal Communications Commission

1919 M Street, NW.

Washington, D.C. 20554

For recorded listing of releases and texts cull 632-0002

For general information call 632-7260

FCC 74¢/s

January 24, 1974

BROADCAST OF INFORMATION BY MEANS OF “SUBLIMINAL PERCEPTION

TECHNIQUES

Shortly before Christmas 1971 the Commission received a few complaints that some television

stations had broadcast an advertisement which contained a statement of such short duration that

most viewers were unaware of it – at least, consciously unaware of it. The message broadcast in

this matter was “Get It,” referring to the product advertised in the commercial. Since this statement

could not be consciously perceived by most persons, it involved the use of the “subliminal

perception” technique which was the subject of Commission inquiry years ago.

In a Public Notice dated November 27, 1957, the Commission noted that the Television Code

Board of the NAB (then the NARTB) had asked its subscribers to refer any proposals for

television use of subliminal perception to the Board In that Notice, the Commission stated in part:

Deep concem has been expressed by members of the public, the broadcast industry and leaders in

public life with respect to the use of “subliminal perception” advertising by television stations. That

this concern has a firm basis is evidenced by the action of the NARTB and the caution with which

television licensees have approached the technique. Obviously, it is a matter which vitally concerns

the public interest. Accordingly, the Commission’s study is being directed toward determining what

appropriate steps, if any, should be taken by the Commission with respect to the possible use of

the above technique by the television licensees. The posture of the problem is such that the public

interest is not in immediate danger of being adversely affected Ample proof has been given of the

recognition by television licensees of their responsibilities and obligation to operate their stations in

the public interest.

At that time the Commission had no information that any television station had made use-of

subliminal perception techniques, except on an experimental basis and for scientific purposes, and..

after 1957 no instance of telecasting of such messages came to the attentions of the Commission

until the 1973 pre-Christmas advertising campaign, in which an advertising agency distributed spots

involving the “Get It” statement.

Commission inquiry revealed that the NAB TV Code Authority had learned of the use of the

subliminal messages in late November and had received a statement from the advertising agency

that it was dispatching telegrams to all stations to which the advertisements had been sent,

informing them of the subliminal statements, authorizing the stations to delete the statements from

the spots and informing that stations that film prints which did not contain the “Get It” flashes would

be sent to them. (The Television Code now prohibits the use of “Any technique whereby an

attempt is made to convey information to the viewer by transmitting messages below the threshold

of normal awareness…”)

Despite the Code Authority’s action, some stations apparently continued to broadcast spots

containing the “Get It” statement, and some state they have no record of having received the

telegram from the agency.

We believe that the 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.

In closing, we note that the Federal Trade Commission also received a complaint about the

pre-Christmas announcements, and that it is making inquiry in the matter in light of the laws that it

administers.

Action by the Commission January 23, 1974. Commissioners Bmch (Chairman), Lee, Reid, Wile and Hooks.

FCC Information Bulletin on Subliminal’s

Note:

In 1977, twenty years after the first reported use of subliminal ads in movies, the Federal

Communications Commission released an 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.

Click here to read the report

Back to Links