Hollywood: The Ad

The techniques and the cartoon-like moral vision of television advertising are exerting more and more influence over American moviemaking

"This approach to human beings strikes me as utterly cynical, and directly contrary to the democratic ideal." Such was the sharp response of Dr. Lewis Webster Jones, the head of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Other clergymen agreed: this new technique could mean the twilight of democracy. It was not only God's ministers who sensed a threat. This technique, Aldous Huxley declared, made "nonsense of the whole democratic procedure, which is based on conscious choice on rational ground." The public protest was immense. The National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters felt obliged to ban the use of the technique by any of its members, and the three major television networks also publicly rejected it. The New York State Senate unanimously passed a bill outlawing the technique. When KTLA, an independent TV station in Los Angeles, announced that it would soon start using the invention to discourage littering and unsafe driving, the station "received such a torrent of adverse mail," Life magazine reported, "that it cancelled the campaign."

Meanwhile, there were some who were not emitting "yelps of alarm," according to The Wall Street Journal. Indeed, certain forward-looking managers were rather taken with the idea, despite its dangers, or perhaps because of them. "Chuckles one TV executive with a conscious eye on the future," Time magazine reported in its coverage of the controversy, "It smacks of brainwashing, but of course it would be tempting."

The invention that sparked the national panic, and that was also quietly thrilling certain corporate salesmen, was "subliminal advertising"—a phrase coined by the first of its practitioners, James M. Vicary, "a young motivational researcher and amateur psychologist," as the Journal called him. On September 12, 1957, Vicary, the vice-president of the Subliminal Projection Company, held a press conference to tout the results of an experiment that he had just concluded at a neighborhood movie theater in Fort Lee, New Jersey. For six weeks, using special equipment, he had flashed imperceptible allurements onto the screen during the theater's showings of Picnic, a Columbia release. Projected every five seconds for one three-thousandth of a second, those unnoticed coaxings, Vicary said, had dramatically boosted concession-stand sales of the items subliminally hyped on the big screen. Vicary had projected two terse bits of copy: "Hungry? Eat popcorn" and "Drink Coca-Cola."

Blatant Impositions

Today what matters most about Vicary's experiment is not his "findings"—which Vicary fabricated. His invention turned out to have had no effect at all on how much Coke or popcorn people swallowed, but was a mere sales gimmick to promote the Subliminal Projection Company itself. Although his "results" were valueless, the outrage stirred by his announcement is important. Back then the rumor that one movie had been temporarily polluted with an advertising pitch—"Drink Coca-Cola"—was enough to elicit a great wave of angry protest. That was in 1957. Let us now look at two clips from movies of the 1980s—-movies that nobody protested.

In Murphy's Romance, released by Columbia in 1985, Sally Field is a youngish divorcée, poor but plucky, who has just moved with her sweet pre-adolescent son to a friendly little Texas town. At the start of the film she wanders into an old-fashioned drugstore, owned, we soon discover, by James Garner, a very benevolent curmudgeon ("Murphy"). On her way in, Field passes, and so we see (she's moving slowly so that we'll see), not one but three bright Coca-Cola signs (the merry red, the bold white script)—one on each front window, one on the front door. And then, as Field plunks herself down cutely at the soda counter, and as the seemingly brusque but really very kindly Garner comes to serve her, there is the following exchange:

Field: I'll have a banana split. No, I won't. I'll have a Coke.
Garner: A Coke?
Field: A lemon Coke.

Much is later made of Garner's cherished 1927 Studebaker, which sits out front; Garner refuses to put it elsewhere, despite a daily parking ticket. Although this business does say something obvious about Garner's character ("That Murphy! Stubborn as a mule!"), the car's visual function is to say "Drink Coca-Cola," because it shares the frame with, and is the same deep merry red as, those three prominent Coca-Cola signs. (The movie, incidentally, has a happy ending.)

Toward the beginning of Who's Harry Crumb?, a 1989 Columbia release, John Candy sits next to Jim Belushi on a bus. A fantastically inept detective, Candy is on his way to meet his employers in a big kidnapping case. Here, in all its comic brilliance, is the entire scene with Belushi:

Candy (eating cherries, offers one): Cherry?
Belushi (reading): No fruit, thank you.

Candy pulls a can of Diet Coke (silvery cylinder, red block letters) out of his bag.

Candy: Coke?
Belushi: No, thank you.
Candy: Mix 'em together, ya got a cherry Coke. Ah ha ha ha ha ha! A cherry Coke, ha ha ha ha!

Later, dining with his wealthy clients, Candy pours a can of Diet Coke into a brandy snifter full of ice cream, holding the (silvery) can up high so that its (red) name is not just legible but unavoidable.

What is the difference between James Vicary's ploy and these later cinematic tricks to make an audience "Drink Coca-Cola"? In 1957 Vicary tried to boost his business by implanting a commercial message in a Columbia release (and then by making false claims for the failed experiment). In 1982 Coca-Cola bought 49 percent of Columbia Pictures and began at once to plug (its own) products in (its own) movies—trying, just like Vicary, to profit by turning movies into advertising. (The company kept it up until it sold Columbia Pictures to Sony, in 1989.) Certainly there is a difference in degree. Whereas Vicary's method was a furtive imposition on the movie, used in only one theater, and only temporarily, the come-ons embedded in Coke's movies are there forever, in whatever prints or tapes you choose to see, because those messages are worked—overtly—right into the movies' scripts and mise-en-scène.

In this overtness, one might argue, these later exhortations to drink Coca-Cola differ crucially from Vicary's gimmick, because his appeal was "subliminal," whereas the later cans and signs beckon us openly, like illuminated billboards. Such a distinction, however, rests on too crude an understanding of subliminal effects—which result not from invisible implants but from words or images that are, in fact, explicitly presented yet at best only half perceived. These latter-day plugs for Coca-Cola, for example, work as subliminal inducements because their context is ostensibly a movie, not an ad, so that each of them comes sidling toward us dressed up as non-advertising, just as other kinds of ads now routinely come at us disguised as "magalogues" and "advertorials"; rock videos; "educational" broadcasts, newsletters, filmstrips, and posters; concerts, art exhibits, sporting events, magazines, newspapers, books, and TV shows; and a good deal of our daily mail-in short, as anything and everything but advertising.

The subliminal impact of the Coke plugs arises not only from their cinematic camouflage but also from the pleasant welter of associations that in each movie efficiently glamorize every Coca-Cola can or logo: Garner's personal warmth and fine old car, John Candy's would-be riotous antics (and, in each case, the very fact of stardom itself), are attractions serving as oblique (that is, subliminal) enhancements to the all-important product. Precisely because of this benefit Coca-Cola has understandably been very careful in its choice of cinematic vehicles—and has also used them to stigmatize the competition.

In Murphy's Romance, Field's nice son goes looking for a job; and while "Coca-Cola" sheds its deep red warmth throughout Murphy's homey store, in a big supermarket where the kid is told abruptly that he isn't needed, two (blue) Pepsi signs loom coldly on the wall like a couple of swastikas. In fact, the company used such tactics before it bought Columbia. In Costa-Gavras's Missing, a Universal picture made just before the purchase, Jack Lemmon plays a very decent father searching Chile for his son, who has been kidnapped by Pinochet's soldiers. In one scene this haggard, loyal dad, while talking things out, takes rare (and noticeable) solace in a bottle of Coke—whereas inside the nightmare stadium where the army does its torturing and murdering there stands a mammoth Pepsi machine, towering in this underworld like its dark idol.

Although Pepsico owns no movie studio (yet), its officers began fighting back at once. A special manager tackled the job of keeping Pepsi on the silver screen, and from that moment the spheric Pepsi logo (white/blue/red) became a film presence almost as prevalent as big handguns. In the movies Pepsi is the choice of a new generation—that is, of every generation. The suburban kids are drinking Pepsi in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, like the poor kids in Stand and Deliver and Lean on Me, and like the old folks in Cocoon: The Return. Jennifer Beals is drinking Diet Pepsi in Flashdance, Kathy Baker is buying Pepsi in Clean and Sober, in Always a brightly lit Pepsi logo lengthily upstages Holly Hunter, and in Legal Eagles Debra Winger keeps her Pepsi cold and blatant in a refrigerator otherwise full of blank containers. Pepsi glides through the Texas of the fifties in Everybody's All-American, pops into the cute Manhattan of Crossing Delancey, and drops in on Norman Bates's milieu in Psycho II and Psycho III. And Pepsico, too, has tried to move against its major rival, declining to place a Pepsi ad on the cassette of Dirty Dancing unless Vestron, the video company, cut every scene that showed a Coca-Cola sign. Vestron passed. (All these movies have happy endings.)

Presented by

Mark Crispin Miller is a professor of culture and communication at New York University. His research areas include American film and the history and tactics of advertising. His most recent book, Fooled Again, is a call for reform in U.S. presidential elections.

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