While perusing Ron Popeil's history on Google's patent library—it's fun, you should try it—I stumbled upon what I like to interpret as a brief obsession for America's favorite inventor and infomercial host. In the late '80s and early '90s, Popeil Industries filed a number of patent requests for subliminal messaging technology and the machinery to implement it.
US 5017143 A, a patent filed in 1989 by Popeil Industries that lists Ron Popeil as an inventor (along with longtime collaborator Alan Backus) doesn't mince words:
The field of this invention is the production and generation of visual subliminal images, and in particular, video subliminal images intended to alter behavior, attitudes, moods and/or performance.
Another Popeil patent, this one simply titled, "SUBLIMINAL DEVICE," is even a little blasé about light mind control:
Theories behind changing behavior through subliminal communications, as well as systems of message thought to be effective in subliminally changing behavior, are well known to those knowledgeable in the art and thus are not discussed here.
Reading that makes Popeil sound like a subliminal messaging snob—First of all, it's an art.
Popeil's patents point to a subliminal messaging device made for home use. This invention is adjustable and allows the user to determine how subliminal they want their messages, which is hilarious because, well, then they're not subliminal.
From WO 1992003888 A1:
Many problems are presented by these subliminal devices. First, there is no way an individual may verify if any subliminal messages are being presented by such devices. By definition, the messages presented are at levels which are not readily detectable. Continuing, there is no way an individual may positively verify what subliminal messages he or she is receiving. This is a major drawback because an individual must trust the manufacturer to place correct and positive subliminal messages on the tape. Some of these devices supply scripts and/or recordings of what they claim has been subliminally recorded. But there is no proof that these are accurate. ... The preset invention provides means for an individual to manually adjust, from supraliminal to subliminal levels, the level of obviousness of subliminal signals he or she is receiving.
This is a very interesting demographic he's going after here: Consumers who want the benefits of subliminal persuasion but are worried they're not getting all the messaging they paid for.
The actual technology is somewhat complicated, so I reached out to both Ron Popeil himself and the man who served as his patent lawyer. Popeil never got back to me, and his lawyer said he did not advise him on the subliminal messaging devices and could be of no assistance.
What I gather about the nuts and bolts of this invention (which, to my knowledge, never got past the patent stage) is that it dealt with rasterline frames and superimposed images while automatically adjusting them for contrast so they could fade into the screen. There's pretty advanced stuff going into this machine, even if all it did was let a compulsive eater adjust how sharply the text "EAT LESS" appeared on their TV.
While this is remarkably silly, we shouldn't forget that, in the 1980s, subliminal messaging was frequently marketed as a popular self-help gimmick. A 1988 New York Times business section article reported on these high-selling audio tapes and alluded to a "cultural phenomenon." (They also uncovered the script to one of these tapes' subliminal messages: "It's O.K. to do better than Dad. I do better than Daddy. I deserve to do better than Dad. I deserve to succeed. I deserve to reach my goals. I deserve to be rich." God, the '80s were awful.)
Still, Popeil clearly had interest in subliminal messaging, and I couldn't help but wonder whether or not these patents were part of a sinister plan to brainwash Americans into buying Pocket Fishermen and electric pasta makers. Why wouldn't he try using this technology in some of his infomercials and ads? Like many paranoid obsessives before me, I went to the tape to find out.
After closely watching Ron Popeil ads for the better part of an afternoon, I could only find two instances where it looked as if subliminal messaging was used, and both occurred during a commercial for The Buttoneer (a plastic pincer-like device that secures buttons onto fabric with an obtrusive little nub). First, there was the presence of a stray exclamation point for one frame, and it appeared in the middle of the product itself:
Even more scandalously, I thought I stumbled upon a brief pornographic clip later in the same commercial. I thought I had tumbled down the rabbit hole and uncovered the Queen of Diamonds of this infomercial Manchurian Candidate. That was until, after stopping and pausing the clip for over an hour straight, I realized what had really happened: I had gone slightly off my rocker. This ad for The Buttoneer was produced in 1973. All the stray text and blurry cuts had to be attributed to the low production value.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I have been stricken with an insatiable desire to re-button all my dress shirts.
-US 5017143 A: "Method and apparatus for producing subliminal images"
-US 5221962 A: "Subliminal device having manual adjustment of perception level of subliminal messages"
-WO 1992003888 A1: "Subliminal device"
-CA 2002933 A1: "Apparatus for generating superimposed television images"