He is most famous for having perpetrated a subliminal advertising study in 1957. 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" 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”.
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". He shyed away from media attention after the disclosure. 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