Arts & Events

Brain Raves: Exposing The Power of Subliminal Messaging

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Tuesday October 25, 2011 - 10:53:00 AM
Media critic Noam Chomsky and film director Jeff Warrick.
Media critic Noam Chomsky and film director Jeff Warrick.
Even the movie poster contains three levels of subliminal messaging.
Even the movie poster contains three levels of subliminal messaging.

Programming the Nation opens at the Balboa Theater on October 28.

Jeff Warrick is a genial, affable fellow who looks like he might be a high school football coach but be forewarned: Warrick is a man with an obsession — and a mission. Instead of studying how to score goals against cunning adversaries, Warrick's goal is studying whether advertisers are using hidden, subliminal messages to score in the marketplace. Warrick's game plan is mapped out in a provocative and dazzling new documentary, Programming the Nation. If you have children, you should see this film. If you value democracy, you should see this film and invite your friends and neighbors along for the experience. (You'll have a lot to talk about over coffee afterwards.) 

A former advertising executive, Warrick decided to become a filmmaker and embarked on what turned out to be a seven-year quest to answer the question: "Are subliminal messages fact or folklore?" 

Warrick remains somewhat cagey in his approach to the subject and remains excruciatingly careful not to telegraph his conclusions. On one hand, Programming the Nation debunks one of the most widely cherished fantasies of subliminal folklore (hidden messages in rock music). But then it surges back with a torrent of documentation (ranging from secret memos to film clips) that suggests the dark art of subliminal messaging is more than a hollow urban legend — it continues to be a haloed tool of corporate legerdemain. 

This 105-minute documentary is packed with hundreds of examples of subliminal tricks applied to TV, film and print and it kicks off with a collection of more than 20 mind-tweaking clips culled from TV and movies — from Alfred Hitchcock and William Friedkin to Walt Disney. 

Visually, Warrick's flick is hyper-kinetic, the screen constantly bustling with overlays, "interference patterns" and, yes, subliminal messages. (In an interview with The Planet, Warrick admits to playfully placing scores of "hidden" messages but allowed "most" of them to run at a just-barely-perceptible 1/15th of a second.) 

The use of hidden messages and psychological propaganda is debated by more than 30 experts including Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, Dennis Kucinich and Bay Area ad-maverick and author Jerry Mander. Adding to the film's visual complexity, many of the interviews were filmed against a green screen, which allowed Warrick to superimpose additional images behind the speakers to illustrate their arguments in "reel time." 

Warrick reviews the roots of thought control, drawn from the work of Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud. (The "father of modern advertising," Bernays’ theories were first put into wide practice by Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Germany's Nazi Party). Bernays identified four primordial triggers that could be used to control people's behavior and influence their purchasing decisions — Fear, Fight, Flight and Fornication. To these, modern advertisers have added a fifth, powerful lure: "More!" 

In order to prepare the ground for effective use of the "Four Fs," advertisers learned to rely on "reverse therapy." As one observer puts it: "You need to make people feel at risk in order to promote sales. Happy people don't buy stuff they don't need." 

"Is the purpose of the TV ad to make you an informed consumer?" Noam Chomsky asks rhetorically. Clearly not. "The purpose of the ad is to delude and deceive you with imagery so you'll be uninformed and make an irrational choice." 

"When you manipulate people," Congrssman Kucknich adds, "it's anti-democratic. What you're really trying to do is control people. People don't need to be controlled." 

Media Watch founder Ann Simonton warns that Madison Avenue "start[s] targeting children at 9 months. They've noted that, by two years old, they can achieve brand loyalty and recognition." [Note: On October 18, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned that children under the age of two should not be exposed to TV, because viewing can lead to sleep problems, developmental disorders and a delayed use of speech.] 

Warrick's film has enough Stunning Revelations to fill two documentaries. A few examples: The FCC has no authority to regulate advertisers; the Pentagon has used "psy-ops" techniques to influence the mass media (in violation of the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act that prohibits using propaganda techniques to target a domestic audience); some of today's most pervasive subliminal ads use images that promote sexual violence; serial killer Ted Bundy insisted that his murderous rampage targeting young women was stoked by TV advertising that he clearly perceived as promoting violence against women. 

My favorite revelation is much more lighthearted. In an interview with Warrick, Mark Mothersbaugh (a founding member of DEVO and a sound engineer who established himself as a "go-to guy" in the world of radio and TV advertising) admits to embedding subliminal messages in ads that he created for several corporate clients. He cites his animated TV ads for Hawaiian Punch. (You may recall the commercial: it featured a cartoon character in a Hawaiian shirt "punching" another character.) Mothersbaugh secretly poisoned the ad by including a sub-audible voice whispering "Sugar Is Bad for You" in the soundtrack. The statute of limitations must have run out by now because Mothersbaugh is shown openly laughing at the memory company executives enthusiastically applauding after the test screening. "They completely missed it!" Mothersbaugh chuckles with undiluted delight. 

In both research surveys and in Warrick's own person-in-the-street interviews, most Americans confess to a belief that subliminal messaging is real and is being used. But the threat is shrugged off as just another minor annoyance of modern life — like traffic jams and other peoples' cellphone conversations. However, if Americans knew specifically how they were being manipulated, the level of concern might be much greater. 

As Programming notes, much of the "news" we are exposed to is actually cleverly disguised corporate advertising and covert government propaganda created by PR firms and distributed to commercial news outlets in the form of Video News Releases. John Stewart and Steven Colbert aren't the only sources of "fake news" on TV: It's just that they are up-front about their antics. 

Thanks to the new technology of the Internet Age (specifically, the "freeze-frame" button on video and computer playback), subliminal messages are easier to spot than ever before. That's how the GOP was caught superimposing a subliminal message in an election ad attacking the Democrats. At the end of the ad, the words "Democrats" and "Bureaucrats" scroll slowing across a dark screen. Invisible to the naked eye, another word was flashed on the screen for 1/30th of a second. The word was "rats." 

When subliminal messages are used in an attempt to sway an election, that's a red flag that Orwell's Big Brother has taken up a permanent seat on the couch in front of your living room TV. 

Viewer advisory: The film includes an interview with James Vance, one of two teenagers who attempted suicide after hearing what they believed to be a message to "Do it!" hidden in a Judas Priest recording. Vance survived the shotgun blast to his head but the self-inflicted wound blew out the middle third of his face, leaving him horrifically maimed. The image may be disturbing to many viewers.