By Don Simpson | August 19, 2011
When first-time director Jeff Warrick is unable to obtain comments from either of the surviving two Beatles regarding their use of backwards masking and subliminal messages, he enlists Queensryche singer Geoff Tate. (Tate being the most logical third choice after Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr?) Thankfully, Warrick also brings in Rolling Stone Senior Editor David Fricke and legendary rock and roll recording engineer and producer Andy Johns for back-up. The Judas Priest subliminal message trial from 1990 also makes an appearance, but does any of this footage convince me that hidden messages in music are able to influence human behavior? Ummm… No.
Well, how about the use of subliminal messaging in cinema? Well, Warrick opts to bend the definition of “subliminal” in order to discuss Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin and other directors who purposefully inter-cut [totally perceptible] images and/or sounds to solicit emotional responses to their films. But where do we differentiate between the art of editing and sound design and subliminal messages? Stretching the definition of “subliminal” even further into the conscious mind, Warrick turns to the use of product placement in films. Warrick does not have to sell me on the manipulative power of product placement in visual media, but this technique is far from subliminal…
Okay, how about the adverse effects of the depiction of women in the media on female body image? Sure, that is bad too. Unfortunately, it is also very far from subliminal. All this does is prove that images that are perceived by the conscious mind can affect human behavior, but what about that pesky subconscious?
The most effective discussion of subliminal messaging comes when Programming the Nation? takes the time to explore the height of subliminal communication in the 1950s. But did split-second flashes of text during a screening of Picnic really boost concession sales of Coca Cola and popcorn? Or did hidden sexual images in liquor and cigarette print ads really increase the sales of these products? Probably not. Was either advertising practice morally sound behavior on the part of advertisers? Probably not.
Jumping forward — did the George W. Bush approved television ad featuring a split-second flash of the word “RATS” decide the 2000 election? Warrick also seems to want to tie the atrocities of September 11, 2001 to the history of subliminal messaging in America. I do not understand the relationship, maybe Warrick — a former advertising account exec — should have utilized subliminal messages within Programming the Nation? to strengthen his arguments.
Warrick’s man on the street polling reveals that people in the United States are paranoid about subliminal messages. A montage of clips from films and television programs only further confirms the Orwellian obsession in the United States with subliminal messaging. Unfortunately, Warrick seems to only be proliferating that paranoia. Sure, Warrick turns to a plethora of respectable talking heads to speak about subliminal messaging, such as Noam Chomsky (author — Manfacturing Consent), Mark Mothersbaugh (musician — DEVO), Mark Crispin Miller (author — Boxed In: The Culture of TV), Amy Goodman (television host — Democracy Now!), Douglas Rushkoff (author — Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture) and Wilson Bryan Key (Subliminal Seduction); but Warrick falls way short in his attempt to prove that subliminal messaging has any direct effect on its audience. That is not to say that Programming the Nation? is not an interesting or informative film — it just does not possess any cold hard science to prove its hypothesis.