By Katherine Smith
“Programming the Nation” Presented by Ignite Productions and Digital Media Factory
Written, produced and directed by Jeff Warrick, 2009
“X-Files” “Blood” episode
Original air date: September 30, 1994
Mulder: “Scully, are you familiar with subliminhal messages?”
Scully: “You mean like ‘sex’ in ice cubes in liquor ads? That’s paranoia.”
Subliminal messages surreptitiously presented to the public in music, films, TV and print ads are the subject of this documentary – and contrary to Scully, are not a paranoid fantasy but a real and present threat to individual and societal well-being.
Warrick’s thoughtful and technically slick documentary examines the history of subliminal persuasion and its mostly deleterious impacts. Although the spokespeople for the American advertising industry have long denied using subliminal means of persuasion to sell persuasion to sell products, “Programming the Nation” unearths a swag of examples. Visual images used in posters and print ads featuring phalluses have been used in advertising materials for such diverse products as KFC, Benson and Hedges cigarettes and, most disturbingly, Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” – the original theatrical poster and VHS cover of which featured a hidden phallus in the castle. (Disney denied that the image was intentionally designed to resemble to resemble an erect, circumcised penis – or a dildo – but removed the offending member from future products.)
It is easy to see the possible relevance to including penis imagery in advertisements for cigarettes and food, since penises, like these products can be a source of oral satisfaction and the subconscious of the ad viewer can be trained to associate both smoking and junk food consumption with sexual potency, thus by-passing conscious messages that smoking can cause impotence and junk food will make you fat and unattractive.
It’s more difficult to see the relevance of a hidden phallus to a movie marketed to children, unless the company has one or more disgruntled employees who are trying to bring the company into disrepute, or the corporation has a covert policy of using subliminal images for the sexual corruption of children. Further evidence that supports this view can be found in the documentary, including the word “SEX” formed by flower petals floating in the night sky in an early edition of “The Lion King” and a barely audible line in “Aladin” in which Alladin says “Come on good juniors, take off your clothes.” In the case of “The Lion King”, Disney denied the word ‘SEX” was intentional, and removed it from subsequent releases. As far as the offending line in “Alladin” went, the company claimed that the character actually said: “Come on good kitty take off and go.” However, the film clip in the documentary clearly illustrates that “take off your clothes” is the correct interpretation of the words. As if to prove this point, the contentious phrase was removed from subsequent editions of “Alladin”.
Bill Yousman, one of the commentators in the documentary points out that “any advertising directed to a young child should be considered subliminal” since young children lack the cognitive maturity to critically analyse the media they watch, and very young children probably can’t even distinguish between the TV programmes and advertisements in between. Worryingly, advertisers have decided to target increasingly young children in order to win the battle for their hearts and minds – and brand preferences. “Programming the Nation” reveals that advertisers are devising ad campaigns for children as young as nine months old – and that research has established that by the age of two, children have developed clear brand preferences. With the average American adult being exposed to 30,000 advertisements a year, the average child probably isn’t far behind. There’s a huge amount of brainwashing going on and it’s no wonder mainstream America has degenerated into a mindless mass-consumer culture.
In addition to promoting unhealthy consumerism, subliminal messages can have many other effects, including promoting violent crime, according to information presented in the documentary. Footage of notorious sex offender and serial killer Ted Bundy is shown in which he claimed that there are “people like me, whose dangerous impulses are fueled day in and day out by violence in the media in its various forms, particularly sexualised violence.” Ted Bundy was executed a day after his statement was recorded. However, his words give cause to wonder how many more people like him will be created through media programming. Media Watch founder, former high fashion model Ann Simonton also appears in the documentary in a discussion of print ads that feature sexual violence as a theme. She explains that advertising images that use thinly veiled sexual violence give viewers the message that “it’s sexy for a woman to be a victim” and that such images help create justifications for rape.
Even when fashion ads do not feature glamorised portrayals of sexual assaults, however, their effects on their target audience can still be damaging. Another commentator in the DVD explains that ad agency executives in private conversations frankly admit that their job is “to make women feel bad about themselves” – and hence alleviate their depression and anxiety by buying products that promise happiness. August Bullock, author of “The Secret Sales Pitch” comments that advertising works as “a kind of reverse therapy” and that in contrast, “a therapist wants to help you resolve your unconscious conflicts and make you feel better about yourself, but media has exactly the opposite orientation.”
The effects of subliminal messages imbedded in music does not escape Warrick’s scrutiny with two cases featured in “Programming the Nation”. The first of these was footage of a live performance of “Stairway to Heaven” in which a member of Led Zeplin introduces the song while holding up his hand with his index and middle fingers raised explaining that words can have two meanings. While speaking he changes the orientation of his hand relative to the audience to illustrate his point. The DVD then presents an excerpt from “Stairway to Heaven” played backwards in which a voice can be heard to warble a bizarre text that includes the phrase “sweet, sweet, satan” and “666”. I played this section of the DVD more than once as I wanted to ascertain whether or not the text presented an accurate interpretation of the backwards lyrics. I came to the conclusion that the words sung backwards were definitely satanic. However, I later regretted making this effort as I found that part of the backwards song – which was surprisingly melodic – stuck in my mind in a disturbing fashion for several days afterwards. Whether playing the song in a normal manner would have an untoward effect on the listener, I have no idea. “Programming the Nation” presents research that shows that images flashed for as little as 1/1000th of a second can have an effect on brain function. However, the DVD did not present any laboratory evidence about what effect (if any) “reverse lyrics” may have on the brain and psyche. This being said, inaudible suggestions (that is audio messages that are so quiet that they cannot be heard) certainly do seem to affect people; according to an anonymous representative of a major US retail chain store, a nine month trial of inaudible messages designed to discourage theft cut shoplifting by 37%.
The potentially harmful effects of message in rock music are highlighted in a particularly sad cased featured in “Programming the Nation”; that of teenagers Raymond Belknap and James Vance. Both Belknap and Vance are now deceased. If they were still alive they would now be aged around 40. The two boys were obsessed with the heavy metal band Judas Priest and played their songs over and over again, until Vance’s mother feared that the music would make her go crazy. While Mrs Vance retained her sanity, Belknap and Vance lost theirs – with fatal consequences. One day they listened to a particularly violent song in which they heard the words “Do it! Do it! Do it!”. The boys began to chant the words, then took a gun belonging to one of their fathers and went to the grounds of a local school where Belknap shot himself. Vance then turned the gun on himself with suicidal intent but he did not succeed in killing himself as he didn’t brace the gun. Instead he blew his face off. James Vance had surgery to reconstruct his face but the result was not particularly successful; sensitive viewers may find his appearance shocking and distressing. In an interview following the shooting he said that Judas Priest’s music had produced in Belknap and himself an irresistible emotional roller coaster:
“We would get power from it…it was like a drug, like a narcotic.”
Vance died in 1988 from pharmaceutical “drug related complications”. Two years after his death Judas Priest and their label – CBS records – were on trial over Belknap’s death. The trial was allowed on the basis that it was the subliminal message that had caused the fatal shooting – as song lyrics, however repugnant – are protected in the USA under the First Amendment. The judge hearing the case determined that the song in question did indeed contain the subliminal suggestion “do it” on a number of occasions. However, Judas Priest and CBS were found “not guilty” on the basis that the messages were an unintentional artifact of the production process, despite the fact that the band members admitted using subliminal messages in other songs. Moreover, a master of each track of the 24 track recording was never produced to the prosecution so that each track could be examined separately.
One of the last interview subjects is Mark Motherbough who runs a business that produces jingles for ads as well as scores for movies, TV shows and electronic games. Motherbough boasts about adding subliminal messages into music he has produced over the years and adds that he “never once got stopped”.
Other topics in this DVD include the use of subliminal messages in election TV ads in the USA, how VNRs (Video News Releases) from government and corporate sources are being passed off as real news instead of propaganda and how subliminal imagery has been used in films designed for an adult audiences such as “Fight Club”. This is a DVD well worth viewing.