Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 19, 2011

Programming the Nation

Filed under: Film,media,psychology — louisproyect @ 6:15 pm

One of the most stunning revelations—at least for me—in the eye-opening documentary “Programming the Nation”, a history of subliminal messaging in America that opens today at the Quad Cinema in NY, was the fact that Edward Bernays was Sigmund Freud’s nephew. Bernays, the father of public relations who collaborated with Walter Lippmann to craft WWI propaganda, was eager to utilize Freud’s insights into the subconscious to seduce the American public into backing a bloody imperialist war, or, as the need arose, buying Kellog’s corn flakes. In essence, this is the point of a documentary 7 years in the making—to show how American society is saturated with subliminal messages to feed the consumerist machine, and when necessary to get young men and women to violently defend the machine against all threats.

Bernays’s Freudian predilections reminded me of “Mad Men” with its constant chatter about how a particular cigarette or whiskey ad will appeal to the consumer’s libido. As a show steeped in the late 50s/early 60s zeitgeist, it might have easily dramatized subliminal advertising, the much discussed but poorly understood phenomenon of the period. We learn from “Programming the Nation” that its first occurrence was more of an urban legend than a reality. In 1957 market researcher James Vicary conducted an experiment in which messages such as “Drink Coca-Cola” or “Buy popcorn” were flashed rapidly during showings of the movie “Picnic”. After he produced statistics that demonstrated sales shot up, he was forced to admit that they were falsified. The Vicary experiment was the centerpiece of a best-seller in the late 50s by Vance Packard titled “The Hidden Persuaders”. Packard also wrote “The Status Seekers”, a book that along with “The Organization Man” gave young people like myself the first inkling that not all was right during the heyday of the “American Century”.

A film with a title like “Programming the Nation” could have easily turned into a lurid conspiracist tale about mind control in line with a number of pop culture references that were alluded to at its beginning. One of these is John Carpenter’s terrific “They Live”, in which the hero (wrestler Roddy Piper) sees messages like “No independent thought … Consume … Conform … Stay asleep … This is your God  … Do not question authority … No parking” on building walls through special glasses given to him by a rebel. But director Jeff Warrick, who has a background in marketing and decided to make the film after developing the suspicion that the “war on terror” launched in 2001 was fueled by subliminal messaging, utilizes a much more interesting and useful approach. He allows experts on both sides of the question to express their opinions without stating his own. Indeed, one gets the sense that he is not entirely persuaded that subliminal messaging strictly defined (in other words, words or images that are barely perceptible) is as much of a problem as the messaging that is much more in your face and that makes fairly explicit connections, for example, between sexual fulfillment and a Lexus sedan.

The film relies heavily on experts in the field of subliminal messaging, including Wilson Bryan Key, the author of “Subliminal Seduction”, the definitive treatment of the practice. Key, like Vance Packard, considered subliminal messaging a real threat to American society even though he had doubts about the cruder version of the practice symbolized by Vicary’s “Drink Coca-Cola” messages. You also hear from media critics of the left like Mark Crispin Miller, Noam Chomsky and Amy Goodman who are far more concerned about the more obvious messaging techniques that are turning America into a consumerist nightmare bent on world domination.

Whether or not subliminal messages actually work, powerful forces in advertising and politics continue to use them. One of the more notorious examples was reported by ABC news in 2000:

Vice President Al Gore is accusing Republicans of dirty tricks for running a television ad that flashes the word “RATS” on screen for a split second.

“I’ve seen the pictures from the ad,” the vice president told reporters as he campaigned in Ohio today. “I find this a very disappointing development. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I think the ad speaks for itself.”

In a Republican National Committee commercial criticizing Gore on health care, the word “RATS” appears on screen for a brief moment before the full word “bureaucrats” appears.

But GOP nominee George W. Bush dismissed the notion that the visual effect was intended to subliminally manipulate voters, as the Gore campaign has suggested.

“The idea of putting subliminal messages into ads is ridiculous,” Bush told reporters this morning in Orlando, Fla. “One frame out of 900 hardly, in my judgment, makes a conspiracy.

You can see Bush speaking to reporters in the film but the last paragraph does not quote him accurately. Bush said, “The idea of putting sublimanible messages into ads is ridiculous…” That pretty much sums up the difference between Bush and Obama, who never would have mispronounced the word subliminal. In fact, it has now become obvious that Obama is merely the latest product to roll off Edward Bernays’s assembly line:

ORLANDO, Fla. (AdAge.com) — Just weeks before he demonstrates whether his campaign’s blend of grass-roots appeal and big media-budget know-how has converted the American electorate, Sen. Barack Obama has shown he’s already won over the nation’s brand builders. He’s been named Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008.

Mr. Obama won the vote of hundreds of marketers, agency heads and marketing-services vendors gathered here at the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference.

Mr. Obama won the vote of hundreds of marketers, agency heads and marketing-services vendors gathered here at the Association of National Advertisers’ annual conference.

“I think he did a great job of going from a relative unknown to a household name to being a candidate for president,” said Linda Clarizio, president of AOL’s Platform A, the sponsor of the opening-night dinner attended by 750 where the votes were cast.

“I honestly look at [Obama’s] campaign and I look at it as something that we can all learn from as marketers,” said Angus Macaulay, VP-Rodale marketing solutions “To see what he’s done, to be able to create a social network and do it in a way where it’s created the tools to let people get engaged very easily. It’s very easy for people to participate.”

Finally, I would ignore the negative reviews that this splendid documentary has received, especially from the NY Times.  This film is essential viewing for those trying to get a handle on the Orwellian world we are living in today, including a newspaper that saw fit to publish Judith Miller on the war in Iraq, an example of Edward Bernays media manipulation second to none.


  1. although The Hidden Persuaders was an eye-opener for me when i read it in 1960 , the book which is still the best on the topic of advertising, in my opinion, is Stuart Ewen’s The Captains of Consciousness. It was an assigned text for many years in the intro social psych class i taught. Here’s his story of finally being able to interview E.L. Bernays after having written so much about him: http://home.bway.net/drstu/chapter.html

    Comment by steve heeren — August 19, 2011 @ 7:43 pm

  2. Thanks for the tip! I’m guessing you’ve seen Adam Curtis’ Century of the Self…

    Comment by yingyangfarms — August 20, 2011 @ 2:13 am

  3. I have to say I’m skeptical of subliminal messages making any kind of real impact on either consumers with marketing, or on voters with political ads.

    I do think the messages exist, I’m just saying that I’m always a skeptic when it comes to this type of thing and I think a lot people are skeptical like me.

    Obama’s winning the election in 2008 had to do with many factors.

    Many voters thought a McCain win would be four more years of Bush policies. Obama is an articulate speaker who marketed a campaign of change, not politics as usual.

    He also had strong support from the 18-34 demographic and they came out in record numbers than in previous presidential elections.

    Subliminal messages and the youger voters won’t help him in 2012.

    He did change things as he promised. We are so much more worse off than we were four years ago.

    And oh that’s a change we can’t afford to believe in!

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — August 20, 2011 @ 4:00 am

  4. This recent online film made by an anarchist in Canada is one of my favorites on propaganda


    Comment by michaeljamesbarker — August 20, 2011 @ 6:45 am

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