Does Subliminal Messaging Work? A New Film Investigates

Programming the Nation? tracks the history of hiding communication in plain sight

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Ignite Productions

The average American is subjected to thousands of ad impressions each day, from the margins of a web browser to commercials on TV, to the tallest billboards towering over city streets. It's a staggering cavalcade of exhortations to buy, buy, and buy some more.

So it's reasonable to wonder why any corporation would need to incorporate subliminal messages, from phallic ice cubes to hidden dirty words, into these ubiquitous ads. After all, who has time for subtlety when faced with a full-on assault?

In fact, the official corporate company line agrees. Good luck finding any institution that today admits to the practice of including secret directives in their products and ads.

Yet, the new documentary Programming the Nation? insists that subliminal messaging happens all around us, all the time, and we'd better wake up to it.

Filmmaker Jeff Warrick embarked on a seven-year investigation into the ways a wide swath of media and organizations-from ads to movies to the government-incorporate hidden messages to prey on our subconscious.

Sure, some of Warrick's examples are obvious (product placement in movies) and others stretch credibility (backward masking in rock music). He offers an expanded definition of "subliminal" that doesn't always hold up.

But his film, which opens in New York today (with upcoming screenings in Hollywood and San Francisco and a DVD release planned), is an altogether eye-opening, comprehensive look at the sinister side of a corporately "programmed" nation, with interview subjects ranging from media expert Mark Crispin Miller to Queensryche singer Geoff Tate.

Here, the filmmaker shares his thoughts on the challenges of getting his views out there against imposing odds.

What inspired you to tackle such an ambitious subject on film, with so many interviews?

I think what really got me going on this whole subject matter was [the period immediately] after 9/11. That was kind of the catalyst for me, seeing how the mainstream media and the Bush Administration were beating the drum to go to war against Iraq and Saddam Hussein. Don't get me wrong: I didn't like Saddam Hussein any better than anyone, but I still didn't think that Iraq was involved in 9/11. There's no evidence that they were involved in terrorism against the United States and it's been proven that they never had weapons of mass destruction. … [In making the movie] we faced a lot of challenges. I thought [the subject] was important for people, especially after I learned how much manipulation is going on in the media. I just felt it was really, really vital for me to get this film done and out.

When Mitt Romney openly opines that "corporations are people," and others share his pro-corporate ideology, how do you make this message resonate?

It's challenging to really get your message out there when you're up against such big corporations and companies that are sending a totally opposite message. … I don't think it's hopeless. I think it's a very, very tough struggle. That's the problem. They want to give you this sense that it's hopeless. So I'm this one guy, what can I do? If we all think that, then yeah nothing can get done, but I think there's a problem in that. … To reach the goal [of fighting back against corporate dominance], what we really need to do is come together more. Turn off our TVs. We need to join community groups, come together as people and really look at the issues that are important and that need to be addressed. That's the only way we can resolve things.

Presented by

Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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