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.

What do you say to people who might claim not to care about being deceived by advertisers and believe that to be American essentially means having the ability to consume what you want when you want it?

That's the general outlook. Most people are in denial of this because as long as, "Hey I'm comfortable. I have what I need and my family [is] well-taken care of, I don't really give a damn about any of these issues." That is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome. The problem is that kind of mentality, it's ingrained in America, right? It's [a] byproduct of the holes in our souls in a lot of ways. And so this "me, me, me, more, more, more" can only work for so long. And you see what's happened with the economy as a result of this kind of belief system. I do have a lot of hope, I do have a lot of optimism, but at the same time it may take for things to get a little worse, or even a lot worse, before they're going to get better. Before people finally wake up and start addressing some of this. I guess maybe I'm trying to get the message out there before it reaches that point, but that may not be possible. I don't know.

Isn't a certain degree of product placement inevitable on film and television? When does it become egregious?

As far as product placement is concerned, it's rampant in today's film and television, right? The issue isn't so much stopping it, it's just being aware of it. … It's just making people aware that, "Look, there [are] companies involved with everything." More regulation would be great, but I don't see it happening soon. That's something that we need to push for. Until things get bad enough where people find an urgency to start pushing for it that may not happen. Until then, it's just important for people to be aware of how we're being manipulated by corporations through product placement, to raise our awareness and our consciousness level so that it's not affecting us on a subliminal or a subconscious level.

Read More from the Archives

"Hollywood: The Ad," a feature on subliminal advertising from the April 1990 issue of The Atlantic.