SUBLIMINAL ADVERTISING -
THE REAL THING
I've heard about subliminal suggestion, the idea that if you flicker a message briefly on TV
or in a movie, you can hypnotize an audience into doing what you want. Is it real? Did it
ever really happen?
Subliminal influence is real, according to scientists, and was tried out on the public a
few times in 1958 before it was, I believe, made illegal. That doesn't mean it worked or
ever had the slightest actual influence on anyone, however.
The myth, or, depending how you look at it, the science of subliminal suggestion circulated
in the late fifties in the same way that flying saucers did - no one had any concrete
information to offer, but a lot of people believed in it. Like an evil conspiracy from
Invaders from Mars or Invasion of the Body Snatchers,
there was supposed to be some shadowy 'they' in the media who were dictating what we bought
and who we voted for, what soft drink we drank and what aftershave we used. This was all
being done, the theory went, with a sinister form of mind control employing messages
blinked at us too quickly for our conscious minds to notice. Even if we were unaware on
the surface that we had received the message, our subconcious minds would absorb it anyway.
Without our higher brain functions to evaluating, perhaps nullifying the message, it,
would simply be accepted as truth. If it were a call to action, like, for example,
"THIRSTY NOW" flickered at us during a movie, we would
involuntarily decide that we indeed were thirsty, and head for the refreshment counter like
obedient zombie slaves.
If the idea seems familiar, you may be aware of a John Carpenter film called They Live
that toys cleverly with the idea of a secret clique of aliens living invisibly amongst us.
The hero of that movie chances to try on a pair of the aliens' dark glasses, and sees not
only the aliens for the monsters they are, but sinister subliminal messages in place of
newspaper headlines, billboard announcements, street signs etc. Even if the idea isn't
developed much, the effect is uncanny - this 1980's movie strikes a creepily familiar
note because of the cultural residual of the 'subliminal' scare from the 1950's.
Savant brings this up because you can actually see a real attempt at subliminal advertising
in the trailer for the 1958 science fiction film It! The Terror from Beyond Space. This
is the movie already notorious as the source for much of the content of the far more
famous Alien movie made 21 years later. In the trailer for It! that is included
in the laserdisc release (note: UA Science Fiction Matinee; out of print), can be
seen about five repetitions of messages in large black lettering saying
"SEE IT!". Oddly, the messages are not flickered on the screen
for just a frame or so, they stay up for at least half a second each time they are shown. It's
as if the producers didn't really understand the subliminal sell, and insisted they get their
money's worth. Nowadays we are used to much faster cutting in our entertainments, but Savant
still has a hard time believing that audiences seeing the It! trailer in 1958 weren't
aware of the obvious messages.
On the other hand, a movie like The Exorcist that uses very fast cutaways to flash-frames
(the frightening face of Father Karras' mother, in one instance) can be said to be employing
flickered images that technically verge on the definition of subliminal. Perhaps the insecurity
about what was or wasn't actually seen added to the audience fear the film generated. There
is a flickered frame, the blurry skull-like face of a woman, used in a very academic
subliminal way in the 'assassin test' film-within-a-film in The
Parallax View. Personally, if I pay attention, I am very aware of individual frames going
by as I watch a movie, and for me, that flickering image of the scary woman in Parallax
is terrifying, like a remembered nightmare.
Savant is told that another 1958 production called Terror in the Haunted House used
techniques similar to It! The Terror from Beyond Space, but I don't know if the messages
were in the trailer to sell the movie, or in the film itself to sell popcorn and soda pop.
Maybe someone knows and will write in (give me permission to use your name so I can properly
Whatever notoriety subliminal messages enjoyed in the culture, they apparently stopped before
they ever got started. I prefer to believe that Madison Avenue and Hollywood simply decided
that a far more effective kind of mind control could be achieved by endlessly repeating
antacid slogans and movie titles in television and radio commercials. That's the kind of
mind control Americans understand. As for SAVANT the SEND MONEY subliminal sell, SAVANT I'd have to SEND MONEY see it to SAVANT believe SEND MONEY it.
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