Perspective: 'Subliminable' seduction, and other urban myths

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Oh, rats. Here we go again. Thanks to the unfortunate nexus of urban legend and sleazy campaign tactics, the public is once again invited to believe in subliminal advertising. When the George W. Bush campaign let its prescription-drugs spot out the door with a 1/30th of a second image of the word "RATS" flashing on the screen, it was all the confirmation the public needed that evil Svengalis are poisoning the populace with embedded signals designed to overwhelm reason and self-interest.

Mary Doe is at home, watching a "Married With Children" rerun after dinner, thinking about taking the dog to the vet and junior to the child guidance center and Dad to divorce court, and on comes a commercial and--Mary, you are getting sleepy, sleepy, sleepy . . . SNAP--suddenly she feels the uncontrollable urge to acquire Turtle Wax, now with a new easy-spreading applicator.

Because, invisible to her naked eye and your conscious mind, the words "orgasm" and "buff-free" were flashed into her psyche.

People believe that stuff actually happens. And why wouldn't they? They also believe in Sasquatch, Atlantis and alien corpses in Roswell, N.M. They believe in vast, sinister conspiracies. They believe in the flat tax, the I Ching and the fundamental plausibility of "The X-Files."

Most preposterously of all, if you happen to labor in the marketing world, they believe you are a wizard who can manipulate them at will.

Ha! Snort! Oh my sides! As we know, just between us, most of y'all have difficulty getting a 2% increase in sales with the help of $50 million in media and extremely liminal images of sex, money, power and other putatively motivating forces of human emotion.

The very idea of you as Satan's puppeteers, cruelly pulling the strings of consumer marionettes, is almost too much to bear.

But it's not hard to see how this came to pass. First there was the "Drink Coke" hoax in 1957, when James Vicary claimed, falsely, to have prodded moviegoers into the lobby for refreshments. Then there was Vance Packard's "Hidden Persuaders," which took the then-Madison Avenue fad of motivational research and blew it up into some "Manchurian Candidate" notion of mind control. Then, in the early '70s, there was Wilson Bryan Key's "Subliminal Seduction," which outlined--among other preposterous charges--how Nabisco supposedly arranged the little holes in Ritz crackers to spell the word "sex."

Never mind that he didn't explain why the word "sex" in Ritz crackers would make anyone want even more Ritz crackers. The public gobbled this stuff up, and has never let it go. It is part of the pop culture.

Kevin Nealon of "Saturday Night Live" broke out with his "Subliminal Man" character. Fox TV (and many others) joke about subliminal advertising in their own ads, "Fight Club" recreated the Vicary experiment, only with a penis.

And now this Bush thing.

There is, of course, no reason to think it was entirely innocent. It is impossible to imagine a 30-second spot leaving that campaign headquarters unscrutinized frame by frame. And, as a group, political consultants are the most ruthless and cynical species in America not actually committing felonies or programming prime time. So we would put nothing past them. (What's puzzling is the Ritz cracker question. Why reduce "BUREAUCRATS" into "RATS," considering that--by a decade of consultants' own efforts--"bureaucrat" has far more baggage and sting?)

Anyway, let's just assume for a moment the Bush ad was intentionally embedded by vermin with the reference to vermin. Then you'd have to say, QED, what Gov. Bush calls "subliminable advertising" DOES exist.

The problem for Madison Avenue is now doubly complicated. Not only does the public assume you are out there undermining their free will every single day, the client will want you to do the same thing.

"Yeah, the board is fine, Larry, but could you slip some penises into the ice cream?" Then agencies will be faced with explaining exactly how wizardly they aren't, which won't square with what was mentioned in the pitch meeting. It will require the admission of mortality, even impotence. In other words, a major repositioning. What in the world to do?

There is only one answer:

Drink Coke.

Copyright September 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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