When I was a kid in my early teens, a rumour began to circulate about something called “subliminal advertising”. Every sixty frames or so into a film or after so many seconds of TV programming, so the story went, “they” would insert a single frame featuring the logo of a famous soft drink. Just one frame, which would flash by at a speed faster than our minds could process, but not so fast that our eyes would not capture it. After this had occurred several thousand times, according to the theory, our subconscious would form a desire for that visual cue that could only be satisfied by holding an ice cold bottle of whatever it was in our hands. The idea that something cool and fizzy to drink might seem attractive anyhow after an hour of excitement in a crowded cinema did not occur to us. We were too outraged by the notion that “they” were tampering with our minds.
I spoke to Uncle Haviland about it, as it seemed the sort of thing he would probably be familiar with. He was: he told me that tests had been carried out by those nasty Nazis in the 1930s on the basis of some theoretical concepts first floated in Germany, the US and Britain in the late 1800s. Political slogans were inserted into a newsreel in a test location, but not into the same newsreel shown in the room next door. The audiences were questioned afterwards about their feelings for the transmitted idea. According to Haviland the difference between the two results was not of sufficient interest to merit further experimentation. He reckoned that by 1937 people were probably already so scared of being considered marginal that they’d automatically tick any box they felt they were expected to tick. What do we learn from this? Dictatorships may be great for social engineering, but are pretty useless if you are trying to do serious research.
The concept surfaced again in the USA in those crazy, media-mad ‘50s, when just about anything was possible. Well, not quite. Certain regulatory authorities (such as the Federal Communications Commission) and state institutions (such as the New York State Senate) either sounded the alarm or banned the practice. However, regardless of any real evidence or any measurable effects, the world became fascinated with the idea of manipulation and being manipulated. Books were written, the sensational and the erudite. Ad men and legislators alike busied themselves with the topic until we all got bored and moved on. Meanwhile, the real science of manipulation was just emerging and it had less to do with subconscious flashes and more to do with the calculated use of specific or suggestive language, colour, graphic elements, logos and slogans, lifestyle imagery, etc. These days we tacitly accept that we are being led by the nose. It makes us remarkably resistant. No one would bother to accuse the advertising industry of manipulation today, since it is quite clearly their core business.
But all the noise in the ‘70s about subliminal, contextual or embedded messaging definitely made industry and government alike aware of a couple of simple cognitive facts. If you can turn someone’s conscious mind onto a certain path, that track can be subconsciously reinforced by “subliminals”, either embedded (illegal) or contextual (legal). However, if you are presenting a documentary about machine parts manufacturing, there is little sense in trying to sell popcorn subliminally at the same time. In other words, your discrete message must tie into your obvious message. As a corollary, the famous “blue gorilla effect” demonstrates that if your subject is concentrating hard on one particular thing, he will NOT notice subliminal messaging even if it comes in the form of a two-metre high blue gorilla prancing about on screen while he is trying to count penalty points in an action replay of a basketball game.
Even obvious product placing in TV shows and films must be contextually justifiable and make cultural sense, if it is to be subliminally effective, otherwise it risks backfiring badly. It will jar with our understanding of reality, we will begin to consciously notice it and react against it. The instant Mr Bond gets behind the wheel of something other than a grubby Land Rover or an impeccable Aston Martin, we are alerted to the presence of advertising and begin to reject it. For an entire season of the TV show West Wing
, top White House staff all used Apple MacBooks. There was hardly a tracking shot that didn’t graze the surface of one of these lovely machines, not a press briefing passed without someone whipping one out. The very next season, they were all hammering away at a variety of bulky laptops from Dell that could have been hauled in from the nearest branch of Radio Shack. Any tech-savvy viewer found this laughable and inconsistent. I’m sure no one rushed out to buy Dell notebooks because, geez, Josh and CJ use them! This custard pie of a product placement was similar to the historico-cultural jump-back that occurs at the end of the Star Wars
prequels when all of a sudden you see the full power of Darth Vader’s new Empire being expressed through some very clunky tech.
If the notion that advertisers, or anyone else for that matter, could subtly introduce powerful associations with their products or ideas into our minds through the back door (or under it, the literal meaning of subliminal) was troubling to us in the cold war decades, it was primarily because we had only recently become aware of the fragility of the human mind and its openness to hidden persuasion through the popularization of psychology. The implications were, at the time, omnipresent and definitely scary. Manipulation became a theme that ran through political thinking, scientific literature and the arts of the post-war period up until the advent of so-called empowering technology in the ‘90s. The Internet and its hardware were going to give us back our autonomy and sovereignty. We would become the creators of our own mental environment. We would watch Big Brother even as he watched us.
Today, now that we seem to have entirely accepted, even embraced, our mental fragility, we are less disturbed by our suggestibility than we are by the way our “empowering” technology has enslaved us, while rendering us transparent and readable to others. Ubiquitous and blanket techniques of surveillance are making us nervous for the future of our fundamental rights and even our inalienable identity, as if that identity and those rights had not long since been hijacked for commercial ends. A feedback loop is being created, one that can be interpreted or exploited as either vicious or virtuous. Within this loop “we the people” are influenced to behave in a certain way and then monitored for our degree of conformity. Both the messaging and the monitoring then become subtler or more direct, according to what our hidden masters consider appropriate for our progress as good citizens.
We are beginning to accept this now as the new norm, simply because the alternative is to drop out and go cold turkey on the entire digital revolution. For most people this is a quite unthinkable, even impossible, option. One glance at their daily round tells them that financial liquidity, their working world, their social environment and their deepest inspirations depend largely upon the very tools that have robbed them of their privacy. But there is an upside: the degree that we are monitored could play an important role in our survival. How often do we read of a child dying from abusive parenting, unnoticed by the neighbours, how often is the body of a pensioner discovered weeks after their demise? Judicious use of social networking could go a long way to prevent such occurrences. I often get an e-mail from Facebook to let me know that I’m neglecting my friends and that all kinds of super stuff is happening without me. It would be but a short step further to ask me: Are you ok? Do you need help? Are you in difficulties? Should we use your phone number (given as a secure cross-reference to protect my account from fraud) or should we call a friend, neighbour or family member? I imagine that such a service, even if staffed by robots, could be both inexpensive and effective in preventing solitary death, suicide, abuse or other critical situations.
Preventative, curative or encouragement monitoring could go even further. I could let an automatic and non-shared function on a social network monitor my personal calendar. It could then make suggestions, such as physical activity (if all my Facebook posts are about TV shows and there is no gym visit, forest hike nor bike tour on my personal calendar), a medical or dental check-up (if I haven’t posted one in my calendar in the last year). It could even say things like: you haven’t spent an evening with Jean-Marie for several months, wouldn’t that be a good idea? He’s still a good friend, right? Shouldn’t you phone your Dad? Your call log says you haven’t phoned him since last November. Isn’t it time you visited the thermal baths at Spa again? They’re only a 3.5 kilometres away. To judge by your comment on their website, you really had a relaxing session last year. The local Music Academy is putting on a performance of Der Winterreise
on Friday, aren’t you interested?
With proactive questions and suggestions like these, ones that are sensitive to who you are and what you like to do, as well as your basic needs, I can imagine any number of ways that intrusive technology could actually be enhancing, empowering, educational, amusing or even save a life. In other words, it’s not all about NSA snooping and Edward Snowden. There is a whole world out there to discover, a real world that the virtual world can give you help living in and working with. So, once you’ve accepted that privacy is about as limited now as it was for a large family living in a small town in the Middle Ages, you can begin to make friends with Big Brother. He means well.
Yeah, right! If it weren’t for this kind of thing, I might even believe my own propaganda. But when I’m in my imap-based e-mail programme on my Mac and I switch quickly from [sent] items back to [inbox], a microsecond before the entire stack appears, four e-mails flash in the [inbox] column, only to be subsumed into the entirety again almost before the eye can perceive them. Not quite quickly enough for a perceptive Drood, however. By concentrating my full attention on that split second of time that the four mails (always the same four) appear in the list before vanishing, I can gain enough information to locate them in my inbox using the search window.
And what do I find? That two of the mails, dated last June, from different addresses, contain the word Prisma, which happens to be the name of a social NGO I have done some translation work for. We should bear in mind that this is before the Prisma surveillance program became common knowledge in October, after further documents were leaked by Mr Snowden. The third mail carries the title “how far are you?” and contains only the words “we have reached Vancouver”. This was from some friends enquiring how far I’d got in the Game of Thrones
series I, II & III that they had lent me while they were holidaying in Canada, but coming on the heels of the other two mails, and mentioning some kind of preparation or process as well as the name of a North American city, one can see how it might set off alarm bells. The fourth mail bore the title “Another New York Minute” and asked in the text “anything showing on the scan?” This was an innocent inquiry after the health of a pregnant friend in the States and the sex of her baby. Of course, these words, out of context, might easily seem suspicious (“someone’s going to emergency, someone’s going to jail”).
Anyway, these four mails, no others, are clearly being retrieved from a different server, otherwise how would it be that they consistently appear before all the others? There are 3000 or so e-mails in my online inbox, dating back several years. Isn’t it curious that only four have been siphoned off, all of them from the end of June and early July 2013? You need only refer to the content of my blogs on this website for that period to get some idea of how this all works.
I realise that I’m playing devil’s advocate here, inasmuch as such mails could well be understood as suspicious in the context of genuine and legitimate anti-terror policies. But I cannot help noticing that the trigger for this cull was the innocent and accidental double mention of a secret and (by very definition) illegal surveillance programme, rather than any previous activity. The mails represent collateral, rather than evidence. They could be twisted, even doctored to seem less innocuous than they are.
Live in peace with your paranoia, people! The hand speaks: breathe in, breathe out, move on.
© Edwin Drood
, January 2014
A "Phantasmagoria" magic lantern show of the Belgian physicist and magician Étienne-Gaspard Robertson (1763-1837) in Paris, 1797. Detail of an illustration from E. G. Robertson, Mémoires: récréatifs, scientifiques et anecdotiques
, Tome premier, Paris 1831.
See Library of Congress http://lccn.loc.gov/32006148