Revlon ad altered to highlight seeming subliminal death imagery. Image Source: Subliminal Manipulation.
The other day, I caught a telltale momentary flicker on the television and wondered - with some uneasiness - what subliminal message I had just seen. The history of subliminal messages is bound up with the rise of mass democracy. The manipulation of the hidden depths of individual psychology, the cult of the self, the obsession with subjectivity, moral relativism and self-love that intensified through the 20th century and crested with the movements of the Baby Boomers, all involved techniques to manipulate, control, and profit from, the masses. Now, we should wonder how those techniques and ideas are carrying over into the virtual reality that the Web is becoming.
Subliminal messages - which usually involve those sex and death standards of phalluses, breasts, vaginas and skulls - are nothing new. Anyone who has stared at a crucifix (often echoed in associated surrounding symbols), without understanding why its classically phallic shape is so mesmerising, may attest to this.
Image Source: Subliminal Manipulations.
There are examples of some surprising subliminal libidinal images here and here (click on the images on that site to see the subliminal messages highlighted). These examples come from a major blog, Subliminal Manipulation, which, along with its associated Youtube channel, examines subliminal messaging in the 20th and 21st centuries. In some cases, the arguments are not convincing. There is something to be said for looking for a symbol and finding it everywhere once you are predisposed to find it.
Dora Aquapet. Image Source: Subliminal Manipulation.
However, the ubiquitous presence of images that cannot be doubted in all branches of popular media and all types of consumer products (most alarmingly, in toys and entertainment aimed at children) means that, as far as subliminal messages go, where there is smoke, there is fire.
Looking back on the beginning of this period, you could say that the First World War was, in one respect, an experiment in mass democracy. Historian Niall Ferguson has asked (here), why millions of men enlisted, why whole societies willingly mobilized to fight each other, all with very little justification. One dimension of that war was its terrible mass management. After the war, confronted by a new age of democracy (discussed by writers such as Orwell here), managerial theorists needed to figure out how to manage the masses. The German people's support of the Nazis and the Holocaust during the Second World War provided even more horrifying examples of mass control. From the perspective of mass management, these examples were more 'successful' than they had been from 1914 to 1918.
The BBC Four 2002 documentary, The Century of the Self, explained how wartime ideas were adapted to keep post-war democratic societies docile. It showed a study in which psychoanalysts explored the relationship between shell-shock and pre-existing familial psychological problems observed in American soldiers:
"The story begins in the middle of the fierce fighting of the Second World War. As the fighting intensified, the American army was faced by an extraordinary number of mental breakdowns among its troops. 49% of all soldiers evacuated from combat were sent back because they suffered from mental problems.
Thus, attempts to create democratic individuals were driven by justified fears of violent tendencies and neuroses that could lead to genocide; but these efforts then took a darker turn. What was invented, to be precise, was wartime-styled propaganda aimed at preserving peace, which then bled into politics and advertising.In desperation, the army turned to the new ideas of psychoanalysis. They made a film record of the experiment using hidden cameras. ... It was the first time that anyone had paid such attention to the feelings and anxieties of ordinary people. At the heart of the experiment were a number of refugee psychoanalysts from Central Europe. They worked with American psychiatrists to guide and shape the project. [Professor Martin Bergmann, Psychoanalyst, US Army, 1943-1945:] 'When I first came to America, I worked in the psychiatric service with soldiers trying to rehabilitate them. And I traveled in the train from the east coast to the west coast. I was enormously curious [about] what goes on in all of those little towns that the train is passing. After my years in the army, I knew exactly what everyone was doing in the little towns, because I saw so many people who came from there, and I understood their aspirations, their disappointments and so forth. So it was as if somebody invited me to a privileged tour into the inner soul of America.' ...The psychoanalysts used techniques developed by Freud to take the men back into their pasts. They became convinced that the breakdowns were not the direct result of the fighting. The stress of combat had merely triggered old childhood memories. These were memories of the men's own violent feelings and desires which they had repressed because they were too frightening. To the psychoanalysts, it was overwhelming proof of Freud's theory that underneath, human beings were driven by primitive, irrational forces.[Bergmann:] 'World War II was a major, shattering experience, because I discovered the enormous role of the irrational in the life of most people. ... The ratio between the irrational and the rational in America is very much in favour of the irrational. ... There's much greater unhappiness, much more suffering, much more. A sadder country than one would imagine it from the advertisements that you get. A much more problematic country.'Victory in the Second World War was celebrated as a triumph of democracy. But in private, many policy makers were worried about the implications of the analysis of the soldiers. It seemed to show that underneath every American were irrational, violent drives. What had happened in Germany seemed to bear this out. The complicity of so many ordinary Germans in mass killings during the war showed just how easily these forces could break through and overwhelm democracy.[Ellen Herman, Historian of American Psychology:] 'Planners and policy makers had been convinced by their experiences during World War II that human beings could act very irrationally because of this sort of teeming and raw and unpredictable emotionality. The kind of chaos that lived at the base of human personality could, in fact, infect the society, social institutions to such a point that the society itself would become sick. That's what they believed happened in Germany, in which the irrational, the anti-democratic, went wild. ... It was a vision of human nature as incredibly destructive and they were terrified that Americans would in fact behave that way, or were capable of behaving that way, and they wanted to avoid a rerun of that.'[Bergmann:] 'So what is needed is a human being that can internalize democratic values so that they are not shaken with the storm. And psychoanalysis carried in it the promise that it can be done.'"
The BBC Four documentary describes the invention of the field of Public Relations, derived directly from war propaganda techniques. Over decades, the studies led directly to what this documentary terms 'the engineering of consent,' the development of a mass culture and consumerism. The wife of one of the pioneers in this field, Ernest Dichter stated: "If you identify yourself with a product, it can have a therapeutic value. It improves your self-image and you become a more secure person and you have suddenly this confidence of going out in the world and doing what you want successfully. And it's believed that that would then improve the whole of our society."
Sobeys Grocery Store Chain logo, Canada. Image Source: Subliminal Manipulation.
Model citizens were transformed into model consumers. They were surrounded by mass-produced stimuli and repeated, information-driven stresses that could provoke deep-seated impulses, emotions, family histories, in a way similar to the catalyst traumas experienced by soldiers. If the ensuing impulses could be harnessed, people could be controlled, and learn to control themselves in ways that were theoretically pro-democratic.
At the very least, dangerous insticts and impulses could be diverted into relatively harmless activities. Even if those activities were in themselves damaging (for example, addictions to legalized drugs, overeating, overspending), according to these thinkers who regarded the horrors of the Nazi genocide, they were nothing compared to the alternatives. The documentary explains that one experiment was performed to assess how advertisers could convince people to smoke cigarettes on a mass scale.
All of this would likely delight conspiracy theorists. But beware, nothing is ever what it seems: this documentary, while presenting interesting information, is dicey. The video has an underlying message about mass control that is itself subliminal and not nice at all. In 1962, Philip K. Dick made a wild, counter-factual speculation on what America would have been like if the Nazis had won the Second World War. The narration here implies that Joseph Goebbels's work is alive and well and was reapplied in the post-war world, through the application of Anna Freud's theories. Cryptic hints that 'refugee Viennese doctors' stood behind the consumerist-propagandist undermining of America are rather startling.
The documentary blames these scientists - and then their detractors - for some of the worst aspects of post-war life, through different emphases on the self. This part discusses the social revolutions of the Baby Boomers, who aimed to free themselves from social norms and values (rather than manipulate them, like the Freudians). Boomers tried to find individual autonomy from the state and corporations. As a result, the obsession with the self only grew stronger and became politicized. But corporate studies of the Boomers found that their personal journeys did not mean that consumerism would stop:
"[Daniel Yankelovich, leading American market researcher:] "The conventional interpretation, the dominant interpretation, was that it had to do with political radicalism. But what was clear to us was that that was a mask, a cover. The core of it had to do with self expressiveness. This preoccupation with the self and the inner self, that was what was so important to people, the ability to be self expressive." ... Yankelovich began to track the growth and behaviour of these new expressive selves. What he told the corporations was that these new beings were consumers. But they no longer wanted anything that would place them within the narrow strata of American society. Instead, what they wanted were products that would express their individuality, their difference in a conformist world."As lifestyle replaced political activism, gurus began mass producing the new, independent, totally selfish self. In the words of Stew Albert, "Socialism in one person. ... Although that, of course, is capitalism." Boomers matured and gained authority, and their badges (or lifestyles, or brands) of individualist difference and self-involvement ironically became the measure of a new, collective conformity. Anti-materialist hippies eventually devised a parade of post-war Nanny States, each with its savvy, self-conscious parade of causes and loudly-proclaimed fears of big business, which drove new kinds of virtuous consumerism. And with the rise of trading agreements and entrenchment of entities like the European Union, that statism became ever-bigger.
More worryingly, these trends ultimately point to what has become the most destructive psychological turn of the 20th century and the new Millennium: the displacement of responsibility and the projection of individual agency for individuals' negative impulses on others. Even as the focus on the self becomes ever more entrenched, the source of agency for individuals' negative actions is perceived to be located ever more outside the self. There is always someone outside who can be blamed, for anything that goes wrong, while navel-gazers congratulate themselves on being personally gratified according to their own minor standards and values. Usually the negative fallout of self-obsession reflects a larger process, in which individuals project their self-propelled virtues upon the world at large. In other words, the individual good was and is understood to be the public good, or even the world good.
Meanwhile on the right, a conservative, free-market-loving conspicuous consumer emerged, who was equally self-involved. When it came to being obsessed with personal transformations, via the abiding focus on the individual, there was and remains considerable overlap between left and right. The focus on the self explains why a lot of once-leftist Boomers would vote for Reagan's and Thatcher's right-wing, libertarian-flavoured movements during the 1980s. Left wing victories in the 1990s arose only through mimicry of Reagan's and Thatcher's approaches, wherein voters were treated like individual, privileged consumers who could demand whatever they wanted. Under these conditions, liberal and conservative political ideologies rapidly break down under the weight of selfishness. The distinction between left and right becomes meaningless, as politicians universally pander to armies of little egotists. False rifts between left and right create the illusion of difference between political sides, where there really isn't any difference. Political flamewars make it seem like there is real political momentum and ideological platforms are still intact, when they are not. Leaders become followers. General social values disappear.
Image Source: Subliminal Manipulation.
The documentary also includes the slogan, "information drives behaviour." This brings us to the Internet, the Web, the Information and Technological Revolutions. When the Internet first appeared, many thought it would become a tool to finally free the masses into Post-Postmodern society. This is likely still the retro attitude of an anarchist activist like Julian Assange. The Web is instead becoming an alternate world where our subjectivities are made more real. Sites like Facebook feed off the mass egotism that drives every person to become their own brand. Every person has a chance to be a celebrity now, and that celebrity is not defined by talent, ability, accomplishment, beauty or class. As Lady Gaga showed at the height of her success, Millennial self-promotion depends on something else.
Lady Gaga meat dress, MTV Video Music Awards (September 2010). Image Source: Zimbio.
Lady Gaga succeeded because she tapped inner impulses and projected them back at us, mechanically, like a businesswoman methodically delivering a product. Cut from the same cloth as Madonna and Britney Spears, she overturned the formula and came across as a disaffected and sophisticated, straight-talking individual. By projecting the core of inner subjectivities, she briefly appeared to be what everyone is desperate to be, more than anything else in this sick, computer-gazing, narcissistic world: an Original.
Cyberspace is the place where Freud's suppressed urges, which the Boomers released and repackaged, are real and hold sway. But do they run free? In this ocean of subliminal virtual narcissism, the only social values are fulfilled impulses. And this is where subliminal advertising comes in. I am waiting for the day when Facebook, or its successors, introduce tools where people can use subliminal imagery band techniques to augment their own profiles, not just to fuel advertisers.