Sex in the Ice Cubes
Subliminal messages--once a myth--are now routine.
Professor John Bargh, a research psychologist at New York University, thinks subliminal sequences are not just interesting video effects but also powerful influences on behavior. In one experiment Bargh conducted, people who had been flashed such words as "elderly," "Florida," and "gray" walked more slowly than others who were spared this treatment. In another, white subjects were flashed a human image before hearing someone recount a morally ambiguous tale. Subjects who were flashed a black man's picture were more likely to regard the narrator of the story as hostile than were those who glimpsed a white man's face.
The few frames within the Reebok ad, Bargh says, make the tortured runner look triumphant. What's more, the second time we see the runner, she appears familiar and, because familiar, nice. The ad for The Pretender might indeed stimulate a sense of "wonder" by employing the images of money, power, and mythology in such a way that one can sense but not quite comprehend them. As for the Microsoft ad, the reference to the Bill of Rights might resonate subliminally with the overall message of the ad, which portrays the Internet as a cheap and easy way to communicate with other people, a modern-day public square. These images aren't part of some insidious mind-control technique; they don't, as we might fear, make the viewer buy the product being presented. But they may, in ways we don't detect, encourage it.
Perhaps the main difference between the present era and earlier ones is that today we feel different about such encouragement. The older subliminal "scholarship" suggested, at bottom, that advertising itself was a perversion--of which the subliminal message was just a particularly lurid example. But times have changed: Today capitalism and consumer culture are triumphant around the globe, consumers think themselves hip to corporate wiles, and the idea of a mind completely free from the secret seductions of commerce seems unrealistic and maybe not even particularly desirable. In such a context, the message of advertising--buy our product--and the most artful techniques used to promote it aren't considered threatening. They are, for better or worse, business as usual.
Adam Lehner is deputy editor of Spy magazine.