Film Review: Programming the Nation?

Imperfect but important documentary about subliminal messaging.

Jeff Warrick tackles a fascinating subject in Programming the Nation?. Do subliminal messages in pop culture really exist? And if they exist, do they really work? As Warrick sorts his way through the minefield of data, the film loses some of its impact, but those interested in the topic will find plenty to think about.

Warrick takes a familiar approach, becoming an instant part of the narrative as he relates his personal interest from a young age in subliminal messages. His “journey" to better understand the history of the phenomenon begins via interviews with an impressive array of experts in the field—mainly writers and academics (like linguist Noam Chomsky, media critics Douglas Rushkoff and Mark Crispin Miller, and media activist Ann Simonton). He also consults some film and television personnel (like Hitchcock’s assistant director, Hilton A. Green), musicians (like Mark Mothersbaugh), and a couple of politicians (Dennis Kucinich and Diane E. Watson). When Warrick finally tries to discuss the issue with a few advertisers on Madison Avenue, he is rebuffed (a la Roger and Me) in spite of a couple of sneaky attempts to get interviews. Finally, with the encouragement of radio host Amy Goodman, he concludes that subliminal messages not only are prevalent in pop culture but are used primarily to nefarious ends.

There is much here to appreciate. Though shot in an ordinary “talking head” manner, some of the interviews shed light on how subliminal messages actually work. Abetted by short clips from classic films, TV shows and ads, the experts break down the subtle, crafty techniques.

Unfortunately, the filmmaker’s attempts at discovery become plodding, even muddled, despite the fact that it makes narrative sense for Warrick’s point of view be most fully realized and understood at the end of his film. At one point, the “Godfather” of subliminal messaging, Wilson Bryan Key, is said to have renounced his late-1950s trials that proved subliminal ads in movies (e.g., to buy soft drinks) successfully worked on consumers. But minutes later, we are told that Key has maintained “to date” the validity of his infamous experiment. Subsequently, we are still left wondering when we see examples from contemporary films and TV programs, but we also hear other experts dismiss their true effect (or, as rock musician Geoff Tate says, the existence of what one sees is in the eye of the beholder and thus “debatable”).

The back-and-forth nature of the film’s perspective becomes most dramatic during the coverage of the 1990 court case against metal band Judas Priest for writing lyrics that supposedly manipulated two teens to shoot themselves. But are we to believe that Judas Priest is responsible for the teens’ deaths in an equivalent way the last part of the film illustrates how the Bush White House “sold” the Iraq War to the public in 2002-03 via clever marketing? By this point, the definition of “subliminal” has been worked over too much, as Warrick fails to provide sufficiently clear distinctions about the types, uses and abuses of subliminal messaging.

Despite missing an opportunity to make a consistent argument, Jeff Warrick at least initiates a dialogue that is long overdue about a pervasive but little-discussed media subject.