Thursday, October 13, 2005


Subliminal Messages in Movies: Real or Urban Myth?

As legend has it, in the summer of 1957, at a movie house in Fort Lee, NJ, James Vicary (who had already conducted a number of unusual studies of female shopping habits) placed a tachistoscope in the theater's projection booth, and while the film Picnic was playing, he flashed a couple of different messages on the screen --"Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat Popcorn" -- every five seconds. The messages each displayed for only 1/3000th of a second at a time, far below a viewers' threshold of conscious perceptibility. The result, according to Vicary, was an amazing 18.1% increase in Coca-Cola sales, and a whopping 57.8% jump in popcorn purchases. This, Vicary argued, demonstrated the awesome power of what his termed "subliminal advertising" to coerce unaware buyers into making purchases they would not otherwise have considered. (A subliminal message is a signal in the form of a picture or sound that is designed to pass the normal limits of perception. That means that people perceive it with their subconscious while not perceiving it consciously.) However, when forced to repeat the experiment under close study, the results were nowhere near the same, and Vicary eventually confessed that he had falsified the data from his first experiments. Some critics have since expressed doubts that he actually conducted his infamous Ft. Lee experiment at all. However, the media (and the public) only paid attention to the sensational original story, and the minimal coverage given to Vicary's later confession was ignored or quickly forgotten. And so was born the concept of "subliminal messages." Do they really exist? Have filmmakers put such messages in their movies? The debate continues to this day, but here are some of the more famous cases involving films:
The Exorcist was one of the first films of note to bring subliminal messaging issues to the attention of the public. Some viewers found the experience of watching the film so intense, claims soon arose that director William Friedkin used numerous special sound effects and a number of "quasi-subliminal inserts" to add to the film's "fear quotient" and to influence the emotional reactions of viewers. These claims were never substantiated.
At least three Disney movies -- Aladdin, The Lion King and The Little Mermaid -- were reputed to have incorporated 'subliminal messages' before they were supposedly withdrawn and reissued. In the film Aladdin, does Aladdin actually whisper, "Good teenagers, take off your clothes," as was claimed, or is he saying "Good Kitty. Take off."? Does a dust cloud in The Lion King, actually spell the word SEX? (Or was it the team in the special effect department having fun abbreviating the term Special Effects -- SFX?) Or does it even exist in the film at all? Did a four-year old from New York (or Louisiana), actually notice this while watching a video version of the movie and tell his mother (or aunt) about it? In The Little Mermaid, does a minister officiating a wedding actually show an bulging erection in his tights? Or is it his knobby knee? In September 1995, the American Life League -- a Virginia-based right-to-life group which had already been boycotting Disney because of the film Priest since April of that year -- began an intense publicity campaign against these animated Disney films which they claimed contained "subliminal sexual messages." The media ate it up and soon a woman from Arkansas named Janet Gilmer filed a lawsuit against The Walt Disney Company and Buena Vista Home Video, also claiming that Disney had inserted subliminal sex messages in its films. She dropped her lawsuit two months later.
More recently, in the movie Fight Club, there is a knowing wink to the idea of subliminal messages in film. The main character of the film is an insomniac who takes a job as a movie projectionist. As an act of rebellion, he splices frames of pornographic material into the movies he shows. But, did David Fincher, the director of Fight Club, do the same? Did he insert nudity into the film subliminally to punch it up, as some have claimed? Moreover, does the poster to Chevy Chase's 1981 film Modern Problems show him subliminally masturbating? Does the poster for the Academy Award winning Best Picture of 1979 Kramer vs Kramer subliminally depict Dustin Hoffman wanting to punch young Justin Henry in the face? Does the poster for this year's Beauty Shop show Queen Latifah subliminally performing fellatio (with a strategically placed blow drier)? The intriguing nature of this (supposed?) practice will keep conspiracy theorists and folks who believe that playing a certain Beatles album backwards will tell you "Paul is Dead" arguing its existence for years to come. What do you think?

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One of the striking elements of "Fight Club" is this idea of the subliminal. It is not only film that is spliced together but the idea that life vaguely encourages us to do something that we may or may not already be considering. Not only does one of the characters splice elicit material in to the movies that he is responsible for showing, but he splices ideas and thoughts into his counterpart's psyche.

What about films that are not necessarily "subliminal" but are just subtle. For example product placements have become huge in movies. It is blatant when the camera lingers on a Pepsi can. But what about a full view of a character (top to bottom) and ever so slightly seeing the Nike swoosh on his gym shoes? Does that make people want to rush out and purchase Nikes?
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