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The Gross National Debt

Monday, December 05, 2005

Like many people, I have heard of an buy into the idea put forward in Vance Packard's 1957 book titled The Hidden Persuaders. In a nutshell, Packard talked, in part, about "motivational research" marketing techniques being used to influence purchasing behavior in America in the post-war boom. You might relate better to the phrase "subliminal advertising", though that was not the phrase used at the time. From Snopes.com:

Advertisements that focused on consumers' hopes, fears, guilt, and sexuality were designed to persuade them to buy products they'd never realized they needed. Marketers who could reach into the hearts and minds of American consumers soon found consumers' wallets to be within easy grasp as well.

Scary stuff. Read on.

James Vicary actually coined the term "subliminal advertising". His most notable experiment involved a movie theatre. Again, from Snopes.com:

Vicary placed a tachistoscope in the theater's projection booth, and all throughout the playing of the film Picnic, he flashed a couple of different messages on the screen every five seconds. The messages each displayed for only 1/3000th of a second at a time, far below the viewers' threshold of conscious perceptibility. The result of displaying these imperceptible suggestions -- "Drink Coca-Cola" and "Hungry? Eat Popcorn" -- was an amazing 18.1% increase in Coca-Cola sales, and a whopping 57.8% jump in popcorn purchases. Thus was demonstrated the awesome power of "subliminal advertising" to coerce unwary buyers into making purchases they would not otherwise have considered.

The veracity of the experiment has been challenged and the validity of the results have been questioned. Despite these questions, the reaction to the experiment were sensational. In 1974, in fact, the FCC banned "subliminal advertising" from both radio and television airwaves.

This is the classic example of subliminal advertising. Whether or not it occurred and, further, was effective remains an open question. What is not an open question, however, is the fact that "motivational research" is alive and well and is being used on Americans each and every day. One of the most effective uses is in political advertising.

You're being guided; directed - and it's the Bush Administration who has mastered the art of this technique.

I want to state up front that the idea for this post came from reading Al Franken's book The Truth - with Jokes. Have you heard of Terror Management Theory (TMT)? If you answered "no", join the club - I hadn't, either. It is an actual scientific discipline. From Wikipedia:

Terror management theory (TMT) is a developing area of study within the academic study of psychology. It looks at what researchers claim to be the implicit emotional reactions of people when confronted with the psychological terror of knowing we will eventually die (it is widely believed that our awareness of mortality is a trait that is unique to humans).


The Theory embarks on the assumption that the capability of self-reflection and the consciousness of one’s own mortality, can be regarded as a continuous source for existential anguish. Culture diminishes this psychological terror by providing meaning, organisation and continuity to men and women. Compliance with cultural values enhances the feeling of security and self-esteem, provided that the individual is capable to live in accordance with these particular cultural standards. The belief in the rightness of the cultural values and standards creates the conviction to live a reasonable and meaningful life. Because of this men and women strive to have their cultural worldview confirmed by others, thereby receiving the community’s estimation.

Let me net out how I read that statement. Subscribing to a culture and cultural norms lessens the anguish of the knowledge that we will eventually die. Working towards a purpose and receiving validation of that purpose within the norms of society relieves the pressure and fear that accompany death. (Note: I'm not a doctor nor do I have more than a junior-level psychology class under my belt. This was, for better or worse, my slightly-informed interpretation.)

Now - let's come back to Al Franken's book. Franken introduces us to TMT as part of an effort to explain how and why George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. Think back on the 2004 Presidential campaign (I know, I know - it's painful to do so). Do you remember the ad that most referred to as "Wolves"? I do. A link to a Windows Media version can be found here if you're interested. Needless to say it was a dark and frightening ad. The text went like this:

In an increasingly dangerous world...
Even after the first terrorist attack on America...
John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slah America's intelligence operations by 6 billion dollars...
Cuts so deep they would have weakened America's defenses.
And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.

Franken points out that the voice-over is deceptively vague - which first terrorist attack? It makes a difference in the truthfulness of the ad itself. But I digress.

A lot of criticism followed that ad, decried loudly by those on the left as "fear-mongering". It was fear-mongering - but it was so much more than that. It was likely a carefully orchestrated application of TMT.

I don't have the background or the patience to detail, specifically, the studies that I found on the internet when researching this. In the days immediately following 9/11, Bush's approval rating soared to 86%. 86%!!! One studious researcher proved empirically that Bush's approval ratings increased every time the terror alert level was raised by the Government. Another ground-breaking study solidified the connection between fear, a desire to be released from fear, the likelihood that this strong desire will lead to a search for psychological security, and the strong preference to choose a "charismatic" leader in these types of circumstances who affirm our world view and cause us to feel safe. This quote sums it all up for me:

In Escape from Freedom, Eric Fromm (1941) proposed that loyalty to charismatic leaders results from a defensive need to feel a part of a larger whole, and surrendering one's freedom to a larger-than-life leader can serve as a source of self-worth and meaning in life. Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death, 1973) posited that when mainstream worldviews are not serving people's need for psychological security, concerns about mortality impel people to devote their psychological resources to following charismatic leaders who bolster their self-worth by making them feel like they are valued participants in a great mission to heroically triumph over evil.

Go back to the "Wolves" ad and read/watch it again. We all knew at the time that it was fear-mongering. I didn't realize, however, that it was scientifically orchestrated to cause voters to behave in a way that would favor George W. Bush and/or why it was so effective.

Franken concludes this particular discussion with an interesting analysis. He takes issue with the 2004 Bush win being based on "moral values". Summarily, voters in the 2004 election who identified themselves as "moral values" voters (those who place moral and ethical issues at the top of their list) represented a much lower percentage (22%) than did the same group in the 2000 election (35%) and the 1996 election (40%). In 2000 and 1996 those who put the abortion issue at the top of their list were 14% and 9% respectively. Abortion voters were not considered in the moral/ethical values figures. therefore, nearly half the electorate voted on moral/ethical issues in 1996 and 2000 while in 2004, only about 20% did. The argument, then, is that "moral values" was an illusion. The Bush campaign simply applied science to scare people into voting for them.

Tell me, in light of this, how what Bush did in 2004 is any different than the unacceptable practice of subliminal advertising. It's nothing short of manipulation and 51% of America was hoodwinked.

posted by RenaRF at 6:32 AM 4 comments links to this post


Blogger Uncle $cam said...

Brainwash science is no joke, I'm reading this book at the moment, and so far I would recommend it highly. Taylor explores brainwashing techniques employed in the aftermath of the Korean war, moving on to discuss the subject in terms of neurology and cognitive science. She then goes on to suggest that similar tehniques are prevalent within contemporary media and politics. We are, according to Taylor, more susceptible to brainwashing in the 21st century because of the stress caused by the imminent threat of terror. The cybernetic media operates materially, modulating waves of dread across the plane of existence.

Of course, in Brain washed America ? Science and ideology are at war. The American government has been taken over and is now at war on it's people.

It has been said that when the visigoths invaded Rome, the average Roman hadn't a clue that their society was taken over. It was a slow motion collapse of silver currency that finally did it in. It's infastructure was eaten out by termites and stood like a hallowed out bridge , which stands looking pristine from the outside until it's surface collapse.

Organizations are born from a perceived need:-

curiosity > science, orphans > orphanage, poverty > charity, religion > church, government > democracy, communication > media, oppression > libertarianism

This always happens against the will of the establishment.

Why ? The 'establishment' has all power and privilege, therefore it cannot want change. Constructive change is always feared and opposed by establishments.

1:17 PM  
Blogger KathyinBlacksburg said...


Though I appreciate your post, I might ad that the effectiveness of sublimal messaging is still debatable. It is "scary stuff," though and advertisers shouldn't do do it, for ethical reasons (ie related to intent).
Also, despite the exaggeration via advertising and through tv/newspaper reporters, research studies never "prove" anything. They reject (not disprove) the null hypothesis, which says the differences are from chance alone. But a statistically significant result does not literally prove the opposite to be true. It suggests it. Much depends on the research design and whether any counfounding variables (alternate explanations) are left uncontrolled. Even so, scientists don't talk about research conclusively "proving." Any claim stronger than that is hyperbole. When a collection of studies seems to argue for a trend, we still don't say research "proves" anything. Only in the realm of psychobabble and pseudo-science are stronger claims made.

Regarding the example of the politicians and media folks scaring Americans. I'd suggest this is not sublimal at all. The attempt to scare Americans is obvious and overt. It's unrelenting. Much of what we hear on teh news is designed to scare us into listening and caring about some terrible thing or other that could befall us. And it's as unethical as it gets.

10:22 AM  
Blogger RenaRF said...

Kathy: Thanks for your comment. I completely agree with your logic and your comment.

I had one interesting comment from this post over at Daily Kos that was pretty up-in-arms about the veracity of the original subliminal advertising study by Vicary. The comment thread can be found here. If you read through the thread itself you'll see that I acknowledge (and thought I did so in the post, but I certainly concede that to some it wasn't clear) the questions around the original Vicary study.

I think another thing I didn't do well in the post was make the turn from "subliminal" to "motivational advertising". I definitely don't think that the Wolves ad was subliminal. Rather, the premise was that it's more than just haphazard fear tactics being applied and represents a more orchestrated attempt to apply science (Terror Management Theory) to voters, elections, and governing.

Does that make any sense?

10:32 AM  
Blogger Say I'm Sorry said...

Yes it does.

4:37 PM  

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