Yesterday evening I watched the recently released remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. If you’ve seen it, do you recall noticing a huge McDonald’s advertisement being thrust in your face partway through? If you spotted it, good for you, because you weren’t supposed to. It’s what’s known as a subliminal, which means “below threshold” – something that’s designed to get into your head by bypassing the critical faculty of normal conscious awareness. Most people have heard of subliminal messages, and the example that probably comes to mind is a lightning-quick message flashed across a screen – gone before you’ve time to read it. That certainly is a subliminal, but subliminals are also much more crafty than this. There’s a scene in The Day the Earth Stood Still where Jennifer Connelly and Keanu Reeves pull into a parking lot at night. The camera is positioned in front of their car, looking in through the windshield. As the car grinds to a halt, the reflection of a huge letter “M” crawls up the glass, a yellow “M” with very familiar curved peaks. At this point, the attention of most viewers is on Jennifer and Keanu and the conversation they are having, not on the McDonald’s logo. Typically, we look through the glass, not directly at it. Someone may ask, “What’s the value in an advertisement, if no one pays attention to it?” It’s a sensible enough question, if you’ve never researched how the human mind works. But when you understand something of the nature of the mind, then it becomes clear that it’s precisely your lack of attention that the advertisers are counting on!
Our minds have a tendency to build associations between things that are placed together. I’ll explain what I mean by that by illustrating how a phobia – an irrational fear – operates. I know a young woman who finds it extremely uncomfortable to be photographed. At first I thought her reaction to cameras was based on insecurity about her appearance, but I later learned from her that the origin of her fear was much deeper. As a young child, her parents hired a professional photographer each year for her birthday party. It was always the same bearded man, the physical appearance of whom frightened the child. As the photographer, he was never without his camera. And so the negative emotions that the girl felt in response to the man became associated with the camera, too. When this was reinforced over a few years, the same emotions occurred when the camera alone was pointed at the girl, regardless of who was holding it. As an adult, she is completely aware that her fear of cameras is irrational, but the feelings persist regardless of what her conscious mind knows. You might imagine that all we would need to do to cure a phobia is to realise how irrational it is, but it’s not that simple. The mind creates links that bypass conscious awareness, and these links take time and effort to break.
This tendency of the mind to create unconscious associations may give the impression that our minds are somewhat faulty, or less optimal than they should be. But that’s not the case. The tendency of the unconscious to make associations is vital to us being able to function effectively in the physical world. The fact that I can sit here and tap this computer keyboard rapidly without consciously thinking about each key-press is due to my subconscious having established links. I simply think about what words I want to appear, give the okay to my fingers, and off they go. This is in stark contrast to when I was ten years old, playing with my first computer, gradually learning where each letter was located by roving my index finger across the keyboard. Little did I know back then that I was beginning the process of creating a bridge between intention and action that would allow my conscious mind to be bypassed, turning me into a rapid typist. If you’re not a heavy computer user, a better example of this is driving a car. Remember what it was like when you first learned? All the careful thinking you had to do, between watching the road, steering, changing gears while correctly operating the clutch and accelerator, not to mention the safety aspects of paying attention to the mirrors and being able to find the brake instantly. Now, if you’ve been driving for a few years, you’ll know that the car feels just like an extension of your body, and you don’t even have to think about those things at all. They happen on automatic, because your mind has built the necessary subconscious connections that give your conscious mind the freedom to be elsewhere, such as talking on a mobile phone (not!).
In the case of the woman with the phobia, the very same principle is operating. Her mind has created an unconscious association through repetition of experience. A camera appears, and the subconscious says, “Oh! There’s a camera pointed at you. I know what I’m supposed to make you feel: fear!” The conscious mind says, “Stop it. This is irrational. There’s no reason I’m supposed to feel this.” And the subconscious replies, “Sorry, but I already know what I’m supposed to be doing.” The purpose of the bridge-building tendency is to allow the bypassing of conscious awareness, and that’s why the subconscious isn’t listening to the conscious mind, even when the conscious mind attempts to correct it. The way to cure an irrational phobia is to re-train the unconscious mind to feel something different, by confronting the fear head-on and persistently attempting to create a new experience, until a different association is built through repetition.
So you see, the tendency of the mind to build unconscious connections is both necessary but, given particular circumstances, is prone to veering off in a direction that is less than helpful for our lives. This tendency also makes the mind prone to deliberate abuse by those who know how the mind works. And have no doubt, advertisers are very much in the know.
Picture this: you’re sitting at home, warm and snug in your living room, tucking into a snack, while The Day the Earth Stood Still is pouring out of the TV across the room and into your eyes. While you’re in this feel-good state, a big McDonald’s logo is staring you in the face, but you don’t even see it. Or to state that more accurately, your conscious mind doesn’t see it; your subconscious, on the other hand, takes it all in. You’re not aware of it, but a feel-good emotional connection with the McDonald’s logo is covertly building itself in your subconscious. Later, when you drive your car past the local McDonald’s “restaurant” and you spot that big letter “M” on the building, you start to feel good, and you have no idea why. The effect is so subtle that you don’t even ask yourself why you feel good. Of course, one subliminal message in one movie isn’t going to have much of an effect. A cumulative effect is created by the constant repetition of the same theme, again and again, in other movies and during commercial breaks. Ask yourself, how many television advertisements are designed to inform you, whereas how many are designed to make you feel something? With this is mind, you can start to appreciate the importance of a company having a distinct, simple, identifiable symbol on their products or services. In time, your subconscious learns a clear message from the experiences you feed it, and it starts to tell you: “McDonald’s makes me feel good.” And unless you’ve educated yourself with the likes of Morgan Spurlock’s excellent documentary Supersize Me, exposing the horrors of the fast food industry, then you have no reason not to follow what makes you feel good. Ka-ching! “Big Mac and fries, please.”
Some time ago in the UK there was a television advertisement for the cervical cancer vaccine that was being introduced for teenage girls. Did this advert inform the public of the medical facts about cervical cancer and the vaccine? No. Instead, it staged a little feel-good play, where a schoolgirl sang a song with words like “Had the jab we need; girls feeling safe,” combined with images of her playing netball in the school playground with her friends. This was designed to make the viewer feel the positive emotions associated with fun school activities and associate those emotions with the cervical cancer vaccine, regardless of what the viewer does or doesn’t know about the vaccine. The only useful information in the advertisement was a web-link at the tail end, where you could go and get the facts. I mean, really, who keeps a notepad by their armchair to take down websites while they watch TV? The web-link was there because it covers the NHS’s legal asses. Based on the content of the advert itself, it was essentially saying, “You don’t need to think. Information is irrelevant. Just feel how we want you to feel.” How about instead using those thirty seconds to properly inform me about the risks of developing cervical cancer and the side-effects of the vaccine? Then I can make an informed choice about whether to have my daughter vaccinated. But no, the National Health Service prefers to subject schoolgirls to mind control, to lull them into feeling positive emotions instead of presenting impartial freedom of choice. At the risk of sounding paranoid, I suspect the real reason why the vaccine is advertised in this manner is because it is a product, just like a Big Mac is a product, and they want as many people as possible to “consume” this product, so that they can make as much money as possible at the expense of the tax payers who have no choice but to fund them. “But we care!” says the NHS. I’ll believe that when you stop trying to control my mind. Here’s the advertisement; judge what I’m saying for yourself. See how many different things you can spot that are designed to evoke positive feelings in teenage girls – things which have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with cervical cancer or the vaccine …
A few days ago I spotted another alarming TV advertisement. This time it was a recruiting drive by the armed forces. The advert dramatised a combat scenario in the style of a first-person shooter videogame, placing the television screen as the eyes of the soldier. It was clearly designed to appeal to the young gaming generation. The viewer is reminded of the good feelings associated with playing games – the adrenaline rush of full-on virtual combat, the pleasure of outwitting an enemy with superior tactics. The subconscious is then encouraged to link the real-life combat shown on the advertisement with the good feelings of videogames. The message is clear: “You like videogames? Well, if you want the ultimate adrenaline rush, sign up for the armed forces!” No useful information. No critical thinking encouraged. It’s all feel, feel, feel. “Feel what we want you to feel. You’re the donkey; just follow the carrot we’re holding in front of your nose. No need to think.” Remember, this isn’t an advert that’s trying to make you change your brand of fabric softener. It’s using the feeling you get from killing videogame characters and attempting to associate it with the killing of real people in real war. Here’s the ad …
These are not sinister exceptions in an otherwise clean and safe world of advertising. This is how the whole advertising game is played. It’s the straightforward and informative adverts that are the exception. Emotional manipulation is the norm. Ever watch a television advert and you thought it was completely daft? Doesn’t matter. Did it make you laugh? That’s what mattered. Can you even remember what the product was? No? Doesn’t matter. Your subconscious took note of that brand logo, and rest assured you’ll feel good when you see it again. Why would a company pay thousands of pounds to parade a celebrity in front of your nose for thirty seconds when a second-rate actor would do just as well? You won’t feel the same way about John Smith as you do about Bruce Willis, Ewen McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson – take your pick. We’ve all had experiences with celebrities before, because we’ve enjoyed their movies, appreciated their recipes, tapped our feet to their music, or whatever. Their presence in an advertisement is not to inform you; it’s to make you feel good and manipulate your subconscious to link that feeling to the product or service, regardless of what you do or don’t know.
This is how the wool is pulled over our eyes. This is how we are treated like sheep every day. This is how we make decisions without any awareness that a great part of the decision-making process is being done for us – below threshold. I encourage everyone to start watching their televisions in a very different manner. In movies and dramas, keep an eye out for those product placement logos. In advertisements, always ask, “What am I being encouraged to feel right now and why?” When a subliminal is spotted, all its power over you is gone. And if you want to go as extreme as tossing your television in the dumpster, it’s further than I’ve gone, but kudos to you. The world may laugh, but I won’t be joining in.
In the 1970s film Dawn of the Dead (a splatter movie with a profound subtext), four humans take refuge in a shopping mall from the undead hoards ravaging the world. Gazing at the zombie-infested parking lot from the safety of the roof, Fran asks Stephen, “What are they doing? Why do they come here?” Stephen replies, “Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.” In another scene, another survivor, Peter, says, “They’re after the place. They don’t know why, they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.” Fran asks, “What the hell are they?” Peter: “They’re us, that’s all, when there’s no more room in hell.” In other words, when Peter looked at the brain-dead behaviour of the zombies, there was no significant difference to the behaviour of a typical human being.
We’re zombies! To one extent or another, we’ve been lulled into becoming mind-controlled non-thinking zombies by a black box that sits in the corner of the living room. We think we have free will, unaware of how much we’re actually reacting to craftily constructed emotional stimuli. The mind control of advertising can only be described as genius, since it can manipulate you to do something whilst you feel it was entirely your free choice. Time to be informed and take back your mind.
Let me hear you make decisions
Without your television.
– “Stripped” by Depeche Mode