The Journal of
Cognitive Liberties

This article is from Vol. 1, Issue No. 3 pages 72-76 (Fall 2000)
All rights reserved worldwide.  ISSN: 1527-3946



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Laced Media

By Richard Glen Boire

In 1957 the Saturday Review published an editorial in which it railed against the covert manipulation of behavior through the use of subliminal messages:

The subconscious mind is the most delicate part of the most delicate apparatus in the entire universe. It is not to be smudged, sullied or twisted in order to boost the sales of popcorn or anything else. Nothing is more difficult in the modern world than to protect the privacy of the human soul.1

It recently came to light that a political advertisement for George W. Bush subliminally flashed the word “RATS” when criticizing Al Gore’s prescription medicine plan.2 Bush and Republican ad-maker Alex Castellanos denied that the quickly flashed word was a subliminal message designed to surreptitiously sling mud at Gore. Many others, however, concluded that “RATS” was indeed inserted with the intention of secretly causing viewers’ to associate vermin with Al Gore. In line with the techniques of subliminal messaging, the questionable word appeared on the screen for only a microsecond (1/30th of a second), passing by so fast that it was almost unrecognizable to the conscious mind—especially when passively lulled by television. According to the theory of subliminal advertising the image would, indeed, register in a viewer’s subconscious mind, thereby causing the viewer to negatively associate Al Gore with a rodent.

“Hidden persuaders” was the term given to the manipulative advertising techniques described by Vance Packard in his 1957 book bearing that title. Among other tricks, Packard described a New Jersey movie theatre that flashed images to movie viewers ordering them to buy food and drinks. Packard reported that these embedded orders—recognizable only by the subconscious mind—provoked a “clear and otherwise unaccountable boost” in the theatre’s concession sales. Six years later, however, it came to light that Packard had been bamboozled, when James Vicary, the founder of Subliminal Production Inc., who claimed credit for the alleged experiment, confessed that it never took place.

According to the executives of advertising agencies, subliminal messages are not effective and, therefore, are never inserted into ads. Speaking to a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times, Hal Shoup, executive director of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, stated that subliminal advertising “is a myth that has been perpetrated for the last 30 or 40 years.”3 Similarly, an executive from the Leo Burnett advertising agency told the Chicago Sun Times that inserting subliminal messages in advertisements “violates all ethical standards...We flat out wouldn’t do it, and we don’t do it as an industry.”4 But isn’t looking to the executives of advertising agencies to tell us whether subliminal advertising works, a bit like asking Wile E. Coyote if the Roadrunner’s food is safe to eat?

Each year, consumers spend roughly $US50 million for self-help tapes embedded with subliminal messages that are supposed to teach a person a foreign language while they sleep, or help them lose weight, or quit smoking. Additionally, some stores embed subliminal messages in their background music in an effort to discourage shoplifting. Time magazine reported in 1979 that messages such as “I am an honest person” and “Stealing is dishonest” were being utilized in over fifty department stores. One department store utilizing the hidden messages reported a savings of $US600,000 by reducing theft 37 percent during a nine month period.5

So, if subliminal messages evidently work in self-help tapes and embedded in department store music, it certainly seams reasonable that they would also work—and perhaps even work better—in a visual medium such as television, whether selling Coca-Cola or a presidential candidate.

Most to the point, a study performed at Dartmouth College showed that viewers’ attitudes toward politicians could indeed be manipulated by inserting single frames into newscasts. In a letter published in the Boston Globe, on September 17, 2000, Roger D. Masters, Professor of Psychology at Dartmouth College, who supervised the study, called for immediate rules that prohibit the use of subliminal cues of any kind in political advertising.6

The “RATS” incident with Bush is, however, not about whether subliminal advertising actually works—a question that is evidently still open to debate. The issue is a much deeper one. When asked about the advertisement by Diane Sawyer, Bush stated “I don’t think there is a plot to put subliminal messages in the people’s minds”—a comment that nicely frames the issue.

If you believe Bush and his pitchman, the “RATS” image was either “unintentional” or an innocent “visual drumbeat.” But, if you are skeptical—if you think that the evidence does indeed show an attempt to use subliminal messages (regardless of their actual efficacy)—the implications are no laughing matter. After all, this was not a trick to boost popcorn sales. This was a premeditated “plot to put subliminal messages into people’s minds” by a man seeking to hold the most powerful position in the world. The advertisement in question ran 4,400 times in 33 cities and cost the Bush campaign $US2.5 million dollars. It’s hard to believe that the ad was not very carefully produced and tested on a focus group of viewers.

Inserting subliminal messages in an advertisement is an inherently misleading action. It is an attempt to manipulate a person’s thinking without the person realizing that any such manipulation is occurring. Everyone knows that all advertising is propaganda, but embedding subliminal messages in political ads for the position of the United States Presidency is downright Orwellian. Assuming that the placement of the single frame “RATS” was—as it appears to be—a surreptitious attempt to subliminally manipulate the minds of viewers, it reveals a chilling disrespect for the cognitive autonomy of American citizens. What does it say about the government’s respect for our minds when a Governor running for the most powerful office in the world is caught red handed trying to manipulate our minds through such duplicitous means?

I see this incident as just one more example of how we as individuals, and as a society, have become dangerously comfortable with the government’s encroachments into the autonomy of our thoughts and mental processes. If a politician running for the most powerful position in the world has no qualms about surreptitiously manipulating people’s minds in order to get there, what is he willing (and even more able) to do should he get into that office? A similar disregard for peoples’ sovereignty over their own consciousness was what led the CIA in the late 1950s through the early 1970s to secretly test drugs such as LSD on unwitting civilians.

Quite simply, this recent “RATS” incident reveals the level of disrespect that government officials have for the mental autonomy of citizens. As we advance into the coming technology-saturated decades, it is imperative that we, as individuals and as a society, expressly acknowledge and affirm the right of each individual to have autonomy over his or her mind. Free from forced and surreptitious corporate and government manipulation, and free from criminal prohibitions that make responsible citizens “thought criminals.” The right to control one’s own consciousness is the quintessence of freedom. Let’s make it clear to the politicians that our minds are our own.


1 “Smudging the Subconscious,” Saturday Review, (Oct. 5, 1957): 40.

2 The political advertisement can be viewed online at:

3 Smith, Bryan, “Do Ads Play Mind Games?” Chicago Sun Times, (Sept. 14, 2000): Sec. CST, 6.

4 Ibid.

5 “Secret Voices,” Time, (Sept. 10, 1979): 71.

6 Subliminal messages are already expressly forbidden in advertisements for alcohol. A federal regulation enacted by the Bureau of Alcohol and Fire Arms prohibits alcohol companies from employing “Deceptive advertising techniques,” including “any device or technique that is used to convey, or attempts to convey, a message to a person by means of images or sounds of a very brief nature that cannot be perceived at a normal level of awareness.” (27 CFR 7.54, 27 CFR5.65, 27 CFR4.64 (April 1, 2000)). Similarly, while the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) remain agnostics with respect to the effectiveness of subliminal messages, both agencies consider subliminal advertising to be deceptive and “contrary to the public interest…whether effective or not.” Neither agency regulates political advertising.

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Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of numerous books, including Synthetic Panics: The Symbolic Politics of Designer Drugs (New York University Press, 1999). This is a transcription of his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee on Crime on "The Threat Posed By The Illegal Importation, Trafficking, And Use Of Ecstasy And Other 'Club' Drugs," a hearing held on June 15, 2000.