Below director Jeff Warrick shares a scene from his documentary “Programming the Nation?,” which takes a look at the history of mass-media subliminal messaging in America. The film opens Friday, August 19th at the Quad Cinema in New York, followed by a national roll-out via International Film Circuit.
Over 7 years ago when I first decided to do a documentary on the alleged history of subliminal messaging in America, it’s important to note that I first approached the subject matter with a bit of skepticism. My initial thought was actually how fun it would be to debunk what I considered one of the great urban legends of our time.
Back then, I had a very narrow viewpoint on what was considered “subliminal.” In the 1970’s, largely due to Wilson Bryan Key’s series of books (including the NY Times Bestseller, “Subliminal Seduction”), it was portrayed primarily as hidden phallic symbols and the embedded letters S-E-X in alcohol and tobacco ads.
But, when we eventually interviewed W.B. Key (in memorandum 1921-2008), and over 30 authors, experts, and researchers on the topic (including Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, Dr. Eldon Taylor, Dr. Nick Begich, Christopher Coppola, Mark Mothersbaugh, Geoff Tate and Dennis Kucinich), despite my attempts to find holes in their theories, they actually began deconstructing my own preconceived notions.
While I still remained skeptical about such things as RITZ Crackers having S-E-X written all over and even baked onto each one, the vast majority of their arguments were not only logical but also extremely persuasive.
I knew to remain objective and unbiased in my expose, I needed to make a concerted effort to reach out to those on the other side of the fence and particularly the ad industry itself. Having worked in advertising for numerous years, not only was I excited to explore the flip side of the coin, but figured with my background, it would be a breeze.
However, after hundreds of phone-calls and emails to dozens of ad agencies, my requests ultimately fell on deaf ears, and were continuously denied. I thought perhaps I might find better success by reaching out to the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA), a member organization made-up of the largest ad firms on the planet, who in the past had issued policy statements on the use of subliminal advertising.
Again, despite my numerous requests, the VP of Public Affairs also refused to meet with me; even though all I requested was a current statement from AAAA on their stance regarding the use of such techniques. Seemed like a no-brainer to me – all they had to do was agree to meet and say, “We frown on such practices.” But, they gave me nothing except avoidance.
So (while I’m no Michael Moore), during one of our trips to New York City while in production, my crew and I decided to drop by their office at the Chrysler Building in an attempt to persuade “The Persuaders” for a formal response. When to all of our surprise, we were granted passes to come up to the AAAA lobby.
I don’t want to ruin it by describing what unfolded next. I’ll let you watch and witness for yourself. But, I will say that what transpired after this event, was probably the most monumental point of realization for me as a filmmaker.
Not only did it become clear that “subliminal messaging” was a hot topic filled with controversy, but that there was without a doubt, more going on behind the scenes. My epiphany was that there was more at stake than I had realized and obviously a great deal to hide; not just from me, but the general public as well.
If the effects of subliminal messaging were half as severe as our experts believed (and they had convincingly led me to believe), I knew it was more important than ever to gather the details and get this information out to the public. That’s when it became mission critical to finish our project and reach wide audiences, which is why this scene was the defining moment in the making of our documentary.