COLUMN ONE : High-Tech Hidden Persuaders : Subliminal messages are now being used in some software--as a means for self-improvement. But others worry that mind control--and concealed ads--may be next.
First came the command, “Eat Popcorn,” flashed on a movie screen too fast for the naked eye to see. Then the pronouncement, “It’s OK for you to be relaxed,” its endless reprise on a self-help cassette tape masked by the lapping of waves.
Now, into the murky, quirky nether world of the subliminal, where information is conveyed below the threshold of conscious perception, enter the video game Endorfun.
A puzzle game that aspires to be the next Tetris, the goal of Endorfun is to match the colored sides of a moving cube to the corresponding squares on a series of grids.
Then there’s the game’s other goal. By inserting 100 sub-audible messages in the background music, Endorfun’s programmers and its publisher, Time Warner, say they hope “to uplift the heart and mind of its users.”
And if, after subliminally absorbing such notions as “I am powerful,” “I am at peace,” “I am in harmony,” “I love being alive,” players are uplifted to the point of telling their friends to run out and buy the game--so much the better.
The subliminal messages--Time Warner prefers the term “positive affirmations”--seem innocuous enough. And all of them will be printed on the box.
Still, the game raises questions about the use of subliminals in digital media, a new and perhaps more potent platform for a controversial method of mass communication that dates to the 1950s, when advertising executive James Vicary flashed the subliminal messages, “Hungry? Eat popcorn,” and, “Drink Coke,” during screenings at a drive-in.
Moviegoers, he said later, bought nearly 60% more popcorn than usual and almost 20% more Coke. Whether or not he was telling the truth--and whether or not subliminals actually work--remains a topic of debate among advertisers and psychologists.
But the concept of subliminal suasion caught hold of America’s cultural psyche, serving through the decades as a flash point for consumer suspicion of mass media even as it was embraced as a tool for self-improvement.
Like all forms of media, subliminals are taking new shape in the digital age. And the relative ease with which messages can be inserted into computer code, combined with the increasing hours people are spending in front of computer screens, leads some psychologists and media experts to believe that the potential for mind control--voluntary or involuntary--is greater in the new media than in any that came before it.
The Federal Communications Commission has banned subliminal messages in broadcast media since the 1970s, when controversy erupted over a TV ad for a memory game called Husker Du that displayed the words, “Get it,” on the screen for a fraction of a second.
But software remains unregulated.
“It’s open season as far as computer software is concerned,” said Mike Bivens, founder of Screen Team, a Laguna Beach-based software firm that is experimenting with subliminal messages in some of its screen savers.
Bivens says several corporate clients have been interested in using subliminals to motivate employees to work harder.
“If you have a group of people and you want to inspire them with hitting the 100% Club and a trip to Hawaii, we can put a photograph in there, for example. We bury it in there so they see it all day, but they don’t see it. So it reinforces the goal.”
Still, Bivens said, “Everyone we talk to loves the idea, but they’re afraid. You know what they’re afraid of? They’re not afraid of using them, but they’re afraid of getting caught.”
‘It’s the drug for the 21st Century’
The stigma associated with trying to influence behavior covertly has always inhibited media firms from using subliminals--or at least from admitting it. But technologists note that, in digital media, subliminals would be easier to create and harder to detect. Consumers rarely see the lines of arcane computer code that make a program run, and without being a programmer they would be unlikely to spot the specific commands governing subliminals anyway.
“It’s [easy] to hide a subliminal message in software,” said Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park. “It’s not like looking at a piece of 35-millimeter film, or watching a video frame by frame.
“Unless you had a sudden craving for Twinkies that you could correlate with a new software program you were using, it would be very hard to tell.”
At a time when there is already a creeping discomfort with the dominant role technology has in daily life, Saffo says fear of subliminal messages in software “plays right into this growing unease around our information tools.”
Not surprisingly, Gerald Rafferty, co-author of “Subliminal: The New Channel to Personal Power” and founder of the Institute for Subliminal Studies in Santa Monica, has a more positive outlook:
“The computer medium is the perfect medium for subliminal messages, because there are so many ways to mask them that you’re not worrying about the things you are with film and video. This could really be a big new field.”
And when Endorfun’s producers visited Timothy Leary to show him an early version of their game, the dean of mind alteration in all of its forms had this to say about subliminals in software: “It’s the drug for the 21st Century.”
Endorfun is the first software openly containing subliminals to be marketed to a mass audience. Time Warner plans to spend more promoting it than it has on any previous title. The tag line: “Play More. Feel Better.”
But the company says it is the game itself that merits attention, not the messages. And its competitors pooh-pooh the idea that it might start a subliminal trend.
“We’ve toyed with the idea,” said Neil Young, vice president of product development at Virgin Interactive. “There are lots of ways to conceal messages visually on the screen. But it’s not a proven safe practice. You’re putting a game out to an audience of millions of people and if you do something irresponsible you could have a tremendous impact. I can see it now. It’ll be on ‘Hard Copy’: Man goes on rampage with machine gun claiming, ‘I am powerful.’ ”
Microsoft considered including a sample of Endorfun with its Windows 95 operating software, but program manager David Barnes--himself a devotee of subliminal tapes--said he would have required that it be subliminal-free.
“I think Endorfun has the best of intentions. But extrapolating how I feel being a very liberal person to how others might feel, I didn’t want them in a Microsoft product. I think if I told people it had subliminals, they would’ve hit the roof.”
Perhaps. But then, the computer industry has long joked that subliminals are the only reason Microsoft’s oft-criticized Windows operating system is so widely used.
Barnes says programmers at the software giant are not above a little subliminal humor either. “We joke about it. It’s easy to do. You could do it with anything multimedia. We could put Coca-Cola in all the background screens. Coke could pay Boeing to put messages on the screens [workers] are looking at all day long. I’m sure other companies are doing it.”
Screen savers, those images of floating toasters and Energizer bunnies that pop up on inactive computer monitors, appear to be an attractive repository for subliminal messages.
Capistrano Beach-based Interloc Design Group has developed a “subliminal module” that allows clients to insert into screen savers text or images that flash at 1/50 of a second.
In a demonstration he has shown to representatives of prospective clients such as Nintendo of America and advertising agency Chiat/Day, Interloc founder Jeff Oster displays an apparently black screen with some random images bouncing around it.
Then, with a click of a mouse, he slows down the rate at which a message is flashing to reveal the blinking word: “Sex.”
The theory is that the subconscious mind--especially in the more relaxed ‘alpha’ and ‘theta’ states when brain-wave activity slows--is more susceptible to suggestion.
Subliminals in Ads, Movies, Songs
Some psychologists argue that evidence shows subliminals have no effect on behavior. Subliminals have been ridiculed as New Age snake oil and spoofed in “Saturday Night Live” skits featuring the Kevin Nealon character “Subliminal Man,” who persuades people to do his bidding by muttering “hidden”--but in fact wholly audible--messages under his breath.
But as a society we seem to persist in believing in their influence. Estimated revenues for subliminal tapes promising everything from weight loss to self-esteem have climbed as high as $50 million in recent years.
Despite repeated advertiser protests to the contrary, a telephone study commissioned by Ogilvy & Mather in 1991 found that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe subliminal advertising exists, and more than half think subliminal advertising can get them to buy things they don’t really want.
In the 1960s, Vance Packard, author of “Hidden Persuaders,” described the bumper lumps on Cadillac convertibles as a subliminal marketing tool appealing to sexual desires.
Wilson Bryan Key’s 1971 book “Subliminal Seduction,” which sold more than 2 million copies, traced the letters S-E-X in the ice cubes of a magazine ad for Gilbey’s gin. More recent, he has seen sexual imagery in the much-maligned Joe Camel character. Since sex sells, Key contends, sexual images in advertisements are likely to make them more effective.
“They can manipulate anything from your political views to your reproductive behavior, all in the interest of making a buck,” he said.
The use, or suspected use, of subliminals has not been limited to advertising.
Messages purportedly embedded in heavy metal songs by Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne were blamed for the suicides of young listeners during two highly publicized trials in 1990. The evidence was deemed insufficient, but separately the judge in the Priest case ruled that subliminals are not protected by the 1st Amendment.
Several grocery store chains have acknowledged playing “do not steal” subliminals under music to discourage shoplifting, and rumors persist that U.S. troops slipped subliminals in the rock music they blared at Panamanian leader Gen. Manuel Noriega in an attempt to drive him to surrender.
Director William Friedkin says he has acknowledged inserting subliminal images in his 1973 movie “The Exorcist,” and has them in his upcoming “Jade” “to induce an emotional connection in the audience that they may or may not be aware of.”
And Walt Disney Co. was embarrassed last year when it was discovered that mischievous animators had sneaked X-rated scenes into the 1988 movie, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”
Undetectable at the usual 24 frames per second, the scenes are visible when viewed frame by frame, as is possible with laser-disc players and four-head VCRs.
“We’ve been bombarded by subliminal messaging for 40 years or more,” said Nelson Thall, director of the McLuhan Center for Media Sciences. “It’s been done in radio and TV and movies, and subliminal messaging in computers will be as potent as the technology allows.”
It is only recently that computer software and video games have come to be seen as mass media in their own right. But experts who have studied subliminals say there is reason to believe that their natural addictiveness may make them especially potent vehicles for the transmission of subliminals. Inspiring addiction is, after all, the key to a good video game, which unlike TV shows and movies must move someone to play over and over again.
“The video game rivets attention,” said Howard Shevrin, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. “The person is attending very intently to the screen and therefore is more susceptible to the registrations of the subliminals.”
Indeed, watching people’s addiction to the enormously popular Tetris nearly eight years ago--when he produced a version of the game for Spectrum Holobyte--gave Endorfun creator Michael Feinberg the idea of producing a video game with subliminals.
A veteran of the game industry, founding board member of the Zen Mountain Center and onetime owner of the first commercial ginseng farm in the United States, Feinberg founded Onesong last year with partners Noah Clemence Zim, Onye Onyemaechi and Paul Coleman and a small sum of capital collected from friends and family.
Positive Messages Enter a New Age
“People are surrounded by negative, violent messages all day long,” Feinberg said. “We said, ‘Let’s uplift mass consciousness by putting subliminals into the best-selling game of all time.’ ”
Not a New Age kind of guy, Time Warner Interactive production Vice President David Riordan visited Onesong headquarters here and was immediately sold on Endorfun. At a time when the market was flooded with violent action games, the cube flipping around a grid of colored squares seemed simple and addictive. And Onyemaechi, a Nigerian drummer, had written music that meshed with the graphics of the game.
In the spring, Time Warner signed the deal with Onesong. As for the subliminals in the game: “We saw it as an aspect of the artist’s expression and we wanted to respect that,” said Riordan--though he did ask Feinberg to remove the message, “I honor my sexual energy.” “These are all positive messages. There’s absolutely nothing objectionable here.”
Onesong’s next product may be a game for children, into which Feinberg and his partners are considering inserting messages such as, “I am good at algebra,” “I am healthy,” “I am safe,” “I love the dark,” “I love the light.”
Psychologist Shevrin warns that positive subliminal messages can have unintended effects.
“If you think because you put positive messages into a game or a movie or whatever that the effect will be uniformly positive, that’s just not true. The effect is unpredictable, because the unconscious mind works in highly idiosyncratic, individual ways,” Shevrin said. “This idea of influencing our moods, our thoughts, our feelings with our subconscious minds is a risky undertaking.”
Still, at Onesong headquarters, with Onyemaechi’s music playing, the sun casting rainbows through a crystal and the trickle of an indoor waterfall in the background, it isn’t hard to believe that world peace may indeed be at hand.
“This is a mass euphoric. But you don’t have to go out and score it off the corner. The supply’s not going to dry up. We’re going to come out with more,” Feinberg said. “Our goals were never small.”
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