It’s tough to keep track of everything Jeff Warrick’s subliminal-advertising documentary Programming The Nation? does wrong. First off, it looks cheesy: a little like a corporate training tape, with low-quality video and goofy visual effects. Then Warrick takes a smarmy Michael Moore-style first-person approach to his narration, making what should be a serious inquiry into the existence and effectiveness of subliminal advertising unnecessarily personal. He even starts the movie with images of the World Trade Center collapsing, saying that in the wake of 9/11, “I felt compelled to take a long, hard look around me,” and adding, “I couldn’t help but wonder if we were all being brainwashed.” Warrick goes on to suggest that manipulation and mind-control may be at the roots of our recent economic woes. In other words: Warrick is mounting a huge case here, with no less than our freedom on the line.
What’s most frustrating about Programming The Nation? is that the topic is fascinating, and it hasn’t been dealt with extensively in documentary form. During some stretches, Warrick tells the story well, getting into the history of mass manipulation, from the subtle propaganda tactics of Edward Bernays to the “black boxes” that pipe anti-shoplifting messages into department stores. Warrick also points out that some of the most famous cases of subliminal messaging—like the anecdote about the theater owner who boosted concession sales with flash frames of popcorn and Coke, or the backward-masking on rock ’n’ roll albums—are either overblown, hoaxes, or just plain bogus.
Yet because Warrick couldn’t get anyone from the advertising world to talk to him, his interview subjects tend to be left-wing politicians (mainly angry at Bush-administration warmongering), conspiracy theorists, and for some reason, Queensrÿche lead singer Geoff Tate. And though Programming The Nation? acknowledges that the human mind tends to see patterns where none exist—be it the word “sex” in a picture of an ice cube or Robert Plant chanting “Here’s to my sweet Satan” when “Stairway To Heaven” is played backward—the movie presses forward with what Warrick calls “an expanded definition of subliminal messaging,” which includes common motion-picture foley effects, product placement, and just about any attempt to influence or agitate with pictures and sound. But if Warrick means to demonize anyone who uses the media to persuade, what’s it supposed to mean when Programming The Nation? inserts ominous music under images of children watching TV? That it’s okay to spread bullshit if you mean well?