(Cross-posted at Daily Kos, My Left Wing and my blog.)

Like many people, I have heard of and buy into the idea put forward in Vance Packard’s 1957 book titled The Hidden Persuaders.  In a nutshell, Packard talked, in part, about “motivational research” marketing techniques being used to influence purchasing behavior in America in the post-war boom.  You might relate better to the phrase “subliminal advertising”, though that was not the phrase used at the time.  From Snopes.com:

Advertisements that focused on consumers’ hopes, fears, guilt, and sexuality were designed to persuade them to buy products they’d never realized they needed. Marketers who could reach into the hearts and minds of American consumers soon found consumers’ wallets to be within easy grasp as well.

Scary stuff.  Read on.
James Vicary actually coined the term “subliminal advertising”.  His most notable experiment involved a movie theatre.  Again, from Snopes.com:

Vicary placed a tachistoscope in the theater’s projection booth, and all throughout the playing of the film Picnic, he flashed a couple of different messages on the screen every five seconds. The messages each displayed for only 1/3000th of a second at a time, far below the viewers’ threshold of conscious perceptibility. The result of displaying these imperceptible suggestions — “Drink Coca-Cola” and “Hungry? Eat Popcorn” — was an amazing 18.1% increase in Coca-Cola sales, and a whopping 57.8% jump in popcorn purchases. Thus was demonstrated the awesome power of “subliminal advertising” to coerce unwary buyers into making purchases they would not otherwise have considered.

The veracity of the experiment has been challenged and the validity of the results have been questioned.  Despite these questions, the reaction to the experiment were sensational.  In 1974, in fact, the FCC banned “subliminal advertising” from both radio and television airwaves.

This is the classic example of subliminal advertising.  Whether or not it occurred and, further, was effective remains an open question.  What is not an open question, however, is the fact that “motivational research” is alive and well and is being used on Americans each and every day.  One of the most effective uses is in political advertising.

You’re being guided; directed – and it’s the Bush Administration who has mastered the art of this technique.

I want to state up front that the idea for this post came from reading Al Franken’s book The Truth – with Jokes.  Have you heard of Terror Management Theory (TMT)?  If you answered “no”, join the club – I hadn’t, either.  It is an actual scientific discipline.  From Wikipedia:

Terror management theory (TMT) is a developing area of study within the academic study of psychology. It looks at what researchers claim to be the implicit emotional reactions of people when confronted with the psychological terror of knowing we will eventually die (it is widely believed that our awareness of mortality is a trait that is unique to humans).


The Theory embarks on the assumption that the capability of self-reflection and the consciousness of one’s own mortality, can be regarded as a continuous source for existential anguish. Culture diminishes this psychological terror by providing meaning, organisation and continuity to men and women. Compliance with cultural values enhances the feeling of security and self-esteem, provided that the individual is capable to live in accordance with these particular cultural standards. The belief in the rightness of the cultural values and standards creates the conviction to live a reasonable and meaningful life. Because of this men and women strive to have their cultural worldview confirmed by others, thereby receiving the community’s estimation.

Let me net out how I read that statement.  Subscribing to a culture and cultural norms lessens the anguish of the knowledge that we will eventually die.  Working towards a purpose and receiving validation of that purpose within the norms of society relieves the pressure and fear that accompany death.  (Note: I’m not a doctor nor do I have more than a junior-level psychology class under my belt.  This was, for better or worse, my slightly-informed interpretation.)

Now – let’s come back to Al Franken’s book.  Franken introduces us to TMT as part of an effort to explain how and why George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004.  Think back on the 2004 Presidential campaign (I know, I know – it’s painful to do so).  Do you remember the ad that most referred to as “Wolves”?  I do.  A link to a Windows Media version can be found here if you’re interested.  Needless to say it was a dark and frightening ad.  The text went like this:

In an increasingly dangerous world…
Even after the first terrorist attack on America…
John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slah America’s intelligence operations by 6 billion dollars…
Cuts so deep they would have weakened America’s defenses.
And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.

Franken points out that the voice-over is deceptively vague – which first terrorist attack?  It makes a difference in the truthfulness of the ad itself.  But I digress.

A lot of criticism followed that ad, decried loudly by those on the left as “fear-mongering”.  It was fear-mongering – but it was so much more than that.  It was likely a carefully orchestrated application of TMT.

I don’t have the background or the patience to detail, specifically, the studies that I found on the internet when researching this.  In the days immediately following 9/11, Bush’s approval rating soared to 86%.  86%!!!  One studious researcher proved empirically that Bush’s approval ratings increased every time the terror alert level was raised by the Government.  Another ground-breaking study solidified the connection between fear, a desire to be released from fear, the likelihood that this strong desire will lead to a search for psychological security, and the strong preference to choose a “charismatic” leader in these types of circumstances who affirm our world view and cause us to feel safe.  This quote sums it all up for me:

In Escape from Freedom, Eric Fromm (1941) proposed that loyalty to charismatic leaders results from a defensive need to feel a part of a larger whole, and surrendering one’s freedom to a larger-than-life leader can serve as a source of self-worth and meaning in life. Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death, 1973) posited that when mainstream worldviews are not serving people’s need for psychological security, concerns about mortality impel people to devote their psychological resources to following charismatic leaders who bolster their self-worth by making them feel like they are valued participants in a great mission to heroically triumph over evil.

I don’t know about you, but I read that quote and thought of America’s willingness to get on-board with the Patriot Act, to give up freedoms without question in a quest for safety (relief from the fear of death-by-terrorist-attack).  It also made me think of how often Bush invokes 9/11 and other fearful things (bird flu).  It’s a deliberate and scientific attempt to solidify the following of his “charismatic” leadership.  Can you name other other charismatic leaders?  I certainly can – and many of them were and are not nice people.

Now go back to the “Wolves” ad and read/watch it again.  We all knew at the time that it was fear-mongering.  I didn’t realize, however, that it was scientifically orchestrated to cause voters to behave in a way that would favor George W. Bush and/or why it was so effective.

Franken concludes this particular discussion with an interesting analysis.  He takes issue with the 2004 Bush win being based on “moral values”.  Summarily, voters in the 2004 election who identified themselves as “moral values” voters (those who place moral and ethical issues at the top of their list) represented a much lower percentage (22%) than did the same group in the 2000 election (35%) and the 1996 election (40%).  In 2000 and 1996 those who put the abortion issue at the top of their list were 14% and 9% respectively.  Abortion voters were not considered in the moral/ethical values figures.  therefore, nearly half the electorate voted on moral/ethical issues in 1996 and 2000 while in 2004, only about 20% did.  The argument, then, is that “moral values” was an illusion.  The Bush campaign simply applied science to scare people into voting for them.  And it worked.

Tell me, in light of this, how what Bush did in 2004 is any different than the unacceptable practice of subliminal advertising.  It’s nothing short of manipulation and 51% of America was hoodwinked.

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