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In the Back of My Mind . . .

September 15, 2000|ALISON FEIT

On Tuesday, Vice President Al Gore described a television advertisement that flashes the word "RATS" on screen for a split second while discussing the Gore health plan as "a very disappointing development."

When questioned whether subliminal techniques had been used in this advertisement, Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush stated that he found these allegations "bizarre and weird."

Bizarre and weird the whole situation surely was. But although most commentators dismissed this as some sort of advertising frat joke gone awry, few actually entertained the possibility that such a ploy, properly used, could actually work. Americans are extraordinarily uncomfortable with the possibility that others can influence their actions without their knowledge; it brings to mind terms such as "brainwashing" or "mind control."

In an attempt to calm this national paranoia, pundits discussing this advertisement have downplayed the possibility that manipulations outside our conscious awareness can in any way affect our feelings or behavior. Instead, they have focused on the questionable morality of using these techniques.

However, many of the "experts" we have heard on this issue are clearly misinformed, as they quote outdated studies in an attempt to reassure an edgy American public that no one can influence them without their consent. They point to a famous hoax that took place in 1957, when James Vicary claimed that he had increased moviegoers' consumption of Coca-Cola and popcorn by flashing subconscious messages on the screen. Many experts appear to stifle their laughter as they consider whether the dots on a Ritz cracker in one famous advertisement actually spell out "sex," or whether the design on the back of the old Camel cigarette packet was actually a phallic symbol.

Actually, while these urban legends are probably nothing more than flights of fancy, research increasingly points to the fact that subliminal messages, known as "primes," can and do affect us.

Studies on subconscious racial attitudes have shown that subjects who are primed with pictures of faces before participating in a competitive game are rated as more hostile when the primes are of African American faces rather than Caucasian ones. College students primed with words associated with the elderly, such as "Florida," "Bingo" and "forgetful," walk more slowly than those in a control group.

Subliminal messages also have been used to prime positive effects. Students primed with the message "Mommy and I are one" before beginning class performed better on their final exam than students in a control group.

These studies show that despite our discomfort with them, subliminal primes can affect our behavior in powerful ways. If Bush's advertising campaign managers were making a serious attempt to manipulate public opinion, they somehow managed to bungle the media ploy. The amount of time that "RATS" stayed on the screen was much too long for it to function as a subliminal prime. At one-thirtieth of a second, it would have had to be "masked" by another phrase or stimulus appearing immediately afterward in order to remain undetected by the naked eye.

It is hard to believe that the folks down in RNC headquarters would not have had access to this research, had they wanted it. It's been suggested that Alex Castellanos, who produced the commercial, planned it as a (rather expensive) joke, never dreaming that, when properly administered, such a device might very well affect voter opinion. Much of the serious research in this area is still quite new. We are only at the very beginning stages of understanding how subliminal activation works in partnership with our conscious perceptions in helping to shape our thoughts and actions.

It would be a shame for the rats to chase us away from the stats we need to understand these processes.

Alison Feit is completing her doctoral dissertation at Adelphi University on subliminal effects. Web site:

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