I, like every other teenager in America, learned about subliminal messages in high school. Determined not to be influenced against my will, every time I entered a dark movie theater I would steel myself against advertisers’ sly tactics. I was certain that “Buy Massive Amounts Of Buttered Popcorn And Obscenely Large Soft Drinks” flashed in red letters every tenth frame. And as my paranoia grew I was convinced that the nation’s parents surely had slipped their own agenda into the movie reels; “Clean Your Room!”, “Just Say No!,” “No Bumping Uglies Until You’re Married!” Even though I felt triumphant as I marched out of there without popcorn bits down the front of my shirt, there was still, sometimes, a nagging feeling ofwell, my own imperfection and maybe even lacking.
Fast forward to my early twenties. It’s 1995 and I’m stranded on an airplane that is not moving. We are on the runway, which is shiny with nighttime rain, in Düsseldorf, Germany. It’s the fourth day of a five day journey home from a four month stay in a remote Zambian village called Mwandi. Next to me, sprawled over the picked blue fabric of the isle seat is a subtly handsome, youngish man with shoulder length auburn hair.
In the hours we spent waiting for take off, he filled the ever-thickening air with my introduction to the world of product placement in movies. I, stupidly, never new it existed as its own little consumer-focused universe. He was very hip and West Coast and laughed at my shock of how contrived the practice was. I’m sure my southern accent added to his amusement. The dusty, hopeless smell of Mwandi’s clinic, where children lay dying of AIDS and simple diarrhea, was fresh in my nostrils as he bragged about the clever ways he devised to highlight his clients’ products — a purse, designer jeans, a toy – in films.
I have never looked at movies, the ones made in Hollywood anyway, the same since that day. I feel like the power of a film – or any art for that matter – is in its opportunity to share a universal truth with the audience, hopefully in some new way. Instead, many movies are a sales pitch; a protracted commercial, especially children’s movies. I’m sad to see the opportunity that artists have to inspire wasted on one more explosive chase scene in a certain brand of car whose logo gets as much screen time as the lead actor.
And the TV news, if we can really even call it that anymore, isn’t any different. I normally don’t watch any of the big three national TV newscasts (I prefer public television), but one night this week I did. An interesting change had occurred since I last watched. CBS News’ Charlie Gibson said before a commercial break, “We’ll be back in 75 seconds.” And I thought to myself, “Well, I might as well sit right here and wait for Charlie to come back. What else can I possibly do in 75 seconds?” — which, I assume, is the reaction they hoped for. Then an announcer’s voice boomed through my living room, “Tonight’s CBS News With Fewer Commercial InterruptionsBrought To You By Fixapil: (or some drug name which I promptly blocked from my brain and wouldn’t print here even if I remembered it).
And then I said out loud to the television (something I learned from my Granny Margaret who cussed and grumbled her way through her “stories” every afternoon of her life), “This entire newscast is a commercial interruption of the actual news that should be in its place!” Because, if the drug company sponsors the show, won’t they have input when Charlie wants to report about the anal seepage, vaginal flaking, raging rashes, swollen eyelids, bad breath and genital warts that Fixapil caused in 74% percent of adult patients who took it for a headache?
And even worse, nowadays, we are told not only that we must have the latest and greatest, but that’s its embarrassing not to. There is actually a billboard ad for an insurance company in my town that shows a close up of a person’s smile with a green bit of food stuck between the teeth. The caption reads that it’s also embarrassing to be with out health insurance coverage. So the uninsured person is supposed feel vulnerable and embarrassed? Have they no shame?
Actually, advertisers often don’t even bother to use subliminal messages any more. They blatantly hijack gas pumps, elevators, bathroom stalls, even the ceiling of your OBGYN’s office! It is tempting to give up the resistance to such pervasive forces, or, as my husband calls what happens to married men, to lose our will. But I believe that we have to decide; are we merely consumers or are we thinking individuals who can determine what our needs and wants are with out advertisers bullying us into submission? I feel that we must reject the premise of most advertising pitches which is usually some form of this, “You are, in your current state, inadequate. You are ugly, poorly dressed, and uncool — basically, a loser.” We must not slide into their jaws with this line of thinking: “Well my skin is a little dryand the woman’s skin on that lotion commercial looks really smooth” Of course she does! She’s computer animated!
Someone once asked my aunt, who is a therapist, “Why do parents use guilt on their children?” She answered, “Because it works.” Unfortunately, I assume that’s the same reason that the ubiquitous deluge of advertising will continue for the foreseeable future. But I’m Not Buying Any Damn Popcorn!
Image Courtesy of Maddie Digital