The odds are good that even the least pop-culturally aware person you know understands what subliminal messages are -- stimuli presented to people that can only be picked up by the subconscious mind that then, hopefully, affect conscious thought and behavior. Jeff Warrick's documentary Programming the Nation? serves up a straightforward and interesting history of the practice, before devolving into a level of conspiracy theory that, regardless of its veracity, doesn't have all that much to do with the rest of his movie.
Beginning with a since discredited experiment involving a reported increase in concession sales at a theater where phrases like "eat more popcorn" were spliced into screenings of a movie, the concept of subliminal messaging has blossomed into a contentious and rather secretive aspect of the advertising business. Programming the Nation's best moments offer experts (like a behavioral scientist at the University of Michigan and a former advertising executive) explaining in detail how images such as phalluses, nude women, and skulls are subtly layered onto magazine advertisements and billboards. They explain, rather persuasively, that the purpose of including these provocative visuals is to trick viewers into remembering the ad because the subliminal pictures stimulate the most powerful centers of a viewer's brain -- the ones associated with sex and death. It's not that a direct link will be made between the product and getting lucky, it's simply the hope that triggering our most basic emotions will make us remember to buy a particular alcohol or cigarette next time we feel like indulging.
It's this thought that brings Warrick to his most salient and effective point: if the country is constantly bombarded with sexualized images, it seems reasonable to assume that the more unstable members of society may be pushed over the edge. Warrick skillfully includes a quote from Ted Bundy in order to drive this contention home.
During the course of the film there are amusing tangents. A look at artistic uses of subliminal effects by filmmakers like Hitchcock and William Friedkin proves that not everyone who uses the practice means to do harm. There's a long section that debunks the idea of satanic messages recorded backward in rock tunes. And the most amusing section features Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh explaining how he worked a voice declaring that sugar is bad into a jingle he wrote for Hawaiian Punch.
The final 30 minutes of the movie, however, expand the definition of subliminal to include more conventional forms of propaganda. Warrick interviews a former military man trained in Psychological Operations, details how the Bush administration produced fake news reports in order to push their agenda on an unsuspecting public, and spends the film's final minutes explaining the possible nefarious uses for the HAARP program -- an American research station in Alaska that alarmists believe could alter both the ionosphere and our brainwaves.
While the movie starts with a desire to showcase what's being done to us without our knowledge, the business about HAARP concludes it in a fit of paranoia that, for some people, will hurt the credibility it worked up during the first hour. Warrick comes on like Michael Moore, but he ends up far closer to Art Bell.