The secret life of subliminal messaging

February 22, 2012

Montreal, February 22, 2012 - Modern consumers of mass media have long been swayed by the notion that secret, invisible messages are embedded in everything from radio commercials to Hollywood blockbusters. With his new book, Charles Acland takes an in-depth look at the complex history of subliminal influence, and questions what the lasting implications may be for our information-saturated modern world.

In Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence, Acland, a professor and research chair in Concordia's Department of Communication Studies, traces the evolution of subliminal influence from a concept in experimental psychology to a mainstream belief about what he calls "our vulnerability to manipulation in an age of media clutter."

Since theories of subliminal influence first found their way into mainstream culture in the late 1950s, public-opinion surveys have shown that up to 70 percent of respondents think that advertisers use subliminal techniques, whether the message is to buy a particular product or to confirm to a certain way of thinking. For Acland, the idea of subliminal influence, regardless of its existence or direct effectiveness, indicates an "extraordinary faith in the power of even the most fleeting words, sounds, and images to shape our unconscious."

By providing a broad survey of examples ranging from Marshall McLuhan's media theories to representations of mind control in sci-fi movies, Acland examines the subliminal as "both a product of and balm for information overload." In so doing, he creates what acclaimed author Fred Turner calls a "much-needed and frighteningly contemporary history."

Through the historical sweep of Swift Viewing, Acland shows that the concept of subliminal influence has its origins as far back as the late 1800s. His detailed chapter on the tachistoscope, a tool used to quickly slide images past a viewer's eye to measure the length of exposure necessary for perception, demonstrates that we have had "a fascination with the rapid arrival and departure of texts" for more than a century. By tracing this fascination through its mainstream adoption and subsequent debunking that there are any actual effects, and following its continued traction in everything from presidential campaigns to episodes of TV's Family Guy, Acland proves that this concept has staying power and is specifically connected to the way we understand our audiovisual surroundings.

Ultimately, Acland shows that the continued engagement with the concept is one way "individuals share scepticism about their environment," a scepticism prompted by the daily barrage of information that defines present-day media culture.
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