I really enjoy documentaries, and not too long ago I started reading about hidden imagery in Disney animations. Sounds like an odd combo? I’d found out about writer and director Jeff Warrick’s documentary on subliminal messages, and was curious, to say the least. The topic of hidden propaganda in popular media is one everyone should be discussing, and thus, I sat down to watch.
Quickly, it became apparent that this was not a documentary intended for those with a decent grasp of the subject. There’s a heavy amount of history and slow-paced exposition in the opening half an hour or more. It’s a comprehensive summary of the big hitters in the history of subliminal and hidden messages (known as backmasking), from dodgy Disney animation to hidden messages in music played backwards. It might reel you in – if you’ve never heard anything at all about the phenomenon before.
There seems to be a pretty heavy bias over the course of the hundred-plus minutes you’ll be sat in front of the screen, leaning in the direction of subliminal messaging’s existence being confirmed and true. While this is indeed a fact – it does exist, don’t get me wrong – Warrick tends to suffocate the voices of the few who contest some of the examples given.
That being said, this was never intended as a debate – Warrick’s intention is to prove that subliminal messages are a proven technique for forcing people into a more capitalist existence. You can’t fault his sources. Many of the featured interviewees are musicians who’ve been involved in scandals (unsurprisingly, The Beatles declined to contribute), and one in particular actually admits to putting subliminal messages in adverts during his career. It’s worrying stuff.
Warrick’s narration will drag for a lot of people, because he sounds like he’s extremely tired. While this drawling, low-pitched cynical tone works for, say, Werner Herzog in The Grizzly Man, in Programming the Nation it sounds like your guide is bored, almost condescending, and that can rub a viewer up the wrong way after a while.
It does feel a little too conspiratorial given how much many of us know about the subject already – the music sequence in Adam Sandler comedy Little Nicky illustrates that it’s not top secret, rather something to mock as quite silly. Warrick himself debunks it by playing messages to students and telling them the real meaning, a made-up meaning, and nothing at all. The answer is clear – people hear what they’re told is there.
Your enjoyment of this documentary is, quite frankly, going to depend on your tolerance for the droning narration and the way in which it makes the whole thing feel a little mother’s basement. But for those who’d happily watch a YouTube video entitled “Hidden Messages in Popular Media”, this will appeal to you instantly. At least one thing is clear – any subliminal messages pushing me towards a five-star rating were either missing, or ineffective.