Review: Programming the Nation?

Geoff Tate (©Cavu Pictures)Watching Programming the Nation? is likely to increase your paranoia level exponentially. Jeff Warrick’s documentary about subliminal messaging in advertising and other forms of communication will make you question your motivations every time you make a decision, especially of the consumerist variety. 


As with so many documentaries, the film is a bit overreaching in its approach. The director approaches his subject from so many angles and includes so many interviews with such a dizzying array of figures sensory overload starts to kick in.


But along the way, there are endlessly fascinating bits of information. The main focus is on advertising, especially the hidden images supposedly embedded in visual ads. But there also segments devoted to such subjects as backward lyrics in popular music (remember the “Paul is Dead” Beatles controversy?); the experimentation with subliminal images in such horror films as Hitchcock’s Psycho and Friedkin’s The Exorcist; subliminal anti-theft audio messages in department store sound systems; the mini-scandal that engulfed Disney when sexy images were discovered in some of their animated features and endless more.


The proceedings feature some clichéd elements, such as the filmmaker’s Michael Moore-style attempts at confronting ad agency executives who, not surprisingly, refuse to talk to him. The film never satisfactorily explores the question of whether or not subliminal messages really work at all. And some of the interviewees--such as Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who rails against the Bush administration’s propaganda techniques to rally the public to war—go seriously off topic.


But overall I have to say that Programming the Nation?--for all its lack of focus and unanswered questions—kept me fairly riveted from start to finish. Or maybe it just contained subliminal messaging that made me think that it did.