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Subliminal advertising in movies
574 words The Freeman
page 1 of 3 Foundation for Economic Education
Irvington-on-Hudson, New York 10533
Movie-Goers Can Think for Themselves
by Tibor R. Machan
Bull Durham is a nice little movie, about minor league
baseball and love and good times and friendship. But it
recently came in for a strange criticism.
This and other movies, including television shows, are
being charged with a kind of subliminal advertising. Some
charge that these films are being used by Hollywood producers
to peddle brand-name products. (In Bull Durham it was beer
and other products, none of which I remembered after I saw the
movie or even noticed as I watched it.)
Of course, films that deal with contemporary life would
be entirely artificial if producers disguised brand products
used in the course of the action. I have always felt cheated
when someone in a movie picks up a pack of cigarettes or a can
of beer and hides the label. Mind you, I never remember a
visible label, but I do remember when it is artificially
hidden from view.
What exactly are these critics complaining about? They
are insulting movie-goers by implicitly accusing them of being
robots who cannot keep from going out and buying what is shown
on the screen. Imagine it. The viewer is conceived of, not
as a person with a will of his own, nor as someone who knows
what he wants, but as a mechanism that responds automatically
to subtle stimulation. The movie makers, by implication, are
accused of being manipulative and exploitative.
The evidence for both these charges is feeble. People
aren't robots available for easy exploitation: the advertising
industry has learned that you cannot sell things that people
don't want. Of course, people may want silly and useless
things, but they have to want them before they really pay
attention to brand-name ads. If this weren't so, advertising
campaigns wouldn't flop as often as they do. (Even ads we
love to see don't always manage to sell the products we are
invited to buy -- we like the jokes, the characters, the
themes, the scenery -- but not necessarily the product or
Furthermore, why must these critics assume that movie
makers have nothing else in mind when they include various
brand-name products in their films? Why not assume that they
simply wish to be realistic? Why not consider the possibility
that they see the phoniness of pretending that while
everything else in the film fits the picture, those disguised
products do not?
Consider, also, that every movie "advertises" the actors
who appear in it, the locales in which the movie takes place,
the kind of clothing worn by the characters, and so on. No
one, as yet, has complained about that.
I am confident that this special attack on the movies is
yet another way in which the critics express their hatred for
the market. These critics are power-seekers -- admittedly for
motives that seem sincere and virtuous to them.
But these motives are not virtuous, however sincere they
may be. They are dangerous and should be exposed as such.
They are subtle messages to the public that consumers are
generally inept, and need the wise guidance of intellectuals
who will occupy various seats of power and tell film makers
and television producers what to do.
Let us respond to these folks forcefully, and tell them
to take care of their own problems and leave us to cope with
ours. We are able to handle anything offered us on the screen
-- we can even walk out if we find something offensively
Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama.
He recently edited Commerce and Morality for Rowman and
Littlefield. This article is from the October 1989 issue of
The Freeman, published by The Foundation for Economic
Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.
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