Charles R. Acland, Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence

Charles R. Acland Swift

Duke University Press, ISBN: 978-0822349198, 328 pages, 2012, English
Subliminal communication, or being exposed to messages too quick or hidden to be consciously perceived, is an enduringly popular topic, thanks to its almost magical way of affecting us. Despite plenty of scientific evidence debunking the effectiveness of such techniques, they have permeated the collective imaginary, granting mass media an ideological power over society. Instead of further dismantling subliminal processes, Acland here researches the history of the techniques, going back to the early 20th century and how they appeared to the public as a silver bullet for mind control and propaganda, using nothing more than words and images. The author is able to explore the subtle imperceptibility of this mass communication, reconstructing the importance of the subconscious and the hyped notion of hypnotism at the end of 19th century, which lead to the construction of rapid learning machines like the forgotten “tachistoscope” in the fifties (a device to measure how quickly a person could recognize an image). The subliminal is treated as an expanded notion, including brainwashing and an innate insecurity of the audience. James Vicary, the person who exposed New Jersey film spectators to sentences like “eat popcorn” and “drink Coca-Cola”, is documented in his fame and failure, emerging on different occasions in the text, as a symbolic icon artist. What remains is how the media, increasingly and unbearably saturated, aggressively pursue the public’s attention, making room for the fear of the subliminal.