I rise early as is my custom to wade through my e-mails, update my blogs, and walk my 130-pound white German shepherd Ellie around a wooded lake near my home north of the Iowa State University campus, where I direct the Greenlee School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Today I have a potentially volatile article in The Chronicle of Higher Education concerning how institutions, including my own, can eventually lower tuition to make college education affordable again. I check the website only to see that an early draft, rather than the final edited piece, had been posted erroneously. I dash off an e-mail and then wait anxiously for an hour before the corrected version appears online.
This is going to be a difficult day.
It will be one of the worst days in my 34-year career in higher education.
I think of my friend and colleague, Barbara Mack, one of the most popular and beloved teachers in the 107-year history of the Greenlee School. She has held the banner on English usage and the importance of copy editing in each of her classes, and she has practically taught our entire curriculum in her 26 years on the faculty. This semester is her last. She is on phased retirement and wanted to teach four classes after a colleague set to teach journalism ethics resigned at the last moment to take a new position at another university. We lost the position, so we couldn’t hire a replacement and decided to cancel the class. But Barbara insisted.
She is an imposing and loving professor, standing over six feet with thick brown hair and piercing eyes that have scared and inspired generations of students, including Christine Romans, anchor at CNN. Barbara and I often would e-mail each other at this time of the morning, sending links to journalism stories. She has been conversing with several colleagues in an e-mail exchange about the walkout at the University of Georgia’s student newspaper, The Red and Black. Her last e-mail ended the discussion in the typical brash manner that she perfected before becoming an academic as legal counsel for The Des Moines Register and Tribune Company: "The folks in Georgia clearly want the publication to be a ‘Good News from UGA’s Kennel!’ happy newsletter, not a student newspaper. They think the newspaper exists to promote Georgia, not tell the truth. Sigh."
I am writing to Barbara about copy editing and the Chronicle piece when I receive another e-mail from Daniela Dimitrova, our director of graduate studies: "I just got some bad news about Barbara. Can I call you?"
I stop my e-mail to Barbara, write to Daniela that I am at the computer, and wonder what happened to Barbara. Her health has not been good for the past several years, and she drives from Des Moines to Ames each day for class. And she drives very fast. I’m hoping it is not an accident.
My e-mail queue is filling up again as my Chronicle article is being read by colleagues across the country. Response looks positive. I send the article link to the head of a journalism grant organization who wants more digital technology in schools like mine. He responds almost immediately and believes I am "hunkering down" — his term — because he has become obsessed with innovation and doesn’t fully appreciate that I am being a journalist, trying to save taxpayer dollars. The e-mail exchange is not good. He calls my research institution "a Model T" and mentions other universities that are media racecars. Iowa State may be too much into fundamentals, but he’s missing the tradition of a watchdog press.
I’m angry now. I won’t bother him any longer. I will never write to him again nor submit a grant nor have anything to do with his causes.
Then another email: Barbara Mack has died. It’s all over Facebook.
My first thought is for Barbara’s students. My second thought is for my colleagues. My best friend has died, but I push that out of my mind and assume the role of United Press International bureau chief. I worked for UPI in the Midwest for several years before becoming media adviser to The O’Collegian student newspaper at Oklahoma State University, my alma mater. I don’t want our students and colleagues to read about Barbara’s death in an email. I don’t know how she died. Because social media is reporting, there are no details. Just one brutal fact.
I telephone my dean’s office. No one is around. It is too early. I call my office manager, and she is crying. She tells me what she knows. Barbara has passed away. Any other fact doesn’t matter.
The next hour is a blur of e-mails as I coordinate with the college and provost’s office how we will handle the situation. That goddamn Facebook has spread the word faster than I can control it. Students love Barbara Mack, who had no children and considered every student a son or a daughter. Imagine reading on Facebook that your mother died? This is going to be devastating.
I decide to send an e-mail blast to faculty and staff in the Greenlee School:
We have received tragic news about the passing away of our dear, beloved colleague, Barbara Mack. We do not have any details at this point, but I wanted to alert you to what I have been coordinating since this morning, with help of the Greenlee staff.
I will be going to each of Barbara’s classes to impart the news personally.
Dean Beate Schmittmann is in the process of contacting Provost Jonathan Wickert because we feel the announcement should come from the head of the faculty.
We are setting up grief counseling through the Office of Student Services.
We will be working with the family for a memorial on campus.
If you need grief counseling, or anything else, please let the front office know what we can for you, your advisees, and your students. I have been coordinating this from home since learning the news. I will be in the office before 9 a.m.
My wife Diane also teaches in the Greenlee School. She cannot believe that Barbara has died and wants to know how. I don’t have any facts but that one cold one.
Ellie, my German shepherd, is nudging me as I dress for work. She hasn’t had her walk. That will have to wait, and I’ll just have to clean up afterward.
I am in my office, about to write Barbara’s obituary. This brings back terrible memories. At UPI, I wrote my father’s obit because my editor said I knew him best.
At moments like these, journalism sucks. But we have a duty. A calling.
I call up Barbara’s husband, Jim Giles, who tells me the details, which I type in UPI fashion, pounding the keyboard with four fingers, two on my right, two on my left:
"She came home from classes tired as she often did early in the semester," he said. "She lay down for a nap. An hour into that, I heard a call or a noise. I went to her and found her inarticulate and pounding on the bedside table. She thought she was having a heart attack. I gave her an aspirin and then transported her to the hospital for tests. She was given the whole works, and it was determined that she had no sign (of a heart attack) given her health history. The tests came up negative. She said she had a pain in her neck. She took some prescribed pain relievers. She was careful about her medicine. When we got home she was in discomfort and said she would try to sleep in the big recliner chair because the semi-vertical position might be more comfortable. She went to sleep. I checked on her during the night and she seemed fine. At 5:30 a.m., I checked again and found her gone."
I put out a statement to the faculty with more facts about how Barbara has died and notice my e-mail queue has lit up with close to 100 messages. Some are from colleagues, some are from students, some are from benefactors. I answer a few dozen in tweet fashion and then call in my staff for a meeting. We arrange for grief counseling, coordinate statements with the college, prepare for a web page redesign and create a full-sized advertisement for the next day’s student newspaper. I meet with our senior professor, Eric Abbott, also on phased retirement, to begin planning a memorial service.
In between these tasks I am giving interviews to The Des Moines Register, Iowa Public Radio, KCCI, WHO-TV, the Iowa State Daily, the Associated Press, Patch.com. I lose track.
The television interviews are the worst. Thankfully, I dressed for a chairs meeting at the College (which I didn’t attend) and so I am in a suit jacket and tie. I still am donning my UPI persona, being professional, remembering how special Barbara was and how she could cut a person down and build him up in a single declarative sentence. She has done that many times to me, and I adore her as her students do.
During one interview with Iowa Public Radio I slip into stream-of-consciousness, remembering my first encounter with Barbara Mack in February 2003, when I braved a blizzard in Ohio and flew to Des Moines in a storm to interview for the directorship at Greenlee. Barbara was waiting at the airport. Her first words to me were something along the lines of, "Well, I hear your nickname is Mickey. I have a horse named Mikki. Let’s go meet her."
We went to the barn rather than to the school 35 miles north. We cleaned that barn. We brushed Mikki, and then went to coffee.
I spent most of my life in the upper Midwest. I got my master's degree at South Dakota State University and worked in the state as a reporter for several years. I knew this was a test. Had I said, "Look, Barb" — a name she hated, by the way — "I just went through a blizzard in Columbus, traveled here in a storm, I’m tired, I need you to take me to my hotel so I can prepare for my job interview" — I wouldn’t have gotten the position. But I enjoyed meeting Mikki, who stood at least 17 hands high. At coffee, we talked about the state of journalism, a habit that we developed over the years, going to breakfast every two weeks and discussing how we would respond to dramatic changes in the digital era.
After the interviews, my associate director and I work diligently on finding new instructors for Barbara's four classes. We have lost several professor lines to budget cuts. We are understaffed but dedicated. To prepare for her retirement, Barbara has been working with a gifted constitutional lawyer, Jermaine Johnson, a Ph.D. student in education. He has not taught media law before, so we continue our search for Barbara’s replacement. Erin Wilgenbusch, after Barbara, our most talented large lecture instructor — she just won that award from the college — steps up to take the 400-student mass communication class. I take the ethics class in addition to my two orientation classes. I don’t know how I am going to run the school with so much teaching, but I just will have to in academic tradition. Everyone steps up when tragedy strikes, and so does Jermaine. He’s ready. He will do this for Barbara.
Then I remember my colleagues. I hear crying. I’m particularly worried about one professor who has an office next to Barbara’s. He is also on phased retirement, and I am afraid news about Barbara’s death will startle him. He doesn’t do Facebook. So perhaps he hasn’t read the e-mails.
He is in his office. He has heard the news in town from someone who read it on Facebook.
I return to my office. On the way, I hear sobbing behind a closed door. I don’t want to intrude. I will go to that office later and console a professor who, perhaps, is one of Barbara’s closest friends. There is a picture of both, with wide smiles, as in the movie "Thelma and Louise." It is how I will always remember them. Students meet me in the halls, professors, staff. Everyone is in shock, responding tearfully and asking how could this happen or stoically, asking for more facts.
Facts. Yes. Back to my e-mails. People want to know funeral arrangements. We contact Jim Giles again. Arrangements are pending.
I am home again. I have a special-needs son. He has picked this day to have a five-hour tantrum. My dog has not been walked. I cannot sleep. As soon as everyone does, it’s back to hundreds of e-mails.
Ellie, the German shepherd, nudges me hard. She has not been walked in the past 24 hours. We leave the house and head for the lake near my home in the woods. There is lighting in the north, with an approaching storm. But the stars are above me in clear skies. This is Iowa weather. I figure I have a good hour before the rain.
The lightning is like a strobe. It illuminates the woods by the path to the lake. Ellie is afraid of storms and shakes every time lightning strikes. It is spooky.
"Barbara, if you are here, let us know, O.K.?" I say aloud.
We walk about 30 yards.
"Barbara, show us a sign if you are here."
I feel silly. Barbara would mock me for asking such a question. "I’m sorry, Barbara. I’m so sorry."
Above me a hoot owl sounds its eerie music: WHO — WHO — WHO....
I know the answer to that question. The next day, in Barbara’s classes, I will tell her students who Barbara Mack was — that they are Barbara’s children — and that she wants them always to remember the fundamentals, the grammar, the facts. And I won’t do this on Facebook. I will do it face to face.
And then, maybe during the weekend, I will cry or sleep. Or maybe I will do what journalists are expected to during times like this.
I will write.
Michael Bugeja is director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.
The death of Wilson Bryan Key in 2008 received very little comment, nor does Google Scholar turn up many recent discussions of his legacy; the majority of references come from the 1970s and ‘80s, falling off in frequency and substance after that. His writings are unlikely to be taught, and it seems that they destroyed his academic career. But the central Keysian thesis – that the advertising industry conceals images of sex and death in its work, the better to control the consumer – has exercised more widespread influence than most other contributions in media criticism.
His first books, Subliminal Seduction (1973) and Media Sexploitation (1976) emerged from the freewheeling courses that he taught as a professor of communications at the University of Western Ontario. Later, in The Clam-Plate Orgy (1980), Key wrote at some length about being marginalized by colleagues and the administration, and says that a lawyer retained by the university offered him $64,000 to go away. (He accepted the money, and later said that the $64,000 question was, “What is the cost of academic freedom?”) In an interview conducted a few years before he died, Key indicated that around 8.5 million copies of his books had sold, which is believable given how ubiquitous they once were at paperback stands. For a while he was in some demand as a lecturer, and I have no doubt that his theories were entertaining to hear about as he displayed large blow-up posters of commercial artwork to shore up his claims.
Key's interpretations had a wide-eyed, relentless quality -- an endless series of revelations, pursuing a logic all their own. He pointed out the obscene images you could find in the ice cubes of a liquor ad. He found covert lesbian scenarios implied by the exchange of glances in a fashion spread, and explained the real meanings of popular song lyrics, such as “Hey Jude” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (an invitation to try heroin and an appeal to commit suicide, respectively). All of this stuff worked on the public’s unconscious mind, stirring up hidden desires and channeling them in ways that benefited our corporate overlords.
Sometimes even the products themselves aimed subliminal messages at us. The makers of Ritz crackers, for example, had managed to inscribe the word “sex” a great many times on each one's crinkled, buttery surface. How the manufacturer did this was never quite explained. Nor did Key adequately account for how the message would influence the consumer. The urge to stare at a Ritz cracker is just not that common.
Marshall McLuhan wrote in his preface to Subliminal Seduction that it resembled Foucault’s book The Archeology of Knowledge. The comparison proves as baffling as anything generated by Key’s free associations, if less titillating. I spent a while trying to figure out what McLuhan might have meant, only to conclude that the time would have been better used reading a good Pop-Tart.
Charles R. Acland never says anything so florid in Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence, published by Duke University Press. It’s a sober book covering an occasionally weird stretch of cultural territory. Acland, a professor of communication studies at Concordia University, in Montreal, calls the concept of subliminal influence a form of “vernacular cultural critique.” It operates in a zone lying somewhere between social science and urban legend. And the belief is a hardy one. Over the years, public-opinion surveys in the United States have found that between 50 and 70 percent of respondents think that advertisers used subliminal techniques, with comparably high levels of belief in their effectiveness.
“On an anecdotal and personal level,” Acland writes, “teachers of media and cultural studies know that the idea of subliminal influences enjoys popularity among students, a popularity that curiously exists side by side with the view that the media have little or no impact upon an individual’s thinking.” That contradictory outlook runs throughout the amazingly large archive of material he draws on to document Swift Viewing: newspaper editorials, Congressional hearings, science fiction novels, B movies, sociological treatises, and "Saturday Night Live" skits, among others.
The familiar thumbnail history begins in 1957, when the marketing researcher James Vicary announced the results of an experiment involving more than 14,000 patrons of a New Jersey movie theater. The words “drink Coca Cola” and “eat popcorn” were flashed on the screen for 1/3000th of a second every five seconds during the projection of a feature film, with the result that Coke sales went up by more than 57 percent, and popcorn sales by more than 18 percent. This revelation happened to come just after publication of Vance Packard’s first best-selling volume of pop sociology, The Hidden Persuaders, which reported on how Madison Avenue used psychological research to designing its campaigns.
Between them, Vicary and Packard created an uproar. At least one politician warned that subliminal advertising would lead to Communism -- an unusual perspective on postwar American consumerism, to say the least. But fascination with the possibility of subliminal influence was not just another Cold War anxiety, since public interest in it ebbed and flowed over time, picking up other cultural tendencies as it did. Wilson Bryan Key’s books are quintessentially mid-1970s texts. They appealed to a suspicion, post-Watergate and post-Vietnam War, that the powers-that-be were trying to trick and manipulate the public, and they also manifested some dread at the sexual revolution. (The powers-that-be were evidently were swingers.) Then in the late 1980s and early '90s, an industry in subliminal audiotapes and videos flourished, directing messages about self-esteem and weight loss at audience willing to put up with New Age music: all the benefits of self-improvement, with none of the distractions of putting in any effort.
Belief in subliminal influence established itself so thoroughly that the lack of evidence for it did not matter. Attempts to duplicate Vicary’s results from the New Jersey movie theater failed. And for very good reason: in 1962, Vicary admitted to Ad Age that he had embellished the data. Even that seems to have been a bluff: the manager of the theater knew nothing about the alleged study. (Subsequent tests of other techniques for subliminal influence have never yielded any evidence that it exists.)
The author is curiously protective of Vicary’s reputation, such as it is. “While the veracity of his research was sometimes questionable,” Acland writes, “and he may have been a habitual liar or bad researcher, he was also an innovator of what he later referred to as ‘creative marketing research,’ for which he advocated.” (The comic value of that sentence is presumably unintended.) But there was more to Vicary than his explorations of the fine line between creativity and a con artistry. Acland notes that Vicary once worked at the Bureau of Social Research at Columbia University, run by Paul Lazarsfeld -- a seminal figure in the development of sociological research in the U.S. from World War Two on. Acland also corrects a number of errors in other scholars' accounts of Vicary, filling in the backstory on someone otherwise remembered, if at all, as hoaxster.
Stressing Vicary’s earlier career as a marketing researcher who published in the field's academic journals serves to reinforce Acland’s larger argument: the notion of subliminal influence -- however dubious its conception, however resistant to being tested in controlled conditions – is the product of ideas and innovations that had been churning around in modern culture since at least the late 19th century. It incorporates elements of Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd (1896), with its analysis of an irrational "mass" or "popular" mind, susceptible to the contagion-like spread of an influence. It also reflects the extremely wide diffusion of belief in levels of consciousness below awareness, if in less subtle forms than the theories of William James or Sigmund Freud. And Acland has a chapter on the tachistoscope, a device created to measure the speed with which research subjects could recognize an image.
The notion of subliminal influence, then, was a synthesis of these ideas, and some effort to combine them was probably a matter of time. But it happened to crystallize at a special moment, only a few years after the term “brainwashing” entered the English language – and just about the time television found its place in most American homes. Acland show that for every paranoid response to Vicary's claims, there was a sardonic or skeptical cartoon or TV skit. But either way, the reactions acknowledged the sense of being ever more intensely bombarded with messages intended to manipulate the public mind. Belief in subliminal influence could sink deep roots in the culture because there is such fertile soil to nurture it: the growing “speed, intricacy, and density of the media environment,” in Acland's formulation, as people dealt with “worries about the cost of affluence and conformity, about the boundaries of commercial culture, about media representation, and about social control.”
Discussing the preface to Subliminal Seduction, Acland says: "McLuhan wrote that new electronic technology was weakening restrictive monopolies of knowledge, opening general access to ideas and information that had been available only to a few expert eyes, a claim one hears applied to the Internet today." The usual techno-utopianism, then. But with an underside: "This weakening, according to McLuhan, created a clot of information, too abundant to systematize and study...." I'm not sure how this applies the claim that Ritz crackers are whispering lewd suggestions, but the broader implication seems clear: the supersaturated media is the subliminal message.