When I worked at Chick-Fil-A, I had noticed a peculiar trend. Customers, not many but enough, would come up to the register and ask to order a slice of apple pie. I would respond by apologizing that we did not sell apple pie at Chick-Fil-A. Customers would then ask me why, then, did it smell like apple pie?
I had never noticed the apple pie smell, so I found the whole thing a little weird. After having this scenario reoccur enough, I became curious to understand the phenomenon. I asked a manager-on-duty if this had happened to him. He responded that it happens fairly frequently to everyone. He proceeded to tell me that there is an apple pie scent-disperser in the entrance to the restaurant. Seeing as customers had been frequently disappointed by our lack of apple pie, I asked him why we don’t get rid of the apple pie scent. He responded that “studies had been done that demonstrate people purchase more when they smell apple pie.”
This raised a red flag for me. I was already aware that the color red has the psychophysical effect of raising blood pressure, thus causing an increase in appetite, which is why most fast food businesses employ the use of the color red in their design. Red adorns the walls and stalls and logos and trays because they want you to eat. (Chick-Fil-A is fairly honest about this. “Eat more chicken”.) As an artist, however, I felt equipped to deal with the visual influences in my environment. I felt my focus on vision had given me the strength to resist such manipulation. And I always figured that it was somewhat easy to become aware of the music in a restaurant, thus aware of auditory influence. However, I was completely ill-equipped to deal with smell. I didn’t even notice the smell.
For context, I recently watched Groundhog Day, high, thinking it would be a great experience of comedy for my altered state of mind. It really wasn’t. I ended up with a profound sense of existential dread as I realized that no matter what Bill Murray did differently, all the characters around him acted basically the same. It was as if they were automatons, programed to adhere to an unalterable default setting. Ned Ryerson is the greatest example of this, and the fact that he obviously thinks of himself as clever is what makes him so lamentable. It got me wondering, how many times have I been Ned Ryerson? How many times have I made some sort of joke, indifferent of the audience or the context, with the explicit and selfish intent of indulging myself. This lead to another question: do I really have free will?
I’d say I’m a proud enough of a person to feel offended by the thought that I lack free will. It’s especially offensive to me to entertain the thought that, in truth, I lack free will while my mind convinces itself that it is self-willing. This is to say not only am I not free (in the sense of having free-will) but that I am indulging a falsehood, that I live in something of an illusion by believing in something so fundamentally unreal.
That’s some depressing shit.
The threat to free will comes in two flavors. The first tastes like I have no self-control. I am driven by unconscious impulses. I am not truly responding to my environment when I act, I am only projecting my desires and insecurities on my environment. I am Ned Ryerson.
The second flavor: I am being influenced by outside influences with our realizing it. Of course, this is a way of saying that I’m simply driven by unconscious influences, just like the first flavor. The main difference is that the first flavor tastes like a lack of self control. The second flavor tastes like mind control. One is strawberry, the other is cherry. Both are fruit.
I don’t want to be Ned Ryerson. I value self-awareness. Insofar as the Ned Ryerson problem seems to generate from within, it feels as though one can get a handle on it through practicing humility, listening to others, paying attention, all sorts of practices that protect one’s self from the ego. These things are difficult at first, because the ego is by definition, all about itself.
It is difficult enough to know how much control I have over myself, let alone how much control my environment has over me. This is why the Chick-Fil-A apple pie problem really irritates me. The total field of experience is so vast that it would take the entirety of my focus to maintain an adequate defense, like a samurai. To maintain this degree of awareness for no other purpose than defense is arguably a waste of energy. Also arguably: it is completely necessary in an environment of mass media. With so many appeals to your attention berating you constantly, it starts to feel necessary to find an adequate defense.
One offensive maneuver taken by companies to appeal to such defensive people as the educated of the United States is the sneak attack.
The concept of subliminal advertising that I had when I was a kid was basically, if you hide a pair of boobs in an advertisement in such a way that they are hard to identify, a person will look away from the advertisement and find themselves thinking about boobs without knowing why. After studying art and visual culture long enough, I know it does not work this way. Concerning a 2D rendering of boobs, in order to be at all conceptualized they must be identifiable (because 2D boobs don’t look like 3D boobs, but only remind one of 3D boobs). In order to be identifiable, the image must be registered by the part of the mind that transforms sense-impression into thought, which is consciousness.
Subliminal literally means “below the threshold”, the threshold being consciousness. Consciousness is that part of your mind that names and identifies. In order to effectively advertise subliminally, one must become a master of those things which exert an influence without being noticed. These are inherently not symbolic, like a cartoon graphic of boobs, because symbols require recognition in order to be intelligible. Subliminal must refer to the abstract, the suggestive (as opposed to the explicit), and the psychophysical. The color red example cited above is an example of the psychophysical.
Interestingly, the color green sits in between being symbolic and psychophysical. Our minds are evolved to associate green with life, because where there is green there is life. If you’re searching in nature for food and water, look for the green. But it is also just a color, like any other color. Simply an abstract, sense impression. Perhaps in part due to nature, in part due to culture, green convey’s a feeling of health. And when brands want to convince you that their unhealthy product became healthy over night, they will start to package it in green. The green on the package, of course, relates in no way to the actual nutritional content of the thing you’re about to put into your mouth, but one cannot help but associate it with good health. It’s subliminal.
People can scoff all they want at the subliminal, but in today’s advertising subliminal is the name of the game. Even when a brand is advertised in an ironically explicit way, the subliminal effect is to make the viewer feel (the subliminal is all about messing with your feelings) like s/he is in on to something, which is to say the brand is tricking you by convincing you that you’re smart enough to not be tricked. “This is the product smart, non-trick-able people buy!”
Marketers do all kinds of research to figure out what works and what doesn’t. What they look at might be the explicit “what kinds of messages are people responding to” or “what kinds of purchases do these kinds of people make”, which is a study of sociology. But studying the way scent might effect buying impulses is neurology, studying how the mind can be influenced without it realizing it.
I, for one, don’t like to be fucked with in this way. If things were the way I think they ought to be, all products would simply be what they are, without the glitter and manipulation of marketing. All advertisement would simply advertise the product as it is, not promise how the product might influence one’s life (people are smart enough to form their own conclusions concerning how the product might improve their lives).
Then again, do I really want this? A world of grey boxes with Helvetica labels? No flashing lights on Broadway? Essentially, a world where nothing impresses itself on my psychic space and I need not be defensive when I go out in public?
I know that when I go to Urban Outfitters that I am being manipulated. I am a type. I am very self critical of being a type, but it is unavoidable. I like the clothes they sell. I like the way they decorate their store. I like the music they play. I like their graphic design. All of this is consciously set up to appeal to a certain group (typically called hipsters) and I fit perfectly into this group. I go to Urban Outfitters and I feel some sort of camaraderie, which, due to self-awareness, causes me to feel frustrated at lacking individuality (fuck you, Urban Outfitters, for appealing to my taste without knowing me, personally). Ironically, being frustrated at lacking individuality is something that defines the group I fit into.
I go into a cafe called Brooklyn Roasting Company and see people seated, drinking coffee, with nice clothes, haircuts that are short on the sides and long on the top, square glasses, and who are busy typing away on their MacBook. I role my eyes and scoff at these people for thinking they’re above the game, better in some way, while failing to realize they are just like everyone else. Then I realize I dress the same way, I cut my hair the same way, I am writing this on a MacBook while I’m looking through my square glasses, and those people probably have all scoffed at me.
Self-criticism becomes a little pathetic after a while. It is not unexpected that any individual in this world will be able to identify with other individuals like him/herself, will willing put down the psychic defenses, will let go of the need to feel in control and allow him/herself to go where one’s environment suggests one should go. This is called culture. Some people are allowed to simply enjoy their culture, but there is something about me and my people. Something about us that is so critical and self-aware that we participate in a culture of hating our culture. We all want to have power through knowledge, to not be susceptible to the under-structure of our economy, to deconstruct the message, to see through the matrix, that we are fundamentally miserable people. Worse, we are miserable and we are still not succeeding in being immune to the influence of environment (because such a thing is probably impossible unless one really is a samurai). So we are miserable, self-loathing, hyper-educated, well dressed, hypocrites (see: gentrifiers who hate gentrifiers, hipsters who say the word “hipster” like it tastes sour, liberals who criticize liberals for not being liberal enough).
That’s some depressing shit.
Of course, I’m not advocating for the total destruction of the psychic shield. I get why people are defensive. When it comes to fast food manipulating you into upgrading your fries to an extra-large, the stakes are pretty small. When the stakes are larger, however, things get proportionately more scary.
For example: the media.
Some people have begun defending the media in light of Trump’s attacks, but these same people were criticizing the media just a year ago. As a culture, we are more or less aware the media is worthy of all the criticism it receives. Trump is only exploiting this fact. He is able to exploit it because the media has been anything but blameless. Furthermore, you can try to defend MSNBC all day long, but the fact remains that it is owned and thus controlled by corporations (Comcast now, General Electric before).
One way the media manipulates is simply by omitting information. If the news doesn’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. Another is by presenting information. In a world where infinite information is created daily, the information that makes it to the screen is the information we accept as descriptive of the environment we live in (disturbingly, we might accept it more than we accept our own personal experiences). The third way is not by omitting or presenting. It is the manner in which something is presented. The spin.
Fox News is notorious for it’s “Fair and Balanced” slogan. O’Riley’s “no spin zone”. Obviously, this is all bullshit. What would be more honest is to say Fox News is a counter spin zone. They are the only conservative news network in an overtly liberal biased industry. The lie is that they pretend to tell the truth. If they admitted their spin, they’d be a lot more trustworthy. As an example of such honesty: Rachel Maddow. When she does her “outrage-o-meter” she is being honest. She’s not employing the use of the subliminal. She is explicitly saying, “I am trying to enrage you. I am presenting to you only information that will enrage you and am presenting it in an incredulous voice so you know you are are either stupid or irresponsible if you aren’t as enraged as I’m telling you (with, literally, a tool that measures outrage) you should be.” That is some grade A journalistic honesty. Of course, maybe Fox News’s dishonesty is something that makes them trustworthy. To quote Captain Jack Sparrow, “you can always trust a dishonest man to be dishonest. Honesty. Its the honest ones you should look out for.”
I’m mixing up movies. Let’s go back to Groundhog day.
Groundhog day is not a movie about mind control, but it is a movie about free will. After watching it stoned, I did research to see if I wasn’t alone in recognizing Groundhog Day as the most spiritual film ever made. Turns out, plenty of people have noticed this. Indeed, the film was written and directed with Buddhist themes in mind.
Bill Murray (I know his name is Phil Connors, but he’s Bill Murray to me) is perpetually reincarnated into a situation he hates. Despite all of his defensive, and possibly accurate reasons for hating the town he’s forced to go to and the day on which he’s forced to go, the real reason why he is angry is because he feels powerless. He feels completely at the mercy of a world he’d rather not be in, and his cynical attitude is a manifestation of this feeling of powerlessness and resentment.
In watching Groundhog Day, we see a man who is forced to deal with the concept of power, the concept of control. Early on in discovering that his day repeats without consequences carrying over, he decides that freedom entails no longer following rules. Eventually, he gets bored of this type of freedom, and decides to look for a challenge. He tries to trick his colleague, Rita, into having sex and slowly starts to realize a limitation to his power when he repeatedly fails. Interestingly enough, this is when he starts to develop a respect for other people, as he realizes that (1) he can’t have sex with her as a consequence of how he has behaved even before Groundhog Day, (2) she is a complex being with legitimate reasons for rejecting him, and (3) while other people can be manipulated, they cannot be altogether controlled. Here we see him enter a depression, as any part of this situation that felt like a game begins to dissolve away.
At first, he took pleasure in manipulating this world he hates, as an almost childish form of revenge and selfishness. Now, being subjected to this world feels like a punishment again. Worse, because being critical of it, mocking it, and manipulating it doesn’t change that fact that he’s trapped in it. He begins his suicides, which is another form of selfishness. His ego is hurt, and instead of learning his lesson, he selfishly tries to escape.
After these fail, he tries something new. He learns about other people. He shares his situation with Rita, which is a sign he finally respects her and other people. He begins learning ice sculpture and piano, which is a way of recognizing that while one cannot control the world, there are things one can control (noticeably, only through continual practice, not through force of will). We finally see Bill Murray start to appreciate the world he’s forced to live in, but he is not yet done learning. His compassion develops to a point where he tries to save a homeless man who dies repeatedly dies on Groundhog Day. Bill Murray is still selfishly believing he has control over the world, only this selfishness is manifesting in a new way. Ultimately, he must accept the limitation to his power, and accept there is nothing he can do to save the dying man.
By the end of Groundhog Day, we see a Bill Murray who has learned to recognize what power he does and does not have, and who has learned to genuinely appreciate the world he lives in and the others who occupy it. He even gets over his frustration with Ned Ryerson, and chooses to indulge Ned’s conceitedness, an act of tolerance.
Bill Murray’s last Groundhog Day is filled with him engaging in acts of compassion towards others. One should realize, he’s not doing this out of penance or a sense of duty (like a video game character fulfills objectives) but because he genuinely enjoys doing these things. After having explored all the options, he found these are the only things that give his experience a sense of meaning. By the end, he wins the respect of Rita (and thus, her love) and he is set free from the cycle.
To have free will is not the same as being omniscient or omnipotent. Sartre defines freedom as situational. In essence, one’s freedom is defined and limited by one’s environment, and yet is infinite within the context of that environment. To provide a corny metaphor, gravity limits one’s freedom, as an object with great mass, Earth, pulls your body toward it (interestingly, by the way, your body also pulls Earth toward itself). Yet without the pull of gravity, one’s movement would be severely limited, if at all possible. All the songs that discuss gravity as a limit to freedom are mistaken.
When one understands this, one is set free from the anger and distrust. One can even, knowingly, allow oneself to be at the mercy of outside influence without feeling weak or manipulated.
I do not have full control over the world in which I live. I cannot have full access to reality. There is a spin. I am being manipulated. I choose to get over it. It’s stupid and self-serving to be angry that Urban Outfitters appeals to me. I can simply accept that while I don’t need their products to be happy, I like them. I am that type. And maybe some subliminal force influences me to buy a tasty snack I otherwise would have passed by. So what? I have limited freedom but it is freedom none-the-less. More than anything, while I lack freedom over the circumstance, I have freedom over the pattern of my life: my practices and my outlook. When I attend to that, I have no need to be worried about all those things in my environment that are trying to control me. I don’t need to be worried about the apple pie smell.