Subliminal Reduction at the Washington Post

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, Subliminal Seduction by Wilson Bryan Key was constantly in print. I think I bought my paperback copy a good decade after it was first released in 1973. I’ve never really bought the conspiratorial theory; there have been Freudian images in advertising since — well, probably since about five minutes after the good doctor smoked his first cigar. And it does seem like bored airbrush artists have long been inserting funky imagery into the ice cubes in photographs of scotch tumblers. But…do these techniques in and of themselves actually manipulate consumers to buy a particular product?


On the Pajamas homepage, Charlie Martin attempts to ascertain the crowd numbers at Glenn Beck’s rally yesterday, by studying the photos released by the media. But not the first photo the Washington Post had on their Website for much of Saturday.

That photo was the topic of an item by Prof. William A. Jacobson. After he mentioned Key’s venerable book, I thought I’d have a little fun with Photoshop to illustrate the point he made about “Subliminal Deception” on his Legal Insurrection blog:

The image on The Washington Post [see note below] website of the Restoring Honor rally today in Washington, D.C., reminded me of the advertising concept of subliminal seduction, where images are inserted into an advertisement in such a way as to send a message to the viewer without the viewer knowing it.

WaPo’s article about the rally carried a time stamp of 1:38 p.m., but the photo of a near empty crowd in front of the Lincoln Memorial clearly was taken long before the tens or hundreds of thousands of rally participants arrived.

The caption says “Glenn Beck Rally Draws Thousands,” but the photo is not of the rally.

Subliminal deception.

[Note: WaPo has updated the linked article, and as of 9:03 p.m. has a different photo and more photos showing the crowd.  The screenshot above was taken at 1:38 p.m., and the same lead photo and image was on the website at least until after 2 p.m.  Considering that the rally started at 10:00 a.m., at which time the area was packed, there was no excuse for WaPo using that photo for several hours.]

Update: Here’s what the crowd-shot looked like during the rally (Via):


Meanwhile, as another law professor notes, “A whole lot of people seem to be using the same phrase to describe this event. Must’ve gone out via whatever’s replaced JournoList . . . . .”

When they’re not using scare quotes, of course.

Beck was certainly good-natured about techniques by the WaPo and others to play down the size of the crowd; as he joked to them during his speech,”I have just gotten word from the media that there is over a thousand people here today!” But these sort of techniques, combined with the increasingly hostile tone of the MSM regarding wide swatches of their readers, and coming after the same tactics were employed by the MSM to minimize the similarly massive crowds to Beck’s 9/12 rally last year, are starting to seem less like the epistemic closure of the MSM’s cocoon, and more like an exercise in magical thinking. As was, in retrospect, this:

In late October 2008, New Yorker staff writer George Packer reported “the complete collapse of the four-decade project that brought conservatism to power in America.” Two weeks later, the day after Mr. Obama’s election, Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne proclaimed “the end of a conservative era” that had begun with the rise of Ronald Reagan.And in February 2009, New York Times Book Review and Week in Review editor Sam Tanenhaus, writing in The New Republic, declared that “movement conservatism is exhausted and quite possibly dead.” Mr. Tanenhaus even purported to discern in the new president “the emergence of a president who seems more thoroughly steeped in the principles of Burkean conservatism than any significant thinker or political figure on the right.”

Messrs. Packer, Dionne and Tanenhaus underestimated what the conservative tradition rightly emphasizes, which is the high degree of unpredictability in human affairs. They also conflated the flagging fortunes of George W. Bush’s Republican Party with conservatism’s popular appeal. Most importantly, they failed to grasp the imperatives that flow from conservative principles in America, and the full range of tasks connected to preserving freedom.


But then, that’s why the Washington Post and its related publications get the big bucks these days.


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