Media Literacy for the Unconscious Mind

- Brian Walsh


The American public is no longer in complete control of the decisions that they make. Public space has lost its neutrality now that marketers are targeting the unconscious minds of consumers. The majority of the American public is unaware that they are spending more or less time in stores, moving slower or faster through the aisles, and purchasing items that have no concrete value to them because their unconscious is being told to make decisions contrary to that which they desire. This essay is a crash course in media literacy for your unconscious mind, covering the areas of Muzak, mall design, television advertising, and politicized Hollywood film. A conscious awareness of the unconscious motivations inherent in these four areas can provide the tools to completely deconstruct the public world and regain the ability to make decisions for yourself.


With the sublime, there is no criterion for assessing the role of taste... The question then becomes: how can we share with others a feeling which is so deep and unexchangeable?...this community is yet to be. It is not yet realized.

-Jean-François Lyotard

One could argue that such a community now exists, in that the sublime “inspire[s] an overpowering, inexpressible feeling of awe, often associated with the presence of the divine or some transcendental spirit or force; producing an emotion which [is] literally beyond words” (Lyotard, 1986/1999, p. 212).  An event that affects a person in such a ‘deep and unexchangeable’ manner may well be the product of unconscious targeting by advertisers, now that a new approach to marketing ideas has been created on the basis of psychological research that no longer is interested in directly targeting an audience’s conscious mind, but rather appeals to a subject’s unconscious and influences its behaviors and beliefs without he or she being aware of it.  This is not ‘subliminal messaging,’ but rather a calculated and very well documented set of techniques employed by media such as background music, the architectural design of a mall, Hollywood cinema, and advertising on television.  The audience is not aware of successful unconscious influence, resulting in an ‘inexpressible feeling of awe,’ for it has not been consciously processed - and the result of such an experience would necessarily be ‘literally beyond words.’  Americans have just such an experience every time there is a television is turned on the shopping mall is visited.  My intent is to increase the reader’s conscious awareness of this phenomenon, the result being a greater ability to exercise free will in decision-making concerning belief systems and behaviors.

The unconscious is most easily defined in opposition to consciousness, which, to be brief, is that which one is aware of. [*]   Along these lines, the unconscious would be “an absence of awareness, as in a coma or sleep” (Goldenson, 1989, p. 771).  Sigmund Freud is of course the first to name and identify the unconscious, but his interest in it only concerned repressed memories and anxieties that a subject could bring out of the unconscious mind (and into consciousness) through therapy.  The unconscious retains certain memories or skills, but its most important role is as the receiver of stimuli on a constant basis.  All sensory perception is filtered through it, with only a minute fraction actually sent to the conscious mind.  Tor Norretranders explains that, “Every single second, every one of us discards millions of bits in order to arrive at the special state known as consciousness.  But in itself, consciousness has very little to do with information.  Consciousness involves information that is not present, information that has disappeared along the way” (Norretranders, 1991, p. 125).  This surplus of information is accumulated unconsciously, but is not fed to consciousness unless necessary or pertinent – because without this selectivity, the conscious mind would be overwhelmed.  Hence, one job of the conscious mind is to ignore the existence of the unconscious in order to maintain mental stability. 

From this it can be determined that the world is filled with stimuli, and we perceive significantly more of it that we realize consciously.   It can also be assumed that the amount of stimuli in the sensory world has increased exponentially, with, for example, the average American witnessing over one million advertisements by age 20 (Silverblatt, Ferry and Finan, 1999, p. 25).  The ratio of advertising to public and private space (both physical and mental) has amplified to the point that it has become more difficult for any one advertiser to reach an audience – the stimulus market has become saturated.  Within the context of this environment, it could be argued that in order to reach a targeted audience, anyone that wishes to influence human behavior would have an easier time approaching from the side rather than head on - that is, the majority of the mind is unconscious, and our motivations stem not from the conscious mind, but rather the conscious mind accessing the unconscious to find its motivation.  So if a publicist were to plan an approach targeting the unconscious minds of the audience, the chances of successfully manipulating consumer behavior would be exponentially increased, not to mention completely invisible to the general public.

When I hear one of my songs in an elevator, I know that it’s a hit.

-Paul Simon

Doctors began to apply psychological theory to the behavioral studies of humans in England starting in the 1940s and found that appealing indirectly to the senses of the subjects could circumvent the conscious mind, and the decisions of the subjects could thus be controlled.  For instance, factory workers “worked harder and harbored a less resentful attitude when exposed to morning music” (Lanza, 199, p. 42).  Around the same time, a retired general named Owen Squier began planning ideal American home and shopping environments, with the constant play of music being key to his vision.  Squier went on to patent what he called “piped-in” music, and to name it he combined the word ‘music’ with the name of what he considered the most innovative company in the world, Kodak, to coin the term: ‘Muzak.’ 

The Muzak Corporation found its initial successes playing in work environments, but performed research to expand the role of its product and increase its clientele.  Muzak researchers found that very particular song combinations could influence behaviors in incredibly precise ways, with success rates showing around 80 percent of subjects responding ‘correctly’ to audio cues to move faster or slower and become more emotionally involved in their environment.  Eighty-five percent of subjects also approved of the music being played (Lanza, p. 42).  These results allowed Muzak executives to convince specific companies to employ their environmental music in an effort to sway customers to purchase more products.  The Muzak Corporation then began to customize songs and their combinations strategically for individual clients.

The engineers at Muzak went on to create many techniques that combined the study of the unconscious mind with the arrangement, pitch, tempo and song order of the piped-in music.   The most popular form of Muzak then and now is pop songs played as ‘easy-listening instrumentals.’  Familiar radio songs are re-recorded by Muzak musicians and given a lighter air, with the hooks and melodies inferred rather than overtly punctuated.  This is so the listener recognizes the song, but only unconsciously.  He or she may hum or whistle along, but not be able to tell you what tune is playing.  The Muzak Corporation proudly admits that if a listener recognizes a song consciously, the company has failed in its objective. 

The next step in programming Muzak was setting the order and arrangement of the songs in relation to each other.  Eventually it was found that techniques such as Stimulus Progression, which calculates the energy of a collection of songs into a standardized format, could increase the efficiency and output of employees substantially.  Songs are rated on a scale according to their intensity.  Muzak engineers then arrange these selections in such a way as to directly oppose a worker’s ‘fatigue curve,’ such as adding a boost to the music’s intensity during the lethargy that often follows lunch.  An entire day is mapped out in 15-minute cycles and then played in offices nationwide with alarming results.   On average, absenteeism decreases by as much as 88%, typing errors lessen by 25%, and the overall mood of the work environment becomes more congenial (Lanza, p. 43).  Later studies confirmed that as employees worked harder with Muzak, shoppers ended up purchasing more if a precisely engineered song selection was employed. 

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a Muzak Stimulus Progression chart from the 1950’s.

Muzak’s influence over the consumer occurs in two ways: in the first, the customer is encouraged to remain in a particular environment for a longer or shorter period of time, and to shop or eat at a faster or slower pace, depending on which behaviors will encourage sales.  Hence, grocery stores play slow tempo music to persuade customers to move in a more leisurely manner and, in turn, purchase more items, while fast-food restaurants will play faster music to encourage a larger turnover rate by urging customers to eat faster. These methods have proven to be tremendously successful.  For the two examples used, “Customers in the loud music condition spent less time on average in the supermarket than those in the soft music condition,” and “ music in a university cafeteria led to more bites per minute than slow music” (Hargreaves and North, 1997, p. 275).  Another method that Muzak employs to encourage more purchases is as part of a technique known as Atmospherics.   This form of encouragement does not concern itself with a customer’s length of stay or turnover rate, but rather reinforces the target audience’s general perception of a given store in order to play upon personal insecurities that stem from the discrepancy between the shopper’s actual life and their idealized self-image.  This technique is elaborated on in greater detail in the next section.

The Muzak Corporation more recently starting collaborating with POP Radio, which designs Point of Purchase advertisements for in-store play.  Now a visit to the grocery store exposes consumers to not only behavior-influencing music, but also direct advertising about products currently for sale in the market.  This type of advertising is extremely popular with marketers because it has been found that 65% of all shopping decisions are made while the customer is in the store.  The consumer is being controlled not only in terms of shopping pace and volume of purchases, but also by specifically what in the store he or she should purchase.  Muzak is now an incredibly powerful tool for retail corporations as well as offices and factories.  In its early days, the company only recognized the potential for such consumer-influencing techniques, but before they could be implemented, the ideal shopping environment would have to be invented – and along came Victor Gruen.

We want you to get lost.

-Tim Magill, designer of the Mall of America

The first shopping mall was constructed in 1956 in Southdale, Minnesota, by Victor Gruen, who had conceived, in a manner much like General Squier, of an idyllic environment for shopping (Rifkin, 1996, p. 263).  Gruen’s innovations came in the form of the mall’s layout: the path that the pedestrian assumes is dictated by the space itself via unconscious motivation. Department stores, which were the main impetus to go to malls when they were first designed, are placed at opposite ends of the interior walkways so shoppers must pass all of the smaller shops when traversing between them. [†]   The layout of the mall does not employ straight lines, as would seem the obvious choice.  Rather, subtle gradients of angling veer people down the pathways, especially in the food court areas.  Along with climate control, a lack of clocks, and centrally controlled lighting, the consumer loses all sense of direction, time of day, and duration of their stay.  Coupled with the maze-like design of the walkways (as well as of the shops themselves), the mall becomes a very disorienting experience.  Mirrors and glass windows accentuate this confusion, along with reflective walkways and mannequins, which unconsciously infer the illusion of more motion and human activity.  Parking is often located underneath the mall structure, so shoppers cannot determine where in the mall they are making their entrance (although these locations are precisely scripted), which adds to the disorientation (Rushkoff, 1999, p. 89-92).

Many marketers argue that this disorientation is exactly what the consumer desires without realizing it.  In Marketing to the Mind, the authors argue that people visit the mall solely for its disorientating effect – it is a vacation from the senses, much like drinking alcohol (Maddock and Fulton, 1996, p. 12).  Granted, most people do enjoy the spectacle and escape of the mall – but they do not enjoy parting with significantly more money than they would if these disorientations did not exist.  Yet this is not a concern for the marketer, since the general public is unaware of the social experiments being performed on them. [‡]

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One of Gruen’s early mall designs.

Mall designers call the overall effect of scripted disorientation the “Gruen Transfer.”  When the consumer enters the mall centrally via escalator from the parking garage, the cacophony of sounds, lighting, climate control, visual activity, and Muzak create a state wherein the subject’s eyes literally become glazed over and the consumer loses the ability to make economically realistic decisions about what to buy (Rushkoff, p. 85). This behavior has been documented extensively and can be observed in many other environments, such as an art museum.  There is a correct path to take through each exhibit, and the pacing of everyone walking that path is slowed to a crawl (the only other time that people amble this slowly is in similarly scripted paths such as when exiting a movie theater or sight-seeing).  And similar to the mall, the museum’s scripted paths frequently encourage patrons to purchase items at a gift shop. [§]  

The shopping mall employs these tactics in a layering approach, with individual stores managing to keep the illusion sustained throughout the entire shopping experience by employing Atmospherics.  Phil Kotler introduced this concept in 1974, defining it as “the effort to design buying environments to produce specific emotional effects in the buyer that enhance his purchase probability” (Hargreaves and North, p. 274).  It can be best understood as an assault on the senses: once the disorientation of the mall makes its patrons more mesmerized, colors, sounds, and smells are employed to lure the patron to exercise his or her new penchant for spending in a particular store.  These techniques are based on concepts of Classical Conditioning and Behaviorism (previously only practiced on lab rats) which patrons are only susceptible to because of the initial disorientation of the mall.  For example, cookie shops pipe out the smell of their baking ovens to pull in customers.  Shops often have soft rugs that contrast sharply with the hard tile of the mall’s walkways, encouraging customers to stay and shop.   Countertops in clothing stores are as large as possible, so as to encourage more purchases (Rushkoff, p. 94, 99).

Music (Muzak) also enters into the Atmospherics equation.  By focusing on particular moods, tempos, and styles of music, a store’s image is both invented and sustained.  Combining music with color schemes, furniture selection, and even the personal appearance of employees causes the customer to unconsciously infer a particular lifestyle.  This image reflects the personal aspirations of the main clientele of the store, and since it is unconscious and non-specific, the customer fills in the blanks with how they envision themselves. 

This unconscious ideal is sometimes referred to by the store’s name, such as in the case of Victoria’s Secret, or it can be embodied by the spokesperson, à la Martha Stewart.  Clothing stores with a target audience of young females usually play upbeat electronica and other music that is usually heard on a night out on the town.¸  An unconscious association with a more jet-setting lifestyle is inferred, and, playing on the unconscious desires of the young girls, much more clothing is bought.  A girl doesn’t have too many pairs of shoes because she needs all of them, but because her unconscious ideal of the self needs that many shoes.  Not coincidentally, this schizophrenic ‘Other’ usually lives in Paris rather than, say, Cleveland.   This is why the stores have exotic names such as Limited Express, Lerner New York, Esprit, and French Connection. [**]

The shopping environment has been transformed from a relatively neutral space to one that harbors numerous stimuli that urge its patrons to behave in such a way as to be beneficial to the store but financially detrimental to the consumer.  Marketing industry employees agree that stores benefit from unconscious motivation, but argue that the consumer is benefiting as well.  However, the consumer is only benefiting in that their unconscious ideal of their self and their life is reinforced.  To argue that consumers legitimately gain anything from further falling out of  touch with the reality of their actual lives is in direct contradiction with the psychological theories on which behavioral motivation is based .  Freud’s only interest in the unconscious was to help individuals recover from mental illness by bringing their unconscious anxieties and insecurities to consciousness – hence, an increase in the fantastic side of the unconscious necessarily nurtures anxiety and fear, which is the most significant motivating factor in making unnecessary purchases. 

The mall is “the TV you walk around in,” says Wlliam Kowinski, a mall maven who has paraded through dozens of them.  A kaleidoscopic extravaganza of shop front logos, copious piles of brand-name merchandise, New Wave music, sparkling lights, and rapidly shifting images, it’s like watching television’s insistent succession of can’t-ignore images.   Like the TV commercial, the mall can transform passivity into desire with only the sketchiest of images.  A quick glimpse of the Eiffel Tower is enough to evoke romance and adventure.  An abbreviated storefront is a prop signifying an entire Main Street where everybody knows everybody.  “Television and the mall are in the same business.”

-Carol Rifkin

Victor Gruen later claimed that others more sinister than he had capitalized on his idealistic vision for the shopping mall.  His impetus to invent the mall was to rescue the suburbs from the decentralization of Main Street, but he alleges that ideas were turned inside out to persuade the public.  General Squier did not live to see his own vision reach the same ends, but similarly had intended to improve public space rather than cause it to manipulate the consumer.   In contrast to these concepts that reached their theoretical fruition in the 1940’s and early 50’s, television was born without such a retrospective conscience.  Its assumption from the onset was that American consumerism is based on desire, which in turn is based on a lacking (which, interestingly enough, does not exist until marketers invent it).  At what point does the consumer lose the ability to differentiate between actual and advertising-created desire, especially when the invented desire is based on their real-life insecurities?  The products or services promoted in modern advertising are associated with the unconscious anxieties and desires of the target audience, and not only is an idealized life referred to overtly (much like the environmental stresses of clothing stores on young women), but personal fears are unconsciously alluded to, inferring that to neglect to at least acknowledge the legitimacy of the product would be a failure in social society as well.  The most obvious example is print-based beer ads, which blatantly refer to a swinging lifestyle filled with parties and girls – which makes most men (unconsciously) feel inadequate - and the easiest way to relieve the guilt created by inadequacy is to purchase the product. 

Television advertising can be seen as still images in succession, with roughly 30 static frames per second.  This sequencing of the image is the very basis of the power of television.  As Doris-Louise Haineault and Jean-Yves Roy explain in Unconscious for Sale, “...representations regroup among themselves, form series, sequences, cohorts from analogous elements.  Signifiance, consequently, would never originate from an isolated representation, but instead from series of representations” (Haineault and Roy, 1993, p. 90).  In other words, when the concept of motion is added to the equation of advertising strategies, the descriptive behavior of the unconscious fears and desires alluded to can much more successfully elicit the desired response.  It is important to reiterate that this is not a reference to ‘Subliminal Messaging,’ with words ‘hidden’ in brief successions of frames to subconsciously influence behavior.  Studies have proven such popular conceptions and fears totally untrue.  A better way to approach this argument would be to consider the potentially sinister applications possible in advertising once TV ad men have gained an awareness of, say, Jungian archetypes: if, as Jung theorized, there are artifacts of subtle distinguishable visual imagery that evoke particular responses from a general audience, how can advertisers apply them to increase sales?

Since the environment in which television is viewed is subjectively defined rather than objectively scripted (like cinema), it is understood to be more honest.  That is to say, people believe in video.  We have all learned to mistrust film, with its actors being well known outside of the medium, as well as the special effects and often-fantastic storylines that make up most of cinema today.  The legitimacy of television, however, has never been doubted.  Our obsession with the medium and unquestioning belief in its content is oddly analogous to late 19th Century film screenings featuring footage of an oncoming train that resulted in audience members running out of the back of the theater in fear.  Rodney King is innocent, OJ is guilty, because the TV told me so.  Partly because of this unquestioning belief in its content, techniques of unconscious motivation in television advertising are extremely well documented and open to the public.  The Muzak Corporation proudly promotes its statistics, and anyone interested in mall design can read articles about Atmospherics, but there are entire reference books for how the television advertiser can appeal to the unconscious portion of the brain.   Perhaps the broadness of the topic can best be visualized by considering television advertising as being a Muzak version of the Gaze.

Any comparison between advertisements for one particular product from over twenty years ago and ads for the same product today reveals that although the mood, style, lighting and characters change with the times, the unconscious appeal of the product is identical.  Advertisements for beer that play during sporting events have illustrated this phenomenon quite successfully for over thirty years, with men, sports, women and beer being the only staples.  This type of unconscious motivation is based on the most simple and applicable Freudian concepts, such as sex, desire and anxiety.  Television is the most successful medium for conveying these concepts within advertisements, since the visuality of the medium lends itself to an audience’s inherent understanding of non-verbal communication.  Take, for example, the  latent meanings of certain body language, such as the swagger or the leer.  

Much of the general public would consider themselves aware of the shameless promotion of TV advertising - my point is that there is much more going on than most people realize.  Just as the employees at upbeat clothing stores are hand-picked in accordance with the unconscious idealization of a particular lifestyle, the actors in advertisements embody all that the target audience wishes to be.   Like Muzak’s Stimulus Progression technique, advertisements are broken up into segments that play in predetermined rhythms and coincide precisely with the style, mood, and visual technique of the show they interrupt.  This is not solely because the target audience for the show and the advertisement are identical, but also because advertisers would prefer the audience to not know when the show stops and the advertisement begins.  When companies began to donate televisions and VCRs to schools for educational programming, the tapes that were provided had advertisements (for the companies that had donated the equipment) interlaced with the programming.  The only stylistic motif for the advertisements was the similarity of the advertisement to the educational programming, which were both created by the same companies.  So, for example, one tape on history could show a large amount of black and white footage, and then fade to advertisements, which are shot in seemingly identical black and white.  This is an employment of the unconscious in the most deviant sense, with programming and advertising blending to the point where the viewer does not consciously wonder at what point he or she should stop memorizing the material - especially when the pre-determined audience consists entirely of middle-school students.q

Identical techniques are employed for adult advertising as well, with automobile ads consistently the most overt example of unconscious prodding.  Speed, power, and luxury are standard claims of any car ad, but the subtle messaging in advertisements for SUVs is often more explicit because the target audience is so well defined.  According to marketers from American car companies,  the psychological makeup of a minivan driver is more concerned with ideas of family and community, whereas SUV drivers are “more restless, more sybaritic, less social people who are ‘self-oriented.’”  General Motors employee Fred J. Schaafsma explains that “SUV owners want to be like, ‘I’m in control of the people around me.’”  Daimler Chrysler employee David C. McKinnon explains that his bosses told him repeatedly to “get [SUV drivers] up in the air and make them husky.”À  These are direct appeals to the target audience’s perception of their idealized or imagined selves – again, similar to the tactics used by clothing stores on young female shoppers. 

Once an individual’s social identity was defined in accordance with the type of car that he or she drives, not only did car advertisements begin to be concerned almost exclusively with targeting the unconscious by playing with personal insecurities, but also particular genres of automobiles began to be designed to apply directly to this unconscious self.  Take, for example, the recent trend of ‘sporty’ cars, such as the Nissan Xterra: the only difference between these automobiles and other mid-sized SUV’s is that they are marketed to an ‘extreme sports’ audience, and reinforce a personal perception of the self-as-rugged-mountaineer, however inaccurate it may be. 

Often the intended effect of unconscious urging in television advertisements must rely on specific associations in relation to the music in the ad.  When a hit song is not available for a television advertisement because, say, the artist does not want his or her music associated with the product, a ‘copy’ song can be made, that mimics the originally desired song note for note, with only enough changes in the music to avoid copyright infringement – but to the audience, the difference is almost imperceptible, since the music is only meant to appeal to the mind unconsciously in terms of recognition in order to create an association.  This is practically identical to the re-recording philosophy of the Muzak Corporation.

The creation of memory: Baseball icon Barry Bonds as 1) a childhood memory of the viewer loving baseball – and wanting to visit Disneyland, 2)  now a grown-up star hitting a record number of home runs, 3) with his family announcing that after breaking the record, “We’re going to Disneyland,” and 4) the closing Disneyland logo.

The power of such unconscious associations can go so far as to invent contexts in a person’s mind.  An article in the Media Guardian showed how advertising could alter an individual’s childhood memories.  Adults were shown an advertisement for Disney World that has a shot of Bugs Bunny shaking hands with children as they entered the park.  Many of the adults became convinced that such an event had happened to them as a child, even though Bugs Bunny is a Warner Brothers character that has never appeared at Disney World.  This research was undertaken after Disney televised ads for their “Remember the Magic” campaign, which some marketers recognized were creating or altering the viewers’ memories of the theme park (Cozens, 2001). 

You see, consciousness thinks it’s running the shop.  But it’s a secondary organ of the total human being, and it must not put itself in control.  It must submit and serve the humanity of the body.

-Joseph Campbell

Advertising has ceased all concern with reality and concentrates almost exclusively on an indirect approach that confuses the audience’s mind to the point that non-existent associations are made, sometimes even between events that never occurred.  A similar form of association is made when politicians employ rhetoric to circumvent actually saying anything concrete: key words that play on the unconscious are used to infer a sense that something powerful is being communicated, but once again the intent is similar to that of a magician keeping one hand in motion to maintain the audience’s attention while the real ‘magic’ is happening in the other hand.

Media outlets continually decry politicians for evading questions and not providing direct answers on their policy.  This is quite simply because specifics push a candidate’s ideology into the audience’s conscious mind, whereas non-specific, inoffensive and meaningless jargon portrays the image of a platform.  Facts work on the conscious, and images affect the unconscious.  This is why the unconscious tactics outlined in this essay all employ some form of image-creation: Muzak employs sound-as-image, its main purpose being to alter or illuminate environmental space.  Mall design is a particular wing of Architecture that concentrates almost solely on the creation of the spectacle.  And television is based on the creation and sustainment of false images.  So how does one create an ‘image’ for a specific political party platform?  By employing the largest fantasy-creation engine in America: Hollywood.

Other than the significant rise in product placement in Hollywood film over the past decade, cinema has always assumed an ‘artistic’ role perceived as more legitimate than television advertising.  The faux-cinematic advertisements that now precede theater film screenings not only take advantage of what marketers refer to as a ‘captive audience,’ but also remind us of the convincing power of the film medium, especially when viewed in a dark theater at maximum screen size.  Just as the television has an association with honesty, the cinema embodies the fantastic, which in turn can make the products advertised seem, well, out of this world.  Techniques such as product placement differ considerably in approach to television advertising, but their tactics appeal to the same portion of the unconscious.

Hollywood film is the ultimate example of spectacle overtaking plot and purpose, and for this reason, unconscious messages can be inserted that are much more specific and politically motivated.  A look at the past few decades of Hollywood film illustrates the tendency to reflect the social concerns of the public in cinema, such as the numerous political assassination films that came out in the late 60’s and early 70’s (Target, The Parallax View, The Manchurian Candidate), or the films of the 1980’s that critiqued American foreign policy (Salvador, Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Rambo series [††] ).  A direct correlation between what is on the public’s mind and what is captured on film is, if anything, healthy, but in more recent times, this call-and-response setup has reversed itself somewhat, with movies legitimizing political movements, rather than the other way around.  The best example is the Republican ideology films of the 1990’s that star Harrison Ford.  Why Ford became the icon for this belief system is uncertain:  whether or not he identifies himself as a Republican is not what the audience identifies with – it is more important that he is older, white, male - and damn good looking. 

The Republican National Convention of 1992 marked the true beginning of the concept of ‘family values,’ a campaign concern that in part lead an election loss to the Democrats.  But the Republican Party claimed that the American public, specifically the rural middle-American public, agreed with them that “faith, family and freedom” were important issues.  This was the most specific definition of ‘family values’ that the GOP ever provided without getting in trouble – any definition containing factual information continually offended a large section of the populace because the tenets of the proposal entered the conscious mind.À 

The ideal of Family Values is necessarily fictitious, since it never existed in the past, and never could now, unless homosexuality, single mothers, and minorities simply disappeared from the American landscape.  To a certain (perhaps unconscious) degree, the drafters of this ideology realized that it was impossible to achieve.  This is why the concept was fictionalized in the most legitimate way possible – by Hollywood.  The idea of Family Values was only successfully communicated through fiction – since the subtle influences of film would allow for the ‘message’ of family values to get through to the audience unconsciously without a significant portion being offended.  In other words, a fictitious dream for the future could only be embodied by fiction, since any realistic policies based on family values would meet with overwhelming opposition. [§§]   But as an un-actualized inference of a desire for things to “go back to how they were,” most people agreed with them, since the program’s approach was not targeted to the conscious mind.

The majority of the American public that agreed with the image of family values is arguably the most desirable target audience for Hollywood, and so not surprisingly, action films (middle-America’s favorite genre) became motivated by the concept of family.  Beginning in 1992, the same year as the aforementioned Convention, Patriot Games was released: the story of an ex-CIA agent who gets involved in a case only to have a terrorist target his family for revenge.  This was followed by The Fugitive (1993), in which a man searches for the ‘someone else’ that killed his beautiful and virtuous wife.  The audience meets her in numerous flashback scenes that indicate that the desire for family and the ‘way things were’ are Dr. Richard Kimble’s main goals.  Next came Clear and Present Danger (1994) [***] , in which even Leonard Maltin reveals “Ford plays more of a symbol than a character” (Maltin, p. 239). These films alone illustrate that what Quayle and Bush were referring to in their rhetoric was not just the idealism of the traditional family, but also a strong critique on the concept of the other, be it homosexual, foreign, or minority.  Tom Clancy’s role in writing the novels that many of these films are based on is not completely innocent, either, considering that his only consistent stylistic motif is relating foreign conflict to the struggle of one man protecting what he believes in – namely, his family and country.  The enemies in all of these films are foreign terrorists and one-armed men, echoing the sentiment that that which is ‘other’ is against the concept of family.   The reason that The Fugitive was remade in 1993 was because the concept of the unidentifiable ‘other’ that destroys the family was on the public’s mind because of the Republican Party platform. 

The public necessarily found ‘family values’ a frustratingly empty phrase, since it could not be clearly defined without offending large portions of the electorate - namely single mothers, welfare recipients, homosexuals, feminists, and non-Christians.p   Quayle usually blamed more extreme conservatives for putting specific labels on the term rather than keeping it intentionally vague.  After Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson both made derogatory comments about homosexuality under the umbrella of family values, Quayle felt it necessary to tone down the comments from such clear and defining statements: “I would say that we have a very good policy of nondiscrimination.  I don’t think you heard any of that rhetoric coming from me.  You didn’t hear it coming from the President” (Quayle 1992).  Quayle’s use of the term ‘rhetoric’ is a clear attempt to dismiss the comments as inaccurate and politically motivated rather than honest.  Also, his declaration that he didn’t think that he said anything like that indicates his awareness of how the concept of family values in fact does have specific tenets that would infuriate most of the American public, but he tries not to express them clearly. 

These Republican ideology films serve to put a face in front of this ideology, and prove that a traditional appreciation for the family unit always overcomes the ‘other.’  The most striking example of this ideology put to film is Air Force One (1997), Ford’s closer in the series.  This time, the concern for family values  is embodied by an actual President.  The First Family’s plane is hijacked by dissident Post-Soviet rebels and used as ransom for a recently imprisoned rebel leader.  When the hijackers commandeer the plane,  Ford only pretends to enter the President’s escape pod, in order to attempt to save his family personally.  He manages to orchestrate an en-masse hostage parachute to freedom, but stays behind to save his own family (this is as the President of the United States, mind you).  When finally the plane is back in American control, a daring rescue occurs, with Ford once again insisting that his family be freed to safety, much at the risk of his own life.  It is not that such altruism is rare, but rather that it is rare for the President of the United States to risk his life for his family’s, even when the clear alternative of having his Secret Servicemen save his family is an option.  Some of Ford’s lines seem literally cut from the family values speeches that Republicans Dan Quayle and George Bush delivered at the Convention in 1992.  A sampling:

·                    What about my family?

·                    I’ll do anything to save my family.

·                    Leave my family alone!

·                    My family first. [†††]

One word hasn’t been used so repeatedly in cinematic history since Mel Gibson’s “freedom” obsession in Braveheart (another topic altogether, but oddly relevant).  It should also be pointed out that not only is the Republican idea of family values clearly alluded to and supported by these Ford films, but the more general Republican Party platform idea of a self-made destiny is also quite evident – The President doesn’t rely on ‘the government’ (his Secret Servicemen, for instance) to save his family – he pulls up his bootstraps and does it himself.  This is a direct unconscious allusion to the Republican ideal of self-sacrifice over a reliance on the Government for assistance (hence the cutting of welfare programs, a removal of Affirmative Action, and a general downsizing of the Government itself).  There have been stand-up guys that support traditional values throughout the history of film, but I cannot remember one so specific in ideology and motive – nor can I think of one as timely.

Screen shot from Air Force One (above left);
Photo from the examples of successful families in Dan Quayle’s book The American Family: Discovering the Values that Make us Strong (left).

This Hollywood promotion of political ideology is especially interesting considering that Quayle and many fellow Republicans frequently condemned what they called the “media elite” and often proclaimed that they were challenging the ideals promoted by Hollywood.  In his speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, Quayle said “And, on behalf of family values, we’ve taken on Hollywood and the media elite – and we will not back down.”  Perhaps Hollywood began to support this Republican ideology just enough so that they would back down.  It should also be pointed out that the term ‘family values’ is never uttered in any of these films, and any allusion to the concept and its tenets is completely indirect and implied.  By fictionalizing an already fictitious concept, the audience is completely unaware of how their opinions on the politicizing of the family may have changed.  Like Muzak, it probably only enjoys about an 80% success rate, but the overall results are quite impressive.  The concept of family as the most important asset of any American’s life is unconsciously acknowledged so that any conscious opinions about the subject could be altered significantly.

This is exactly what Muzak does.  The inclination is to step back and consider that it is only music.  But if that were the case, why would it be employed under such precise techniques?  It is not simply music: it creates a temporary ideology about the shopping environment that in turn encourages one to spend more money in order to participate in the illusion of the better life.  The mall is not only a convenient place to get all of one’s shopping done, it is also the most convenient setting in which to employ techniques that use pure spectacle to encourage better patronage.   Television advertisements no longer describe the legitimate strengths of the products being promoted, but rather appeal to desires, insecurities, and non-existent memories until the consumer feels compelled to purchase.  Air Force One is not just a film about bad guys, it is the subtle embodiment of a key tenet to the Republican Party platform that acts to legitimize an otherwise empty piece of rhetoric. 

How are we to arrive at a knowledge of the unconscious? It is of course only as something conscious that we know it, after it has undergone transformation or translation into something conscious.  Psycho-analytic work shows us every day that translation of this kind is possible.

-Sigmund Freud
These are not minor influences in America.  Muzak has over 250,000 clients, with an estimated 90 million workers and shoppers listening on a daily basis (Lanza, p. 5).  People spend an average of 6 hours a week shopping but only 40 minutes with their children.  The typical American sees enough television advertisements in a lifetime to total one year of watching them (Silverblatt, p. 25).  And the total domestic gross so far of the four aforementioned Republican ideology films of the 1990’s starring Harrison Ford is over $560 million (

All of these occurrences employ some level of unconscious influence exactly because they are encouraging consumers in a way that would not be popular if the public was aware of it.  Unconscious motivation is not employed solely because of its success rates or as a result of the dramatic increase in advertising competition, but rather because it can make the public act on and believe in ideas that they would consciously reject.  If this were not the case, the hallways of the mall would adhere to straight lines, and ‘family values’ would be to some extent a realistic philosophy.  Television advertisements would simply indicate the strengths of a product and its uses.  And Muzak would become music.  The realization of the ‘sublime community’ has occurred within the realm of the unconscious, and used against us rather than for our own pleasure.  Recapturing our unconscious minds takes only awareness, and the larger the portion of the public that is aware of unconscious motivation, the less power corporations have in making our decisions for us.  The American public must regain the ability to make their own decisions as to how they spend their money and decide their political affiliations. 


Brooker, Peter (1999).  A Concise Glossary of Cultural Theory.  London: Arnold Publishers.

Campbell, Joseph (1990).  The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  (Reprinted Edition).  Princeton: Princeton University Press.  (Book first published in 1949)

Cozens, Claire.  Ads can Alter Memory, Claim Scientists. (2001, Sept. 4).  Media Guardian.

Freud, Sigmund (1989) The UnconsciousIn Gay, Peter (Ed.), The Freud Reader.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company.  (Original work published 1915)

Goldenson, Robert M. (1989). The Longman Dictionary of Psychology and Psychiatry.  New York: Longman.

Haineault, Doris-Louise and Jean-Yves Roy (1993).  Unconscious for Sale: Advertising Psychoanalysis and the Public.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hargreaves, David J. and Adrian C. North (1997).  The Social Psychology of Music.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lanza, Joseph (1994).  Elevator Music.  New York: Picador.

Lyotard, Jean-François (1986).  Defining the postmodern.   In Lisa Appignanesi (Ed.), Postmodernism: ICA Documents.  London: ICA.  (Original work published 1985)

Maddock, Richard C. and Richard L. Fulton (1996). Marketing to the Mind: Right Brain Strategies for Advertising and Marketing.  Westport: Quorum.

Magill, Tim (1999). In Douglas Rushkoff, Coercion: Why We Do What “They” Say.  New York: Riverhead Books.

Maltin, Leonard (1996). Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.  New York: Penguin.

Norretranders, Tor (1991). The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size.  New York: Penguin.

Quayle, Dan.  Acceptance speech for the nomination as Republican Party candidate for Vice-President, August 20, 1992.  Reprinted in the L.A. Times, August 21, 1992.

Rifkin, Carol (1996).  America’s Fantasy Urbanism: The Waxing of the Mall and the Waning of Civility.  In Katherine Washburn and John Thornton (Ed.s), Dumbing Down: Essays on the Strip-Mining of American CultureNew York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Rushkoff, Douglas (1999).  Coercion: Why We Listen to What “They” Say.  New York: Riverhead Books.

Silverblatt, A., Ferry, J., & Finan, B. (1999). Approaches to Media Literacy: A Handbook.  New York: M.E. Sharpe.

[*] I should point out at the onset that I am only defining the unconscious in accordance with the topic of this essay.  Regardless of any debate over the definition of the word ‘unconscious,’ the existence of the ‘part’ of the brain to which I refer is not questioned – only its name is.  So as to differentiate between a Freudian concept of the Unconscious and that which I am alluding to - namely a lack of active consciousness and awareness - I will not capitalize the word. 

[†] Although malls are still designed with department stores located at opposite ends, the popularity of the mall has grown such that a linear structure no longer works.  It was found that that the maximum walking distance that shoppers would voluntarily endure is 200 yards, so this is the greatest distance allowed between the two larger stores.  In order to expand the mall without altering its basic design, a four-way design now frequently replaces the original, creating a cross at the center, and employing the same rules on distance, in a North-South-East-West format.  It should also be noted that department stores are no longer the impetus for visiting the mall – the main reason to go to the mall now seems to be simply go to the mall.  

[‡] This notion of disorientation is similar to Fredric Jameson’s ‘cognitive mapping,’ and hence could similarly be extrapolated to make the argument that the architectural space of an intentional maze also acts to confuse the “problem of how we are to ‘map’ the expanse of global capitalism and locate ourselves in relation to it.”  Simply stated, these  disorientation tactics keep the public in the dark as to how corporations are manipulating them for their money.

[§] At a San Francisco MoMA exhibit of Keith Haring’s life work two years ago, the extraordinarily thin hallway that followed the artist’s career chronologically until his symbolic ‘death’ in the final room of the exhibit, where video monitors played home movies Haring had made  before dying.  These monitors were placed atop a miniature gift shop that was inside the exhibit itself, and centered in the room, which was a dead-end.  Not purchasing anything seemed an insult to the memory of the artist.  The planning of the space creates this guilt so as to encourage purchases.

¸ Such music is available through a Muzak subscription, along with cool jazz for airports and mellow hits of the 70’s and 80’s for dentists' offices.  These environments are purposely homogenous since familiarity infers comfort, and dentists and airports prefer their patrons sedated.

[**] It is interesting that in these store spaces so filled with mirrors, one can recall how the concept of the ‘Other’ was defined as the mother or idealized self by Lacan in his theory of the Mirror Phase. 

q Advertisers have an interest in appealing to the unconscious minds of children and teenagers specifically because brand-loyalty is created entirely in the unconscious mind.  The earlier the unconscious is breached in children, the more probable it is that the student will stick with the product when he or she grows up and spends money.

À Quoted liberally from Carrie McLaren’s Worldview section in her magazine Stayfree!, issue #18: Commercialism and American Culture, page 6.  Her main source for the article was the New York Times, 17 July 2000.

[††] The plot of Rambo III is John Rambo reluctantly joining Afghan rebels against the Soviet Union in order to save his prior commander.  The closing credits state that, “This film is dedicated to the gallant people of Afghanistan,” who America was funding and arming at the time – and who now comprise much of the Taliban government.  This is a case of 80’s Hollywood film supporting US foreign policy, as opposed to the rest of the Rambo series.

ÀEvidence of this exists in every speech that Dan Quayle and George Bush made on the 1992 campaign trail.  The more specific definitions that offended large sections of the populace only came about when reporters pushed the candidates for answers.  See transcripts of Quayle and Bush’s speeches from the 1992 political convention (LA Times, 21 August 1992)

[§§] Even Dan Quayle’s own life could not be a model for ‘family values.’  His condemnation of the title character of TV’s Murphy Brown for being a single mother failed to remind him that his own sister was a single mother. 

[***] George Bush Sr. during his acceptance speech for his nomination as a Presidential candidate at the 1992 Republican National Convention: “... my opponent’s plan for business is clear, present – and dangerous.”  New York Times, 21 Aug. 1992: A14.

p Dan Quayle’s words in his defense: “Family values is neither meaningless nor mean-spirited.”  New York Times, 3 Sept. 1992, p. A20.  For the most complete analysis of the potential definitions of the term ‘family values,’ see William Safire’s On Language article from the New York Times Magazine on Sunday, 6 Sept. 1992. 

[†††] From Quayle’s acceptance speech for his nomination as a Vice-Presidential candidate at the Republican National Convention in 1992: “For me, family comes first.”

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