It’s like a phantom itch that drives you mad, at least until you find a way to get rid of it.
We’ve all wondered how these odd tidbits get stuck in our heads and where they might have come from.
One possibility is that they’re put there by subliminal messaging.
Subliminal (adj.) means “below the threshold” referring to what is beneath the level of consciousness.
This refers to the subconscious mind picking up on messages that the conscious mind is unaware of. Allegedly, this type of messaging has been used to insert advertising copy into movies, television, and the social media since 1957 when several messages were inserted into the movie, Picnic.
Subliminal messaging works well as audio-only, too. Behavior modification programs for weight loss have shown an increase in efficacy if audio subliminal messages are used as part of the treatment.1
Pioneering French psychologist, Pierre Janet (1859 –1947) is credited with coining the word, “subconscious.”
He said… “at any given moment…we are aware of only a selected part of all possible sensory perceptions, thoughts, memory elements, feelings, and expectations…. subconsciousness consist[s] of psychological automatism… independent from the central personality….2”
What if, that song in our head was deliberately put there — a trivial piece of quick-flashing data stored beneath the level of our conscious mind’s awareness?
Let Them Eat Gingerbread
Certainly author and soon-to-be psychology student, Henry Kuttner (1915 – 1958) thought so when he wrote, Nothing But Gingerbread Left in 1943.
The short story was written in the middle of World War II when the war’s outcome was still uncertain. But Kuttner had an idea about how to win the war…appropriately to a writer…with words…and some subliminal messaging.
The story is contemporary and begins in the home of American Semantics professor, Phil Rutherford.
Rutherford’s correcting papers and is annoyed by his son’s continual repetition of a popular, sing-song, catch-phrase. He starts repeating the mesmeric nonsense himself and confesses to his honor student, Jerry, that this kind of verbal distraction undermines precision and morale.
It occurs to him that the Germans, who are known for their scrupulous concentration, might be also undermined by a semantic distraction.
He and Jerry start writing a specially-prepared German rhyme, set to a popular marching tune. We’re told it takes them months to get it just right but when it’s done, Rutherford sends it to the Jerry’s uncle, a senator in Washington, D.C..
The War Department sends out the tune to all German-speaking channels, just to see what happens.
It spreads like a contagion and infects every German speaker who hears it. The results are humorous, but the underlying threat is real. German speakers start to hallucinate, become forgetful, lose concentration, and in the worst case, commit suicide when they can’t get the song out of their heads. In an attempt to integrate the deadly rhyme, they try to cognize the words…which are simple nonsense, and this makes things even worse for them.
The end of the story is the hoped-for visual treat — Adolph Hitler goose-stepping around his office, madly yelling Rutherford’s silly tune.
Kuttner does a masterful job showing readers how a silly earworm might cause the downfall of a nation.
But could a real population be so semantically lead, and to such lengths?
Following the Lead
Believers in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) would say, yes. They claim a connection between neurological processing, language, and learned behavior that can be used to achieve specific goals. They also claim that NLP can be used as a effective advertising strategy.
Whether or not you believe in subliminal messaging, neurolinguistic programming, or semantic mind control…you have to wonder how those catchy songs, cute animal meme’s, and silly videos get so stuck in our heads. Today, we say things “go viral” and that’s exactly what the German marching song does in “Nothing But Gingerbread Left.”
In the story, people ask…“what harm can a song do?” And yet, people go mad from repeating it.
Are we at risk for the same thing? Certainly, a minor distraction isn’t all that much of problem. But what if it gets out of hand? We might lose our job, crash the car, or walk out into a stream of traffic.
Advertisers admit to using triggers to get people to buy things. But what else are we getting triggered to do? Could we, like the Germans in the story, be so caught up in a viral message that we miss key details or even act abnormally? We might never know, not without the help of a neutral party from outside the system. And in a world connected through a social media-driven web network…who would that be?
I’m not sure I have that answer…do you?
Comments are welcome.
Photo is an altered Wikipedia Commons image showing radio operators at Mareeba, July, 1944.
Nothing But Gingerbread Left first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, January 1943.
NOTES Silverman, L.H., Martin, A., Ungaro, R., and Mendelsohn, E. “Effect of Subliminal Stimulation of Symbiotic Fantasies on Behavior Modification Treatment of Obesity.” Clinical Psychology: Vol 46(3), Jun 1978, p.p. 432-441.  Van Der Hart, Onno and Rutger Horst, “The Dissociation Theory of Pierre Janet,” Journal of Traumatic Stress” Vol 2, No. 4, 1989.
“Subliminal” Advertising,” by William M. O’Barr