Subliminal advertising: The voice within

Can musicians plant subliminal messages in the minds of their listeners? They've been trying for years, and are still doing so, says Chris Mugan

A funny thing happened at a concert hall in Liverpool recently, when two artists attempted to implant a subliminal message in the minds of their audience. Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard refuse to reveal the message, nor did they attempt to discover what effect it had on listeners. Instead, their aim was to recreate the atmosphere of 19th-century seances.

This pair of music-obsessed conceptualists came to fame with re-creations of seminal gigs, David Bowie's last appearance as Ziggy Stardust and a legendary performance by US rockabilly fiends The Cramps in a mental institution. Their interest in spiritualism came from those projects, Pollard explains. "We had talked about our re-enactments as a channel through which you raised the spirit of the past, then we realised the terminology we used came from spiritualism, so we looked at psychic research."

They noticed the invention of the telephone and gramophone tied into attempts to reach voices from the ether, thanks to the pseudoscientific connotations that Victorians attached to spiritualism. Forsyth and Pollard decided a modern equivalent would be conspiracy theories that we are being brainwashed via subliminal messages in mainstream media. A recent twist is suggestions that during the Gulf War the US army had used mind-control techniques to cause Iraqi soldiers to surrender.

These were based around the use of silent sound, broadcasts at frequencies either just below or above the range of human hearing. So with help from electronic specialists, the duo devised an infrasound machine to lower the pitch of their own voices. Instead of hearing what they said, the audience were able to feel them speak.

"When we tried it, we felt some pressure in the back of our skulls," Pollard explains. "Not that we're interested in the results, but we wanted the audience to imagine the potential, so we've worked with experts to make something viable."

Such is the power of their impressive machine, with its Fantastic Voyage-style dials and enigmatic symbols, that Forsyth and Pollard published a disclaimer. Pregnant women, people with heart conditions and under-18s were refused entry. Those who attended were warned they might feel anxious or light-headed. All their work is now on show at a Liverpool gallery.

Alongside them, Spiritualized's mainman Jason Pierce performed a piece he had composed alongside a string quartet and other musicians to mask the message. By embedding it within music, the artists followed attempts by advertisers and film-makers to suggest ideas by hiding images in their works.

As a term, subliminal advertising was coined in the Fifties when "Drink Coca-Cola" messages would flash by during movies. Despite public outcry over such techniques and being subsequently banned, psychologists were unable to build a case for the efficacy of such subliminal persuasion. Attempts to persuade Canadian viewers in 1958 to phone in to a TV show fell on blind eyes as well as deaf ears - not that this has calmed many people's worries over hidden messages, especially in rock music.

Here, artists have developed the technique of backmasking to hide messages, where sounds are recorded backwards to sound nonsensical when records are played normally. Reverse recording was first used by The Beatles' on the B-side "Rain", with John Lennon's vocals recorded backwards. He originally took credit, though George Martin later claimed it was his idea.

First to actually hide a message was Frank Zappa, who recorded backwards his songs that contained swear words to avoid censorship by his publishing company. Yet play any sung or spoken words backwards and you will inevitably find some hidden meanings.

At first, this was grist to the mill of Beatles conspiracy theorists who were convinced Paul McCartney was dead. Sure enough, they found such references as "turn me on dead man" when they played backwards "Revolution No 9" and "I'm So Tired" from the band's so-called White Album.

Problem is, it is difficult to find a particular message until someone tells you what to look for, when it leaps out of the gibberish. Not that this held back American fundamentalist Christians, who were convinced that bands had hidden messages promoting sex and drugs. Most infamous was Led Zeppelin's "Stairway To Heaven", which campaigners claimed contained the backmasked line "Here's to my sweet Satan", a charge denied by singer Robert Plant.

Matters came to a head in the mid-Eighties, when British metallers Judas Priest were sued following a suicide pact between two schoolboys in Nevada. One of the boys survived; their families' claimed that a Priest album contained hidden messages, with the words "Do it" audible when the record was played backwards. The case was dismissed after the band's defence called scientists that had already proved backmasking was ineffective. Psychologists John R Vokey and J John Read studied 300 volunteers, many of whom even found it hard to make out phrases, let alone show signs of their behaviour being altered.

By this time, groups were putting in messages for fun. Pink Floyd were serial offenders, with the line "That was pretty avant garde, wasn't it?" hidden away on Ummagumma's surreal excursion "Several Species..." On The Wall, the track "Empty Spaces" advises its listeners, "...congratulations. You've just discovered the secret message."

Christian-baiters Slayer are one of many hard rock bands to insert anti-Church messages in their music, while Cradle of Filth recited the Lord's Prayer backwards. A hint, perhaps, that fundamentalist Christians are still worried about witches that mocked their religion by reading prayers backwards.

No one has had more fun with this, though, than Ozzy Osbourne, who himself was in court over an alleged subliminal message in his 1980 album Blizzard of Oz. When the case was finally closed in 1988, Ozzy could actually insert a backmasked message in a more recent track, the line "Your mother sells whelks in Hull", a comment that sounds like a parody of one of The Exorcist's more potty-mouthed quotes.

Forsyth and Pollard's messaging system is more sophisticated than backmasking, though their use of the technique is just as playful as either Ozzy or Zappa. For those who love to bait rock's censors, the fun could begin again.

'Silent Sound' is on show as part of the Liverpool Biennial at Greenland Street, Liverpool (0151-706 0600), to 26 November

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness