Jeff J.

Jeff J.
Cattlearoma, New Mexico, USA
June 08
free and clear
A computer programmer who is no longer geeky enough to be interested in how software is constructed; I care more about what software can do for people; or even more about people, period. Mostly interested in the taboo subjects of religion and politics: religion as an atheist, and politics as a left-leaning Democrat. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any work copied or excerpted under this license should be attributed to Jeffrey G. Johnson, and included with a link to this blog.

MARCH 24, 2012 6:23PM

Subliminal Politics: Rick Santorum's Evil Fear Mongering

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Rick Santorum has recently released the following political advertisement attacking President Obama:

The advertisement is themed like a trailer for a horror film. The imagery is dark. The early scenes show a small town turned into a creepy ghost town, and the voice over narrative implies this is a result of Obama being reelected. In spite of the fact that the economy has grown every quarter since July of 2009, American businesses have been posting record profits since 2010, the stock market has been booming (S&P 500 has grown at an 18.3% annualized rate over three years!) and the economy added more jobs in 2010 alone than were created during the entire Bush administration, the ad continues to play upon the fears created by the Bush fiinancial meltdown and collapsed economy.
Now that the job numbers are showing gains on a month by month basis, and investment is accelerating, and even Mitt Romney finally has had to shake his Etch-a-Sketch and grudgingly admit that the economy has been improving for some time now, one would think that Santorum wouldn't try to pull this dishonest manipulation. One has to assume they are targeting a constituency of low-information voters who are easily manipulated by lies.
 Then the voice over says that the wait to see a doctor is ever increasing. Since FOX news planted the seed in a gullible audience's minds that the ACA represented a government takeover of health care, and would put government officials between them and their doctors, Santorum sees no reason not to take advantage of this dishonesty by playing it up again. The fact is that Obamacare is a private insurance market based model that will not change anything in the insurance or doctor patient relationship of the vast majority of Americans. The only people who should see changes are people who do not now have insurance and are able to afford it for the first time, or people who benefit because they can no longer be denied treatment or subjected to lifetime limitations on benefits. 
The ad goes on to reference climbing gas prices, which are beginning to return near the levels they were at in 2008 before the unregulated Republican approved Wall Street casino operators nearly destroyed the global economy. But the dishonesty involved in blaming Obama for gas prices is ludicrous; drilling and production has increased under Obama while reliance on foreign imports has decreased; but even more damning is that economic experts agree: domestic production can't possibly have a strong impact on prices, and the President can't be held responsible for the increases.
But at this point the video goes over the top, implying that the US faces a serious threat of nuclear attack from Iran. The film is so blatantly and unsubtly trying to whip up baseless irrational fears, that one has a hard time deciding what is more contemptible: the shameless demagogues who designed and filmed the ad, or any mindless ignorant person who might actually take it seriously and be scared by it.
And now the subliminal message comes, so quickly you might miss it. The film cuts to an image of a small television set on the carpet in a barren room. The scene reminds one of the spare room shown in photos of bin Laden watching his videos on a modest set in Abbattabad.  The set shows a likeness of Ahmedinejad, then it briefly flickers to an image of President Obama exactly at the moment the narrator says "sworn enemy of the United States", then it flashes back to the original Ahmedinejad. The image is so fleeting that you can barely notice it, and it seems that it can only be intended to plant a subliminal message. This is the creepiest kind of dishonesty that one can imagine in political messaging: an attempt to influence people's minds subliminally.
Here is the image:

And here is the image of Obama that briefly flickers on the TV screen:

 Politico reporter Dylan Byer's first noticed this nasty subliminal message in the ad. He followed up by contacting Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley, who gave this non-responsive jumble of weasel words:

He's the president of the United States, Ahmadenijad is the president of our sworn enemy. I'm don't know that it was 'interspersing,' I'm confused by that. Obviously I'm not trying to say anything about Obama and Ahamdenijad. So if we're not trying to say anything about that, then I don't understand the issue.

Pure denial of any malicious intent. I suppose somehow Mr. Santorum is able to persuade himself that this isn't bearing false witness. Not in a Universe inhabited by reasonable and honest people though. 

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Could have been worse... Santorum could have boosted the old black and white footage of Lyndon Johnson's daisy and A-bomb ad. Fortunately that dog won't hunt anymore... I expect the real problem will be Romney come October... he can afford to hire a much better agency.
Wow! That subliminal image is amazing. If you watch the regular video, you can find it at the 40 second mark. No question, it's there. Slow it down and you'll find it.

Is that even legal? I thought there were laws against that stuff.

Not that he has a chance of getting elected, but this is amazingly slimy. We ought to publicize the crap out of this.
Interesting how almost all these Christian Leaders continually and piously violate the Ninth Commandment (bearing false witness). Their whole poisiton is based on a foundation of lies. If you could take away their lies, they would literally have nothing left to stand on.
As a woman, personally, I never want to find out what it's like to live in SickRantorumville. Especially since Mr. Cautionary Tale ia one of the ones beating the war drums against Iran. Even discounting all my own strong opposition to yet another Damned War, if Sick Rantorum is for something, I know it's something we absolutely should not do.

Just so you know, I sent out a PM to a lot of people I know about this post because I think the content is important.
Thank you Kosher. I wrote about it because when I saw it, it made my blood boil. I want people to read it, so I appreciate the help.

It's always my pleasure to help in whatever little way I can to shine light into the dark corners.
Also to jmac, Donegal, and Shiral, thanks for reading and commenting.

I don't suspect that Santorum will win the nomination. But Romney, the likely nominee, has already demonstrated his flexibility when it comes to telling people what they want to hear, rather than sticking to some semblance of the truth. So we might expect to see similar techniques coming from him or from his "uncoordinated" SuperPAC proxies.
Unfortunately, those poor souls who are watching THIS ad are not reading your blog! Rick got his money's worth on this one - it is quite compelling. R
Ha! They will stop at nothing. It is not the ad, it is the chump who falls for it. A little cynicism is good. Glad I was directed here by Kosher. Excellent post, and well said. R
Kosher, you asked if this is illegal. There are no laws pertaining to the honesty of political ads; it's protected First Amendment speech. They can say anything they want. Anyone can sue them in a civil lawsuit, I suppose, but it's not illegal.

Jeff J, thanks for the info! I've submitted it to to make sure it's on their radar.
Marilyn and Toth, thanks for the feedback. I'm glad the message is getting out about this.

Karen, I've often wondered by political ads seem to get away with the most blatant distortions of the truth with impunity. I imagine that taking the route of a law suit requires so much time that the election is over by the time the question could be decided. I suppose people hide behind the first amendment if anybody petitions for an injunction to stop an ad early enough in campaign season to do some good.

Is there no legal solution to the problem of dishonest content in ads?
Hi Jeff, Kosh sent me also. This is illegal when trying try to sell extra popcorn and coke at the movie theatre, yet not illegal when trying to sell a president? Every day this country becomes more and more fucked up. Thank you for alerting us to this blatant "Christian" hypocrisy. My forward button is going to be smoking. I trust Kosh implicitly--so I'll be back. ~~stomps away fuming~~
The problem (well, one of the problems) with making lying political ads illegal is that laws are not self-enforcing. If we create laws now to make Santorum's lies illegal, what happens when people like Santorum get control of the executive, legislative, and judicial branches (as they have done in Wisconsin) and start declaring all their opponents ads 'lying' and illegal?

We simply cannot allow government to control political speech in any way, shape, or form--no matter how rancid it gets. That's just a law-of-gravity constraint if we want a democracy.

In this case, control is going to have to come from us, We, the People. We need to publicize the lies we notice, precisely as this blog is doing. Share this post on Facebook and Twitter. Mention it to any of your friends who might still believe paid political advertising. Shame Santorum about it; show up at one of his rallies with a protest sign; write letters to the editor; I dunno, others can probably think of more things than I can. Talking to our friends and acquaintances, really building social networks of communication is so critical when BigMoney has so much control of the airwaves. It's why I named my blog "Friends don't let friends vote Republican"--we have to talk to each other, and in persuasive ways, too.

It takes a lot of time and effort, but (I'm not going to take the time to google the quotes) all our forebears told us that maintaining liberty and democracy was going to take constant work. We can't go to the store and buy democracy; it's gotta be home-made.

If I could wave a magic wand, I'd start a viral campaign that creates a social expectation that every sensible person ignores ALL paid political advertising--make 'believing what I heard on the political ad' something that you'd be ashamed to admit to your friends, like downloading Justin Bieber videos or something.
Santorum living up to his name!
I see how difficult it is to define truth or honesty. It's hard to decide what was intentional, and what was a matter of interpretation.

Yet we have libel laws and laws on defamation of character.

And there are standards of evidence and testimony that shape how facts can be determined in a court of law. Maybe there are standards that can apply to political communication that are somehow similar to or derived from the laws of testimony.

For example, when you suggest ignoring political ads, the idea that popped into my mind immediately as a kind of standard or rule of thumb was that voters only listen to what the candidates say themselves, or at least develop the habit of practice of heavily weighting direct statements from candidates, and discounting severely any advertising or statements from proxies or surrogates.

But the problem with that is that Santorum is lying all the time when he gives his stump speeches. But one of the things he does is to make statements like "Barack Obama wants to". That would be thrown out in court testimony, wouldn't it? It's hearsay, or it's the witness can't know another persons state of mind, or something like that. So maybe we should work to develop a way of analyzing political speech that captures a set of rules to detect all the ways politicians have of lying by stating opinions the candidate would have absolutely no way of knowing.

In some ways it would not need to judge particular facts, but rather learn to recognize linguistic forms that are used to misrepresent an opponent by imputing motives, inferring intentions, implying unsavory associations, etc.

It may be too difficult, but it may be possible to establish a few guidelines as cours do for testimony.
Obama as Satan, that's funny. I always thought that Ronald Wilson Reagan was 666.
Hey lefty,
Did you know that "Ronald Wilson Reagan" is an anagram for "Insane Anglo War Lord"? :)
I want to make it clear that I'm not asking about the legality of political content, I'm asking about the legality of subliminal manipulation. The Good Daughter understood my question.
I got that your question was about the subliminal suggestion. In fact, that is what makes this ad creepier than usual, which is why I wrote this post. Lying political ads are a dime a dozen, or maybe they cost millions per dozen, but in this Citizens United climate that's chump change for the Super PACs.

There is something different between this and the popcorn in the theater trick; in the popcorn case it was truly 100% subliminal; viewers could not detect the frame consciously because it was only a single frame of film. But it is still shown to have an unconscious effect.

In this case, it is possible to actually detect the flashing frame, and if you focus very carefully, to tell what the image is. This could be a way to wiggle out of any subliminal advertising laws. It could also be that such laws only apply to selling products and not to political "speech". There is a much higher level of first amendment protection on political communications than on commercial advertising.

I noticed that one of the mechanisms of enforcement for laws against subliminal messaging is that stations are subject to license suspension by the FCC. This particular video is meant to be a trailer for a nine part mini-film that I believe is only intended to made available on the santorum website. It may be that this means of distribution is intended to protect them since it doesn't rely on FCC licensing.

But whatever the full details of the legal story on subliminal messaging is, I think the larger question of political lying is also interesting. I've always wondered how we can just sit back and allow them to get away with blatant dishonesty, either by deliberate distortion of facts, or by pretending to be able to read the opponents mind and impute elaborate motives. This becomes especially pernicious because it goes hand in hand with a long-standing right-wing deliberate propaganda strategy of portraying the main-stream media as the "lying liberal media" that can't be trusted. This means that we have a bunch of deliberate dishonest distortions bombarding people who have been trained to only watch FOX or listen to right-wing talk radio, so they will never be exposed to any facts that reveal the lies. This is how a huge portion of the country could believe that "Obamacare" is budget busting, or that it is a government takeover that puts the government between "me and my doctor". It's truly disgusting that so many people are convinced of indisputable lies, and have also been deliberately persuaded to mentally disarm themselves by confining their information sources to the supposedly "trustworthy" right-wing epistemic bubble of constant deception.
Thanks, Kosh, for alerting me; thanks Jeff for the initial information and your subsequent comments and thanks all the other comment-ers so far. Only "just this minute" found this thread; I'll need time to reflect on whether/what I might have to contribute to the discussion but did at least want to do my two bits in at least the form of a rating!

R (with the Annennburg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania) just got back to me and said they'd check into this ad.
Jeff and Kosh, I understand the distinction you're making between political lies and subliminal manipulation. But even if Congress were to outlaw either lies or subliminal manipulation, the First Amendment would probably still (and rightly so) prevent that law from being enforced against political speech, however unethical, immoral, and vile.

Libel laws and laws on defamation of character are enforced in civil suits, one citizen against another: Jim vs. Bob. There's a big difference between that and laws that are enforced through criminal or regulatory actions: The State vs. Bob.

Do you understand what I'm saying about how if we pass any laws that restrict political speech in any way, we would be giving government the power to control the speech of their opposition (regardless of whether their opponents were actually lying or using subliminal techniques) ?

Do you see how, if one group (say, Walker Republicans) got control of all three branches of government, there is nothing to stop their abuse of any power we have given them? Wisconsin has laws about how public meetings should be conducted, but the Republican Wisconsin Supreme Court has declined to enforce those laws against the Republican Governor and the Republican Legislature--I'm not making that up. It really happens, and is why we cannot give our government the power to control political speech, ever, no matter who is in charge. Such a power would inevitably be misused to silence the opposition.)

That's why it's up to We, the People, to shame and oppose those who lie or who use manipulative methods--just like you are doing in this post, and soon the folks at the Annenberg Center might help in publicizing this outrageously unethical behavior.
I understand the fundamental importance of free speech to democracy. Freedom of the press is an important adjunct to that, as well as transparency in government. If the public can not be informed, and can not dissent, democracy is dead.

And there is always the danger of unintended consequences when making a law. For example, when a law intended to enable people to defend themselves ends up allowing them to shoot someone they don't like and get away with it (potentially).

But all of our freedoms have limitations; for example there is a history of limiting first amendment rights with time, place, and manner restrictions. Second amendment rights can be limited in government buildings, airports, bars, etc.

So isn't it possible to place a few limits on political speech without allowing one party or another to crush their opponents and cease dictatorial power?

For example, what if there were a statute penalizing a candidate or party or PAC for statements like [my opponent] wants to X, or [my opponent] thinks Y, or [my opponent] is trying to Z.

These are statements that pretend to know state of mind or to be able to impute motives.

But statements like [my opponent] has said A, or [my opponent] did B would be okay because they can be verified as statements of fact.

These restrictions would specifically apply to statements about a candidate that are not approved by that candidate. Candidates could say whatever they want about what they think, or what they want, but remarks about an opponent would have to refer to verifiable statements or actions.

This could severely limit that nastiness of attack ads.

If it works in court with witnesses, why can't it work with political candidates?
Jeff, you keep coming back to your sweet assumption that elected officials (or the people who report to them) will be able to enforce regulations governing the content of political ads with disinterested, unbiased judgment.

Can you say who you would trust with the power to enforce regulations on political speech? Can you tell me how you envision such regulations working--for example, Obama would bring a complaint against Santorum's skeezy subliminal advertising to (some commission?) who would then...?