Sunday, 22 July 2018

The subliminal world of political campaigning

In 1973, a new episode of Columbo hit the NBC screens. Robert Culp made another appearance, this time as a devious advertising specialist who used his ability to influence the viewers of his advertising videos to commit a murder. The particular method was to place subliminal stimuli into the videos which prompted one person in a selected audience to feel thirsty and leave the auditorium to seek some relief at a public fountain in the foyer. That's where the murderer struck.

The use of subliminal messages for manipulation is well known since the 1970s. However has obtained new resonance in our times of fake news and political campaigns using targeted messages.

Subliminal cues work by inducing brain processes below a threshold of objective awareness. In other words, they are stimuli which we are subjected to without being conscious of. There is some debate as to their effectiveness. Some research indicates that they are less effective than stimuli above the awareness threshold (those we can perceive as such). But all agree that they are basically a form of manipulation.

Never quite what it seems - Robert Culp in 'Double Exposure' NBC

There is also a clear consensus about what is wrong manipulating people. Manipulating people is not based on the selection of preferences based on human volition and deliberation. Manipulation is in essence a mechanism to avoid what we do when we need to chose, that is to think which options are preferable to us and why. As Hannah Arendt noted, giving reasons for our actions is part of the human condition. Whilst it is a fundamentally flawed process, it is also one that allows others to challenge us and enter into a discussion about the merits and disadvantages of our choices. It is the process by which we relate to each other in mutual respect and recognition of our ability to decide freely in matters concerning the body politic.

Arendt was clear about the fact that our public and private deliberations were often flawed, conditioned by a lack of knowledge, poor information, and the like. Yet, she contended, there was little else. Beyond the free and fair exchange of ideas in the public arena was only the realm of manipulation and distrust inevitably undermining the political institutions of democracy and civic liberties.

This is where targeted campaigning and subliminal messaging in advertising meet. As the Leave.EU donor Aaron Banks admitted to the Select Committee of the House of Commons, their campaign 'led people up the garden path' (one of those pretty English euphemisms for something loathsome, namely lying).

Combined with targeted political advertising, political choices may have become based less on what we know but what others want us to (not) know, a perversion of the notion of choice which is based on voluntary selection of preferences underpinned by an awareness of options and their consequences. As Arendt sees it, it is public civility and respect versus manipulation of behaviour.

Manipulating voters in political campaigns is similar to placing subliminal cues in product advertising. Voters do not quite know what they are being told. Where campaigners feel no commitment to be truthful, a basic consensus about our democratic decision making falls apart: that within the boundaries of the competition of ideas, falsehoods should not be part of the arsenal of weapons to defeat your opponent. All electoral laws in the Western world accept this basic principle; there are strict sanctions for those who disseminate lies deliberately in the public domain during a political domain.

Targeted political ads however are not illegal and we may want to ask whether our current electoral legal framework is sufficiently robust for the times of facebook, insta and rogue 'news' outlets.

In case you wondered, subliminal messaging is illegal in the UK. The BCAP Code defines it as 'misleading advertising'.And yes, Columbo did get his guy in the end.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Charles Ives at Bridgewater Hall

A few years ago, I came across a piece by the American composer Charles Ives and I fell in love with it. It is titled The Unanswered Question and starts off with a faint melodious section played by the strings. Whilst the piece initially flirts with romanticism, within a few bars a dissonant call from the brass overlays the strings. As the strings continue, a signal trumpet call gains strength and is undercut by a wood wind theme, subversive to both strings and its brass brothers in arms. (there is a NYPhil version on youtube here)

Charles Ives (1878-1954)
The piece is only less than 5 mins long but it is impressive and leaves one with a fully painted mental picture. Ives' music, it seemed to me back then, was like a painting by Edward Hopper, only that Ives was painting outside urban scences where Hopper wanted to look into the inside of people's places from outside.

That Ives composed radically metropolitan scences shows even more clearly in his piece Central Park in the Dark. If you did not know the title, the ever increasing noise of urban sounds swelling to a mighty explosion in the piece would leave you in no doubt that you are in the middle of a city.

What Ives manages however is to portray the fragile contrast between a city's harmonic background bordering on silence and the discordant hubbub that surrounds us on a daily basis. The piece starts off in near silence with the strings once again setting the scene, this time less melodious, giving off a whiff of a metalic sound. As the wood winds intermittently intersect with the strings, the scene still remains distant in sound and impact on the listener.

Next, the flute takes up a theme and hovers above strings and wood winds. None of them even attempt to merge or meld into one coherent whole. Finally a singular violin and a piano furnish additional moments of urban sounds, until all climaxes in pandemonium as we know it from the streets of New York.

Ives added a beautiful note of contrast as the musical tumult cuts out suddenly and the strings are heard to continue to the very end of the piece. It creates a moment of surprise as you realise they have been there all along, no matter how loud the city was.

The piece's crescendo is difficult to play (there is a Bernstein/NYPhil version here). In particular, what appears like an unwanted disturbances of the strings by random noise actually requires careful calibration of the sound levels. The BBC Philharmonic conducted by John Storgards gave their all but at times it was not quite enough. In particular, as the flute and piano starts to overlay the string theme, the string section needs to be low enough, almost whispering, so that flute and piano are recognised as distinct voices. The Bridgewater Hall has a decent acoustic but the orchestra did not quite pull it off. From where I sat in the centre of the stalls the flute was not quite audible and the single violin, played sensitively by the concertmaster, did not quite emerge as different from the main body of sound.

It was more a confluence of music rather than a caleidoscope of discrete notes from different players. Still, it was amazing to hear this piece live for the first time.

The evening also contained a muscular rendition of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, delivered with gusto by Peter Donohoe. I prefer the version for Jazz orchestra over the full orchestral arrangement (by Ferde Grofe) but both Donohoe and the BBC Orchestra gave a spirited performance which made me tap along with my foot.

The evening ended with George Antheil's Symphony No. 6, a pleasing piece of work sitting comfortably somewhere between Stravinsky and Shostakovich and a composition by George Walker called Lilacs. Walker set his music to Walt Whitman's 'When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd'. Joshua Ellicott gave it a rounded sound, perhaps at times struggling against an overwhelming orchestra, and it made me wish to hear more from this song cycle.

The evening concert was recorded for broadcast on Wednesday 14th Feb as part of the BBC Radio 3 in Concert Series. So you can tune into BBC Radio 3 next Wednesday at 7.30pm to hear it or catch up with it on BBC iPlayer.