Legal Issues
---Is This Legal?
---Judas Pr iest
---2000 Election
About Us
Works Cited

The FCC's viewpoint on "subliminal techniques" in radio and TV

Currently, not much is being done to curb the use of subliminal messages in advertising and daily use. In Australia and Britain, the use of subliminal advertising has been banned with severe consequences for those who disobey the strict laws.

The following is from the Federal Communications Commission's Manual for Broadcasters:

We sometimes receive complaints regarding the alleged use of subliminal techniques in radio and TV programming. Subliminal programming is designed to be perceived on a subconscious level only. Regardless of whether it is effective, the use of subliminal perception is inconsistent with a station's obligation to serve the public interest because the broadcast is intended to be deceptive. (this is from the FCC manual for broadcasters)

The FCC will now revoke a company's broadcast license if the use of subliminal messages is proven. Since most subliminal messages, however, are indiscernible on the conscious level (take a look at some of them in the "uses" section of this website), it takes a difficult and costly effort to find them in the first place.

The Judas Priest Trial

Judas Priest is a British heavy metal rock band-one of the first bands of the genre. Their popularity peaked in the mid-seventies, and in 1978 they produced an album called Stained Glass. It is because of that album, and an alleged subliminal phrase hidden in the song "Better by You, Better than Me," that the band had to go through extensive trial proceedings that lasted over a year.

The hidden phrase was, apparently, "do it." In isolation, this phrase has little meaning unless there is some antecedent to which the "it" refers. But, according to the parents of the two teenage Judas Priest fans who attempted suicide in 1985, a hidden "do it" can have much more serious implications.

In Reno, Nevada, in the summer of 1989, the boys' parents took Judas Priest to trial, suing the band for the influence that their music allegedly had on the boys' actions. The parents argued that their sons, who probably already had suicidal tendencies, were influenced enough to take action after experiencing the message in Judas Priest's music. Judas Priest claimed that they did not intentionally place a subliminal message on the album, and made the argument that, even if they had used subliminal messages, the messages should be protected by the First Amendment.

The judge, Justice Jerry Carr Whitehead, ruled that the First Amendment's protection of freedom of speech and press does not extend as far as subliminal messages. Since the recipient of a subliminal message is unaware of it, the message can't contribute to dialogue, the pursuit of truth, the marketplace of ideas, or personal autonomy. There is no information exchange when it comes to subliminal messages, and no disagreement or argument is possible if recipients are unaware of the message's presence. Judge Whitehead also explained that people have a right to be free from unwanted speech. Since subliminal material cannot be avoided, it constitutes an invasion of privacy (Vance v. Judas Priest 1989b).

Justice Whitehead ruled, however, in favor of Judas Priest. His ruling was based on the defense's insistence that the power of such a message to move a person to action has never been proven (for more on this idea, look at the psychology section of this website). He stated his conclusions on the subliminal threat in this way:
The scientific research presented does not establish that subliminal stimuli, even if perceived, may precipitate conduct of this magnitude...The strongest evidence presented at the trial showed no behavioral effects other than anxiety, distress or tension" (Vance v. Judas Priest 1990, 18).



On September 13, 2000, two U.S. Senators, Ron Wyden, D-Oregon and John Breaux, D-Louisiana, requested the Federal Communications Commission to provide an "immediate and impartial" review of the Republican National Committee's allegedly "subliminal" "RATS" ad. The Senators reportedly told FCC Chairman William Kennard that a review of the controversial ad would be in "the best interests of both political parties, and all Americans."

It had been shown that when the ad was slowed down, the word "RATS" appeared briefly while a voiceover criticized Vice President Al Gore's prescription drug plan as one in which "Bureaucrats Decide." Republican presidential nominee, George W. Bush, told reporters that he believed the appearance of "RATS" in the advertisement was accidental. However, Al Gore said that he was "disappointed" by the ad.

Mispronouncing the word "subliminal" as 'subliminable" several times, Governor Bush said that he was "convinced" that the advertisement was not meant to send a subliminal message.

The so-called "RATS" ad had run over 4,000 times in 33 markets nationally for about two weeks. The ad reportedly cost the RNC over $2.5 million. The ad has been pulled from the airwaves.

Alex Castellanos is the person who created the allegedly subliminal ad. He denied that it was intention to create a subliminal ad. He called it a coincidence that the letters that appeared first spelled out the word, "RATS."

While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) apparently has no regulation barring subliminal advertising per se, such ads are considered by FCC to be "contrary to the public interest."

On September 15, 2000, FCC responded to the controversy by writing to Television executives asking them about the controversial "RATS" commercial containing the allegedly subliminal message. Essentially, the letter asked the execs whether they knew that the word "RATS" flashed on the screen for a split-second. And, if they did know, FCC wants to know "the facts and circumstances of your decision to broadcast the advertisement." The FCC letter was sent to 217 TV stations which may have aired the ad.