Broadcasters: “We’re not screwing with your heads. Very often.”

Subliminal messages: a great tool if you’re either an advertiser or Satan. All you have to do is insert an imperceptibly short message into a piece of media, saying something like “buy our tasty beans,” or “lick my cloven hoof,” and then just sit back and wait for hordes of brainwashed punters to stream through your doors in a frantic rush to give you their cash/worship your Satanic majesty.

A recent Freedom of Information request from one P Foomer sought to discover whether such nefarious messages have been pumped into our houses via our publicly funded broadcasters. The following was sent to both the BBC and Channel 4 on May 27:

Dear Sir or Madam,

Please inform me of any subliminal broadcasts transmitted on any of your television or radio channels, with dates and times.

Please inform me of the shortest permissible video sequence duration allowable within any television broadcast.

On June 29th Channel 4 responded with the following:

Please note that the Ofcom Broadcasting code; under rule 2.12, prohibits the use of hidden messages…

Because the information you requested is related to our programmes, it falls outside the remit of the Act pursuant to the Creative Output Exclusion (Schedule I Part VI of the Act). This means that under the terms of the Act, we are not obliged to provide you with any of the information requested.

Or to put it another way, “hidden messages are not allowed, but even if we had used them, we wouldn’t have to tell you.”

However, Channel 4’s FoI team admirably volunteered this:

In the interests of openness and without prejudice to our position that this information is outside the scope of the Act, we can
confirm, that Channel 4 has, in its 26 year history, been involved in two incidents in respect of hidden messages both of which were reported in the press at the time.

The first incident occurred in as part of a programme called Eurotrash, which was made for Channel 4 by a production company called Rapido, on June 2nd 1995. This consisted of a single frame portraying a sexually explicit image.

Grade is a cunt

"Grade is a cunt"

The second incident was transmitted as part of a programme called Brass Eye, which was made by a production company called Talkback, on March 5th 1997. This transmission consisted of a single frame using derogatory language about the then Channel 4 Chief Executive, Michael Grade.

We can confirm that each incident was fully investigated by Channel 4 and reported to the then regulator, the ITC. In the case of Eurotrash, the hidden message was caused by a technical error by the production company and in the case of Brass Eye was found to have been inserted deliberately by the presenter Chris Morris. Channel 4 was found to have had no prior knowledge of either incident which was beyond its control.

Channel 4 is to be applauded for its approach here, which stands in contrast to the BBC’s: Auntie’s response to P Foomer’s request was far more perfunctory, merely sending a link to the BBC editorial guidelines prohibiting the use of images of brief duration in its editorial guidelines, and failing to mention that there has indeed been at least a few documented uses of subliminal messages in one BBC TV show – the Young Ones.

From h2g2:

Some of the episodes in the second series contained subliminal messages or ‘flash frames’ – examples of these were a frog leaping, a tap dripping all having absolutely nothing to do with the plot of the episode whatsoever. They were just shown for one or two frames of film, mocking the supposed ‘subliminal advertising’ which was rumoured to take place in early television shows. They also added to the anarchic ‘anything goes’ attitude to the show.

Although they weren’t obliged to pass this information on P Foomer, it’s a shame the BBC’s Information Policy and Compliance team couldn’t have demonstrated the same commitment to openness as Channel 4, in spite of the BBC Trust’s supposed obligation to openness and transparency.

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