Shaping Souls Subliminally: The Power of Suggestion and Setting in Advertising and Literature

In another excellent post at Sword of Gryffindor, Matthew explores several possible influences on Ms. Rowling as her ideas about Harry Potter were taking shape. The influences aren’t discoveries he’s made but are found in online accusations of plagiarism. Matthew doesn’t think the accusations are substantive, though Warner Brothers seems to have been concerned enough to buy the rights to stories that any reader of the Harry Potter series would think of as derivative if it hadn’t come out years before Harry. The Worst Witch book and television program and Neil Gaiman work, apparently, are the best known of this lot, though I had not heard of either one.

Matthew’s post and the discussion it inspired at HogPro’s sister site took my thinking in a different direction, namely advertising and how Madison Avenue “story board” writers have the same tools and objectives in many respects as “story book” writers like Ms. Rowling. By suggestion and setting as much as by direct speech, these writers deliver messages that are almost entirely subliminal and more effective for being below the threshhold of consciousness. At least that seems to be what Philip Pullman believes.

In 2002, the UnLewis told Peter Hitchens:

All stories teach, whether the storyteller intends them to or not. They teach the world we create. They teach the morality we live by. They teach it much more effectively than moral perceptions and instructions. . . . We don’t need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do’s and don’ts: we need books, time, and silence.

[This quotation comes from Sandra Miesel’s invaluable Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children’s Fantasy (Ignatius, 2007) that I read this weekend and urge you all to read in case you think folks decrying his writing the way others attacked Harry Potter are equally off-base. Pullman is writing theocidical literature to advance his ideological atheism and is quite open about it as Ms. Miesel’s work reveals.]

Ms. Rowling claims she does not have didactic intentions “if undeniably morals are drawn” in her stories which comes to the same thing. But let’s start with advertising and come back to literature. As Ginevra at Sword of Gryffindor wrote about the “influences” of stories like Larry Potter and The Worst Witch:

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9.

Much of the similarities between HP and the other books, TV shows, and films can be explained by the fact that the authors are drawing from the same sources of how we have stereotyped witches and wizards across many generations. Harry is a wizard who wears robes, owns an owl, flies on a broomstick, and makes potions? What amazing coincidences, eh?

However, it seems unlikely that all of these similarities can be completely explained by coincidence alone. Still, I agree with Reyhan that these similarities were far from intentional on Jo’s part. Much more goes on at the subconscious level than we ever realize. As an example, [check out this] amazing clip from British illusionist Darren Brown on the power of subliminal advertising

If you followed that YouTube link — and please do; it’s a mind blower — you’ll see how Darren Brown uses staged “stray images” that would never penetrate our conscious attention to plant ideas he wants in the minds of this stunt’s subjects, two advertising agency story-board writers. They produce advertising for a taxidermist shop with words and pictures he wants them to use by exposing them to these ideas without speech and without their knowledge and in the most fleeting of moments. As a master illusionist, he leaves us, his audience, to draw our own conclusions about the power of suggestion in the advertisements we see every day and take no conscious note of.

If you think as I do, you were staggered. These advertising professionals, an artist and writer, spilled out a set of pictures and copy that were almost exact reproductions of the images Darren Brown wanted them to produce. What hope do we have of escaping the unending and heavy barrage of messages to buy and buy now that we experience night and day? Not much hope.

Ginevra’s point about the influences of the Larry Potter and Muggles books on Ms. Rowling, if I understood her correctly, wasn’t that Ms. Rowling plagiarized in any way but that just by having seen these book titles she may have come up with the “inspiration” for the books lead character name and the word she used for non-magical people. It’s not theft or “borrowing” but unconscious and unescapable influence.

I want to note here that I’m not talking about the “subliminal advertising” by “embedded images” or “flashed messages” that the unconscious mind cannot see, a technique made famous by Wilson Bryan Key in his book, Subliminal Seduction. Key’s work and the urban legend of “buy popcorn” messages flashed on movie screens has been dismissed by people who study such things and by advertisers themselves (who wish it worked).

But by dismissing Key’s embedded image “subliminal seduction,” we’re likely to miss the hidden-in-plain-sight power of suggestion in real advertising that is still subliminal (”under-the-threshold” of our conscious mind) and all the more effective for being discounted. Carrie MacLaren explored this mistake in missing the effectiveness of ads we don’t think persuade us in an article titled Subliminal Seduction:

Criticism of subliminal advertising [of the sort described in Key’s book] benefited sellers in yet a third way. By suggesting that the only kind of advertising manipulation was subliminal manipulation, the controversy deterred more meaningful discussions of advertising influence. The advertising industry couldn’t have asked for a better straw man. Once the idea of subliminal advertising could be revealed as bogus, advertising manipulation could be considered fictitious, too. A 1989 New York magazine article mocking subliminal-phobia was typical of the “enlightened” response to the subliminal critics: “People don’t walk around in a semi-trance; buying is a rational, cognitive process.” Yet, as any marketer knows, buying is not simply a rational, cognitive process. Despite his shortcomings, Key was quite correct on this count. The power of advertising, he argued, lay in controlling cultural symbols, in linking virility to hard liquor and soap to safety. Such subtle twists of meaning, he argued, shape the cultural environment and, in doing so, influence people’s subconscious. Many scholars of advertising would agree. Indeed, there is a great deal of truth to Key’s statement that “It’s What You Don’t See That Sells You“–so long as that claim is read figuratively…..

Even when one grants that Key had a point, he advocated a dubious form of awareness. Contrary to the “seduction,” “sexploitation” and “orgies” implied by his titles, real advertising manipulation isn’t particularly sexy, nor is it easy to grasp. You can’t find it in a mirror or hidden in the shadows or f—ing polar bears in ice cubes. So when everyone started hunting for dog heads in Scotch bottles, the reality–that advertiser influence is everyday, ordinary, and infinitely more subtle–became more remote. The hunt for embeds, by presenting itself as advertising education, prevented more substantive discussions of advertising from taking place…..

In a way, visual drumbeats have less in common with subliminals than other, far more common sales strategies. Packaging design capitalizes on intuitive responses to color, typography, and word choice. Background music in stores and restaurants influences the amount of time people linger. Product placements are among the many ways of marketing “under the radar” by fusing ads and entertainment. Though by no means guaranteed, these time-worn strategies continue to influence people’s subconconscious. And they are not alone. In fact, it could be argued that most every advertisement is subliminal. The ubiquity of advertisements means that people tune out the vast majority of them, only to experience them unconsciously. Yet, like visual drumbeats, everyday embed-free ads are not considered subliminal. (emphases mine)

Got that? Remember Darren Brown’s demonstrated point: even the subtlest subconscious experience can shape your approach to problem solving or just your way of thinking. That’s how advertising works and it’s the reason Proctor Gamble, Pepsodent, and Presidential politicians all pay the big bucks to crawl inside our heads through print, display, and projected media ads.

What does this have to do with Harry Potter?

In 2003, I gave a lecture at St. Thomas’ Episcopal School in Houston, Texas, about what constitutes a “Great Book.” I said there were four qualities almost all books in the western canon had in common: longevity, asking the big questions, answering these questions with an artistry that dovetailed with the author’s answers, and giving Christian answers. The third point about artistry I guess I picked up from C. S. Lewis because, as Michael Ward argues in Planet Narnia, this is what Lewis said the best stories do. As Ward wrote in this month’s Touchstone magazine:

In 1940, at a literary society in Oxford, Lewis read a paper entitled “The Kappa Element in Romance.” (“Kappa” is the initial letter of the Greek word meaning “cryptic” or “hidden.”)

The thrust of the paper was this: Stories are most valuable for their quality or atmosphere, not simply their plot. The example he uses is The Last of the Mohicans.

When the hero of the story is half-sleeping by his bivouac fire in the woods while a Redskin with a tomahawk is silently creeping up on him from behind, what makes for the essence of the scene is not simply peril, but the whole world to which this kind of peril belongs: the snow and snow-shoes, the canoes, the wigwams, the feathered headdresses, the war-paint, the Hiawatha names. A crook with a revolver would have conveyed a significantly different experience to the reader, even though the danger he represented might have been greater.

Stories earn our allegiance, Lewis argues, by conveying a distinct and coherent qualitative atmosphere. “To be stories at all,” he says in “On Stories,” stories:

“must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series—the plot, as we call it—is only really a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or a quality.”

James Fenimore Cooper gives us the state or quality of “redskinnery.” Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers gives us no such intrinsic atmosphere or spirit. His story is just plot, without any kappa element, and to that extent is, in Lewis’s view, a failure. (emphasis mine)

The artistry of the story is much like the stage setting, costume design, and choreography of the actors and actresses in a play. These things are not what we share with friends who ask “what the play was about.” We tell them the major plot points and about the actresses and actors with whom we identified (or those for whom we could not suspend disbelief). But the stage setting — from the furniture to the lighting — has to jibe and buttress the language, plot points, and, ultimately, the meaning of the drama or it fails. Lewis’ genius in his Narnia novels, as Ward demonstrates, is the nigh-on invisible setting of individual planets he gives each book. Ms. Rowling’s accomplishment and great popularity is similarly due to the alchemical scaffolding and hero’s journey structure she uses for each Harry Potter adventure and the series as a whole.

Do we notice the medieval planetary images embedded in Lewis’ books? Not before Michael Ward pointed them out, we didn’t. And the alchemical artistry of Ms. Rowling? It is also very much under the radar of most readers. The point is, the obscurity or subliminal quality of these structures doesn’t make them wasted flourishes; they are the vehicles of Lewis’ and Ms. Rowling’s larger and more profound meaning and it is largely because they are unnoticed that they gain a foothold in our minds and hearts.

Two conclusions:

First, this, of course, is exactly the substance of the objection to the Harry Potter novels made by Christians concerned about the occult. The magical setting of the books is what makes them dangerous, they argue, rather than specific plot points, because readers who enjoy the books inevitably come away from reading them with the subconscious but very real belief that “magic is okay.” It is this belief that opens the door to real world occult groups. We haven’t seen the growth in these groups that the “Vigilants” as Lewis described them (see Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children’s Fantasy for the reference) have predicted, but their point is not nonsense for not having played out immediately.

Second, the reason to embrace and celebrate these novels as the counter-cultural event that they are is also largely the subliminal messages delivered by Harry and friends in their stolen wheelbarrows. Readers walk away, maybe a little softer on the occult than they were, but with embedded messages in story about the importance of a pure soul, love’s power even over death, about sacrifice and loyalty, and with a host of images and shadows about Christ and how essential belief is for personal transformation and victory over internal and external evils.

“Smuggling the Gospel,” Lewis’ term for this sort of artistry, has an evangelical flavor that Ms. Rowling I think would find repugnant because it is overly and overtly didactic (assuming the Grossman interview in 2005 wasn’t a fraud). I’d disagree about this estimation of Lewis but it points to a difference between Lewis’ artistry and Ms. Rowling’s. Relative to one another, Lewis was an accomplished advertiser that “instructed while delighting” and Ms. Rowling is an illusionist making her points by misdirection and under-the-radar images. Either way, the heart of their messages and the vehicle in which it is delivered are in both writers “subliminal” and “seductive,” to glorious, edifying effect.


  1. In my Harry Potter course, my students have completed individual research projects on a variety of predecessors to the series, including Jill Murphy’s work and Neil Gaiman’s. (I also teach different books by Gaiman in other classes.) There’s quite a difference between inspecting ancestor texts and claiming plagiarism, however! Perhaps some people need to reread Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” about the common ingredients shared in the cauldron of story.

  2. Compost, compost, compost. This is why we read books of other eras and books of other cultures. We cannot escape the compost heap of our times. I went to see BEOWULF and had the fact brought home in a unavoidable manner. The culture effect is one we can only become aware of by viewing other cultures effects on their art and stories and literature. Neither JKR nor God escaped the scandal of particularity.

    John, Professor, Sir, did you have an advance copy of the PIED PIPER OF ATHEISM by chance? Amazon doesn’t show it. B&N shows pre-order status. Ignatius Press says back-ordered. What’s up with all that. (Though I will pre-order. I have found the trailers on TV to be models of subliminality to the informed about Pullman’s beliefs by Pullman.)

  3. PIED PIPER OF ATHEISM by Peter Vere and Sandra Miesel is in press and will ship shortly. John saw Miesel’s manuscript, not the whole book. A source familiar with the matter tells me so.

    Miesel has an article about the pitfalls of Pullman in this week’s OUR SUNDAY VISITOR and in the December CATHOLIC WORLD REPORT.

  4. John — This is the second time in a week that you have given us a hyperlink to an article that references C.S. Lewis’ book, “The Discarded Image.” The first was your wonderful essay on Harry Potter and the Inkings (thank you!). The second was Michael Ward’s also wonderful essay on Narnia’s Secret. Coincidence? Accident? I think not. Having just finished reading “The Discarded Image” myself (coincidentally), I have been mulling over how “medieval” the Harry Potter books are in the use of symbols as a means to communicate to the reader’s imagination/intuition in an extraordinarily powerful way. And it seems to me that Chretien de Troyes’ Grail romance may be analogous. De Troyes in creating his Grail story, not only wrote a great story that was wildly popular, but he also managed, in the process, to transform the courtly romance/adventure genre (which was largely amoral and unspiritual at the time), into a deeply spiritual story of the search for the Grail/God. . . And that reminds me of your recent musings on your hopes for how the Harry Potter stories will influence its readers in turning them toward more spiritual pursuits and thoughts. If the past is any predictor for the future, then I would surmise that Rowlings’ works will live on in people’s imaginations, much as the Grail stories have, while the Pullmans of the world become a footnote. I assume that the analogies between Parsifal and Harry Potter have been examined at length by others, but its a new topic to me and I’m having a lot of fun with it. I cannot thank you enough for HogPro and the way you encourage us to keep seeking and thinking. Blessings on you.

  5. Arabella Figg says

    As Solomon said, there is nothing new under the sun. I would add, there are just fresh ways of expressing it. That’s where originality comes in.

    As the poem goes, The child is the father of the man. We are all the sum of our influences. How could we be anything else? That doesn’t necessarily make for bad derivation (although there’s plenty of that out there). I agree with Inked, we’re all on a historical, literary, cultural compost heap, a rich wealth to draw from. And Rowling did this in a brilliant way.

    I, however, am not mining the cat box…

  6. For some reason, the actual post itself has vanished, leaving only the comments. Any chance of resurrecting the post?

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