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Ron Popeil's Subliminal Messaging Machines

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While perusing Ron Popeil's history on Google's patent library—it's fun, you should try it—I stumbled upon what I like to interpret as a brief obsession for America's favorite inventor and infomercial host. In the late '80s and early '90s, Popeil Industries filed a number of patent requests for subliminal messaging technology and the machinery to implement it.

US 5017143 A, a patent filed in 1989 by Popeil Industries that lists Ron Popeil as an inventor (along with longtime collaborator Alan Backus) doesn't mince words:

The field of this invention is the production and generation of visual subliminal images, and in particular, video subliminal images intended to alter behavior, attitudes, moods and/or performance.

Another Popeil patent, this one simply titled, "SUBLIMINAL DEVICE," is even a little blasé about light mind control:

Theories behind changing behavior through subliminal communications, as well as systems of message thought to be effective in subliminally changing behavior, are well known to those knowledgeable in the art and thus are not discussed here.

Reading that makes Popeil sound like a subliminal messaging snob—First of all, it's an art.


US 5221962 A

Popeil's patents point to a subliminal messaging device made for home use. This invention is adjustable and allows the user to determine how subliminal they want their messages, which is hilarious because, well, then they're not subliminal.

From WO 1992003888 A1:

Many problems are presented by these subliminal devices. First, there is no way an individual may verify if any subliminal messages are being presented by such devices. By definition, the messages presented are at levels which are not readily detectable.

Continuing, there is no way an individual may positively verify what subliminal messages he or she is receiving. This is a major drawback because an individual must trust the manufacturer to place correct and positive subliminal messages on the tape. Some of these devices supply scripts and/or recordings of what they claim has been subliminally recorded. But there is no proof that these are accurate.

...

The preset invention provides means for an individual to manually adjust, from supraliminal to subliminal levels, the level of obviousness of subliminal signals he or she is receiving.

This is a very interesting demographic he's going after here: Consumers who want the benefits of subliminal persuasion but are worried they're not getting all the messaging they paid for.

The actual technology is somewhat complicated, so I reached out to both Ron Popeil himself and the man who served as his patent lawyer. Popeil never got back to me, and his lawyer said he did not advise him on the subliminal messaging devices and could be of no assistance.

What I gather about the nuts and bolts of this invention (which, to my knowledge, never got past the patent stage) is that it dealt with rasterline frames and superimposed images while automatically adjusting them for contrast so they could fade into the screen. There's pretty advanced stuff going into this machine, even if all it did was let a compulsive eater adjust how sharply the text "EAT LESS" appeared on their TV.

While this is remarkably silly, we shouldn't forget that, in the 1980s, subliminal messaging was frequently marketed as a popular self-help gimmick. A 1988 New York Times business section article reported on these high-selling audio tapes and alluded to a "cultural phenomenon." (They also uncovered the script to one of these tapes' subliminal messages: "It's O.K. to do better than Dad. I do better than Daddy. I deserve to do better than Dad. I deserve to succeed. I deserve to reach my goals. I deserve to be rich." God, the '80s were awful.)

Still, Popeil clearly had interest in subliminal messaging, and I couldn't help but wonder whether or not these patents were part of a sinister plan to brainwash Americans into buying Pocket Fishermen and electric pasta makers. Why wouldn't he try using this technology in some of his infomercials and ads? Like many paranoid obsessives before me, I went to the tape to find out.

After closely watching Ron Popeil ads for the better part of an afternoon, I could only find two instances where it looked as if subliminal messaging was used, and both occurred during a commercial for The Buttoneer (a plastic pincer-like device that secures buttons onto fabric with an obtrusive little nub). First, there was the presence of a stray exclamation point for one frame, and it appeared in the middle of the product itself:

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Even more scandalously, I thought I stumbled upon a brief pornographic clip later in the same commercial. I thought I had tumbled down the rabbit hole and uncovered the Queen of Diamonds of this infomercial Manchurian Candidate. That was until, after stopping and pausing the clip for over an hour straight, I realized what had really happened: I had gone slightly off my rocker. This ad for The Buttoneer was produced in 1973. All the stray text and blurry cuts had to be attributed to the low production value.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have been stricken with an insatiable desire to re-button all my dress shirts.

Patents:
-US 5017143 A: "Method and apparatus for producing subliminal images"
-US 5221962 A: "Subliminal device having manual adjustment of perception level of subliminal messages"
-WO 1992003888 A1: "Subliminal device"
-CA 2002933 A1: "Apparatus for generating superimposed television images"

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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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Inside This Pop-Up Book Are a Planetarium, a Speaker, a Decoder Ring, and More
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Designer Kelli Anderson's new book is for more than just reading. This Book Is a Planetarium is really a collection of paper gadgets. With each thick, card stock page you turn, another surprise pops out.

"This book concisely explains—and actively demonstrates with six functional pop-up paper contraptions—the science at play in our everyday world," the book's back cover explains. It turns out, there's a whole lot you can do with a few pieces of paper and a little bit of imagination.

A book is open to reveal a spiralgraph inside.
Courtesy Chronicle Books

There's the eponymous planetarium, a paper dome that you can use with your cell phone's flashlight to project constellations onto the ceiling. There's a conical speaker, which you can use to amplify a smaller music player. There's a spiralgraph you can use to make geometric designs. There's a basic cipher you can use to encode and decode secret messages, and on its reverse side, a calendar. There's a stringed musical instrument you can play on. All are miniature, functional machines that can expand your perceptions of what a simple piece of paper can become.

The cover of This Book Is a Planetarium
Courtesy Chronicle Books

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