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Supraliminal Bordeaux

Have you ever been subliminally influenced?

If you happen to be a psychology graduate you will immediately see the problem in asking and answering that question (for the rest of us, I will explain what this problem is in a moment). Nevertheless, this is a question I asked myself after my recent return from Bordeaux, following this year’s primeurs tastings. Well, truth be told, I did not first ask the question myself. I was prompted to consider it by this post, in which Jamie Goode wrote of a sense of “privileged access” in Bordeaux, and stated that “it is very hard as a visiting journalist or trade buyer not to be at least subliminally influenced by the grandeur of the top properties”.

I will be the first to admit that many aspects of the primeurs are flawed, and the notion that the process of visiting a château can exert inappropriate influence on the taster is a frequently heard and valid criticism. It is easy to come up with a few examples that might support such an argument. A taste of the latest vintage of Château Latour, for instance, with a view from the tasting room over the Latour vineyards and to the Gironde beyond, is perhaps enough to make the heart of any fan of Cabernet Sauvignon, Pauillac, Bordeaux or just very good red wine take a momentary flutter.

Château Cheval Blanc

Similarly, just down the road at Château Pontet-Canet the signposted route out of the annual tastings changes every year, and as a regular visitor I know that I am about to be walked through whatever new barrel cellar, vat room or stone-built stable has just been completed in the ever-ongoing rebirth of the domaine. It is part of ‘selling’ the domaine, its story, and a message about the quality of its wine. On the other side of the Gironde, I recall my first visit to Château Cheval Blanc after the construction of its cathedral-like cellars and undulatory vats (pictured above) which have the potential, perhaps, to inspire a reverential state of worship. And it would be easy to sell the story of a visit to Petrus, with its printed invitations to a tasting in the domaine’s inner sanctum, as being one of exclusivity.

Is this not the Bordelais trying to subliminally influence the visitor? It has been suggested, erroneously, that it is the case.

The notion that humans can be subliminally influenced dates back to the experiments of James Vicary in 1956, in which he flashed messages on screen during a movie encouraging theatre-goers to “eat popcorn” and “drink coke”. The two phrases each spent only 0.3 microseconds on the screen, too brief to be registered by the conscious mind. And yet the messages seemed to have a result, as sales soared, although it is now widely believed these figures were simply invented, and Vicary later retracted his results. Nevertheless, the idea has taken hold, and the notion that we might be subject to subliminal influence when watching television, or visiting the cinema, or indeed visiting a Bordeaux château, persists.

The term ‘subliminal’ has certain connotations. Vicary’s experiment, if it had proved effective and if its results were reproducible (they aren’t), would have opened the door to a new world of marketing, giving unimaginable power to America’s Mad Men and marketers. The term conjures up notions of nefarious deeds, iniquitous politicians planting political messages in the subconscious minds of floating voters, and unscrupulous marketers using mind control, instructing us against our will (and better judgement) to buy and drink Coca Cola. Jamie’s use of the term subliminal paints not only Bordeaux but also its visitors in a similar light. It suggests that the châteaux might not be above using underhand methods to inflate the scores their barrel sample is awarded. It also suggests that the visiting tasters are helpless receivers of this transmitted message, and that we might walk away, swooning, as if the defining characteristic of a Bordeaux reviewer is that they can be trained just as easily as Pavlov trained his dogs.

I have bad news for any marketing agencies who wish to persuade their clients in Bordeaux that a little subliminal marketing might produce a slew of 100-point scores. A successful subliminal marketing strategy simply does not exist; as nobody has ever managed to reproduce the results ‘achieved’ (or should that be fabricated?) by Vicary we know it does not work. What the Bordeaux châteaux are very good at though is supraliminal messaging, and this is what Jamie experienced during his visit to the region, and indeed all of the examples I cited above are supraliminal, not subliminal. Subliminal messaging is, by definition, undetectable by the conscious mind (hence the problem with asking the question “have you ever been subliminally influenced?” – if you were aware of the influence, then it inherently wasn’t subliminal). External stimuli such as a view over a grand vineyard, having cellars to rival the nave of Notre Dame (before the fire, obviously), inducing a feeling of privileged access, whatever, are overtly supraliminal, in that the external influence is obvious, apparent and detectable by the conscious mind.

So what, you might say, the Bordelais are still up to their old tricks. But I would argue this is much more than a semantic difference. Whereas the human mind cannot resist subliminal messaging, because we are not conscious of its existence, supraliminal messaging works but it can easily be rejected, provided you are switched on to it. A classic example for you was the German-French wine-selling experiment conducted in the 1990s (The Influence of In-Store Music on Wine Selections, North AC et al, Journal of Applied Psychology, 84(2):271-276) when a British supermarket found that playing French music increased sales of French wine, and playing German music resulted in German wine outselling French wine. None of the shoppers felt they had been influenced by the music, so you might think this was a subliminal message, but it was not, it was merely that they were not switched on to the supraliminal message they were receiving. The music was readily audible (so inherently supraliminal); anybody who went in with the knowledge the supermarket were trying to influence their decision-making process with music would not be affected by it (or if suitably contrary as I can be at times they might even be pushed in the opposite direction – “play French music at me, would ya”, I might say, as I swipe a bottle of Extra Special Piesporter from the shelves).

A seasoned visitor to Bordeaux knows what that view over the Latour vineyard can do for the soul, and the Cheval Blanc cellars, as wonderful as they are, do not instil a sense of awe when returning to them for the twentieth time. Even if they did, I am very aware of what the intent might be, and find it easy to resist. As a regular visitor to the region I therefore reject any suggestion that I might wander around, in a sense of awe, filled to the eyeballs with supraliminal messages. Yes, there are problems with the primeur system, everything from the veracity and validity of barrel samples to the timing of the releases and the pricing of the wines, but the region’s supraliminal messaging is easily identified, and the most readily rejected. Unless your favoured reviewer happens to be a cathedral-obsessed mutt trained by a Russian physiologist on his first ever visit to Bordeaux, that is. In which case, good luck to you with your 2018 buying decisions.

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