Between 1964 and 1965 there occurred a scandal that few remember now, almost as if it has slipped from the popular memory. Known as The Bronswik Affair, it started when normal members of the public began to exhibit strange behaviour, such as the housewife who fed forty-seven packets of washing powder into her washing machine and created so much foam that the fire brigade were called to disperse it, or the man who tried to put forty-seven gallons of petrol into his car’s fuel tank when it only held twelve and was stopped when one of the station’s employees wrestled him to the ground. But what was influencing this behaviour of these and other cases? Could it have been their choice of television viewing?

On the audio commentary for the DVD of John Carpenter‘s film They Live, a science fiction piece about mind control through the media, including television, the star of it Roddy Piper, who was recording the commentary with him, asked his director if this was like The Bronswik Affair (sometimes known as The Brunswick Affair), a case of actual mind control that had occurred in the nineteen-sixties. Piper must have seen this documentary, for it was not the most widely known case of its kind, though it had been extracted in the Noam Chomsky documentary of the eighties Manufacturing Consent, but what Piper did not appear to realise was the events that led to the film being made.

That was because The Bronswik Affair never happened: it was a spoof. Albeit a spoof with a very particular axe to grind, that of how powerful the medium of television, specifically advertising, could be in essentially persuading viewers to buy stuff they not only didn’t need, but hadn’t wanted either, not before they saw the commercials at least. Implementing the trappings of the serious journalistic investigation, with «voice of God» narrator, interviews with apparent victims and experts, diagrams and photographic evidence, the directors did their best to make this appear as authentic as possible, though their use of animation perhaps gave the game away to the keener-eyed viewer as it did look somewhat akin to the cut-out cartoons of Terry Gilliam on Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

If it wasn’t enormously funny, that could have been because behind its straight-faced absurdity there was a serious message: everything on television is selling you something, from a product to a concept to an ideology, and just because there was a consensus among the audience about all or most of those things did not mean they could not be cynically manipulated. A French-Canadian production (there was an English-language version too) from the renowned National Film Board, the Bronswik of the title was a brand of television set that contained a special gizmo which broadcast mind-altering waves to the watcher’s brain, making them more psychologically malleable, the joke being that you didn’t need such an invention, nor subliminals, to affect anyone plonked down in front of the TV of an evening. Although it was ridiculous, no matter how deadpan it was presented, there was a nagging feeling they were onto something here, and if it did not lay all its cards on the table, you kind of got what they were implying.

Extracted from The Spinning Image