J. G. BALLARD
The Subliminal Man
J. G. Ballard is a British
writer who has been called a "poet of death." But Ballard,
especially in the early part of his career, also wrote excellent
extrapolative science fiction on social themes, and this haunting short
story is one of his finest.
Here Ballard speaks of the enslavement
of the unconscious, of an economic system that forces people to
consume against their will through the use of technology. Ballard
makes an important assumption-the belief (at least implicitly)
that people would not want to consume at high rates if they were
not "forced'' to do so. In a profound sense, "The Subliminal Man"
is a basic critique of the underlying dichotomy that pervades the
concept of advertising-that of needs versus wants. We all have
basic needs like food, sex, clothing, and shelter. Almost
everything else (including the text you are now reading) is wants,
often artificially created by the culture in which we live. Think
how much more difficult resistance would become if the technology
of subliminal advertising were forced upon us. This threat goes
beyond the financial difficulties that families would be in. We
would also be threatened with dehumanization, for it is the
ability to think and chose that separates us from the rest of the
Ballard's story also assumes that industry will
continue to manufacture products that will easily and quickly wear
out, or if this is not the case, then it will find ways to make us
dissatisfied with the products we now have. There is little
evidence that things will change for the better: try to buy a fridge
that will last your life long.
J. G. BALLARD
The Subliminal Man
Doctor! Have you see the signs?"
Frowning with annoyance, Dr.
Franklin quickened his pace and hurried down the hospital steps
toward the line of parked cars. Over his shoulder he caught a
glimpse of a thin, scruffy young man in
ragged sandals and
lime-stained jeans waving to him from the far side of the drive,
then break into a run when he saw Franklin try to evade him.
Franklin! The signs!"
Head down, Franklin swerved around an
elderly couple approaching the outpatients department. His car was
over a hundred yards away. Too tired to start running himself, he
waited for the young man to catch him up.
"All right, Hathaway,
what is it this time?" he snapped irritably. "I'm getting sick of
you hanging around here all day."
Hathaway lurched to a halt in
front of him, uncut black hair like an awning over his eyes. He
brushed it back with a clawlike hand and turned on a wild smile,
obviously glad to see Franklin and oblivious of the latter's
"I've been trying to reach you at night, Doctor, but
your wife always puts the phone down on me," he explained without
a hint of rancor, as if well used to this kind of snub. "And I
didn't want to look for you inside the Clinic." They were standing
by a privet hedge that shielded them from the lower windows of the
main administrative block, but Franklin's regular rendezvous with
Hathaway and his strange messianic cries had already been the
subject of amused comment.
Franklin began to say: "I appreciate
that-" but Hathaway brushed this aside. "Forget it, Doctor, there
are more important things happening now. They've started to build
the first big signs! Over a hundred feet high, on the traffic
islands just outside town. They'll soon have all the approach
roads covered. When they do we might as well stop thinking.
trouble is that you're thinking too much," Franklin told him.
"You've been rambling about these signs for weeks now. Tell me,
have you actually seen one signaling?"
Hathaway tore a handful of
leaves from the hedge, exasperated by this irrelevancy. "Of course
I haven't, that's the whole point, Doctor. - He dropped his voice
as a group of nurses walked past, watching him uneasily out of the
corners of their eyes. "The construction gangs were out again last
night, laying huge power cables. You'll see them on the way home.
Everything's nearly ready now."
"They're traffic signs," Franklin
explained patiently. "The flyover
has just been completed.
Hathaway, for God's sake, relax. Try to think of Dora and the
"I am thinking of them!" Hathaway's voice rose to a
controlled scream. "Those cables were 40,000-volt lines, Doctor,
with terrific switch gear. The trucks were loaded with enormous
metal scaffolds. Tomorrow they'll start lifting them up all over
the city, they'll block off half the sky! What do you think Dora
will be like after six months of that? We've got to stop them,
Doctor, they're trying to transistorize our brains!"
by Hathaway's high-pitched shouting, Franklin had momentarily lost
his sense of direction and helplessly searched the sea of cars for
his own. "Hathaway, I can't waste any more time talking to you.
Believe me, you need skilled help; these obsessions are beginning
to master you."
Hathaway started to protest, and Franklin raised
his right hand firmly. "Listen. For the last time, if you can show
me one of these new signs, and prove that it's transmitting
subliminal commands, I'll go to the police with you. But you
haven't got a shred of evidence, and you know it. Subliminal
advertising was banned thirty years ago, and the laws have never
been repealed. Anyway, the technique was unsatisfactory; any
success it had was marginal. Your idea of a huge conspiracy with
all these thousands of giant signs everywhere is preposterous. "
"All right, Doctor." Hathaway leaned against the bonnet of one of
the cars. His moods seemed to switch abruptly from one level to
the next. He watched Franklin amiably. "What's the matter-lost
"All your damned shouting has confused me." Franklin
pulled out his ignition key and read the number off the tag: -NYN
299-566-36721---can you see it?"
Hathaway leaned around lazily,
one sandal up on the bonnet, surveying the square of a thousand or
so cars facing them. "Difficult, isn't it, when they're all
identical, even the same color? Thirty years ago there were about
ten different makes, each in a dozen colors."
Franklin spotted his
car, began to walk toward it. "Sixty years ago there were a
hundred makes. What of it? The economies of standardization are
obviously bought at a price."
Hathaway drummed his palm lightly
on the roofs. "But these cars
aren't all that cheap, Doctor. In
fact, comparing them on an average income basis with those of
thirty years ago they're about forty percent more expensive. With
only one make being produced you'd expect a substantial reduction
in price, not an increase."
"Maybe," Franklin said, opening his
door. "But mechanically the cars of today are far more
sophisticated. They're lighter, more durable, safer to drive."
Hathaway shook his head skeptically. "They bore me. The same
model, same styling, same color, year after year. It's a sort of
communism. " He rubbed a greasy finger over the windshield. "This
is a new one again, isn't it, Doctor? Where's the old one-you only
had it for three months?"
"I traded it in," Franklin told him,
starting the engine. "If you ever had any money you'd realize that
it's the most economical way of owning a car. You don't keep
driving the same one until it falls apart. It's the same with
everything else-television sets, washing machines, refrigerators.
But you aren't faced with the problem--you haven't got any. "
Hathaway ignored the gibe, and leaned his elbow on Franklin's
window. "Not a bad idea, either, Doctor. It gives me time to
think. I'm not working a twelve-hour day to pay for a lot of
things I'm too busy to use before they're obsolete. "
He waved as
Franklin reversed the car out of its line, then shouted into the
wake of exhaust: "Drive with your eyes closed, Doctor!"
way home Franklin kept carefully to the slowest of the fourspeed
lanes. As usual after his discussions with Hathaway he felt
vaguely depressed. He realized that unconsciously he envied
Hathaway his footloose existence. Despite the grimy cold-water
apartment in the shadow and roar of the flyover, despite his
nagging wife and their sick child, and the endless altercations
with the landlord and the supermarket credit manager, Hathaway
still retained his freedom intact. Spared any responsibilities, he
could resist the smallest encroachment upon him by the rest of
society, if only by generating obsessive fantasies such as his
latest one about subliminal advertising.
The ability to react to
stimuli, even irrationally, was a valid criterion of freedom. By
contrast, what freedom Franklin possessed was peripheral, sharply
demarked by the manifold responsibilities in the center of his
life-the three mortgages on his home, the mandatory
cocktail and TV parties, the private consultancy occupying most of
Saturday which paid the installments on the multitude of household
gadgets, clothes and past holidays. About the only time he had to
himself was driving to and from work.
But at least the roads were
magnificent. Whatever other criticisms might be leveled at the
present society, it certainly knew how to build roads. Eight-,
ten- and twelve-lane expressways interlaced across the continent,
plunging from overhead causeways into the giant car parks in the
center of the cities, or dividing into the great suburban arteries
with their multiacre parking aprons around the marketing centers.
Together the roadways and car parks covered more than a third of
the country's entire area, and in the neighborhood of the cities
the proportion was higher. The old cities were surrounded by the
vast, dazzling abstract sculptures of the cloverleafs and
flyovers, but even so the congestion was unremitting.
journey to his home in fact covered over twenty-five miles and
took him twice as long as it had done before the construction of
the expressway, the additional miles contained within the three
giant cloverleafs. New cities were springing from the motels,
caf6s and car marts around the highways. At the slightest hint of
an intersection a shantytown of shacks and filling stations
sprawled away among the forest of electric signs and route
indicators, many of them substantial cities.
All around him cars
bulleted along, streaming toward the suburbs. Relaxed by the
smooth motion of the car, Franklin edged outward into the next
speed lane. As he accelerated from 40 to 50 mph a strident,
ear-jarring noise drummed out from his tires, shaking the chassis
of the car. Ostensibly as an aid to lane discipline, the surface
of the road was covered with a mesh of smaller rubber studs,
spaced progressively farther apart in each of the lanes so that
the tire hum resonated exactly on 40, 50, 60 and 70 mph. Driving
at an intermediate speed for more than a few seconds became
physiologically painful, and soon resulted in damage to the car
When the studs wore out they were replaced by slightly
different patterns, matching those on the latest tires, so that
regular tire changes were necessary, increasing the safety and
efficiency of the expressway. It also increased the revenues of
the car and tire manufacturers, for most cars over six months old
soon fell to pieces under the steady battering, but this was
regarded as a desirable end, the greater turnover Judith started
to protest he added firmly: "Look, I don't want a new infrared
barbecue spit, we've only had this one for two months. Damn it,
it's not even a different model."
"But, darling, don't you see, it
makes it cheaper if you keep buying new ones. We'll have to trade
ours in at the end of the year anyway, we signed the contract, and
this way we save at least twenty dollars. These Spot Bargains
aren't just a gimmick, you know. I've been glued to that set all
day." A note of irritation had crept into her voice, but Franklin
sat his ground, doggedly ignoring the clock.
"Right, we lose
twenty dollars. It's worth it." Before she could remonstrate he
said: "Judith, pleas e, you probably took the wrong number down
anyway." As she shrugged and went over to the bar he called: "Make
it a stiff one. I see we have health foods on the menu."
good for you, darling. You know you can't live on ordinary foods
all the time. They don't contain any proteins or vitamins. You're
always saying we ought to be like people in the old days and eat
nothing but health foods."
"I would, but they smell so awful."
Franklin lay back, nose in the glass of whiskey, gazing at the
darkened skyline outside.
A quarter of a mile away, gleaming out
above the roof of the neighborhood supermarket, were the five red
beacon lights. Now and then, as the headlamps of the Spot
Bargainers swung up across the face of the building, he could see
the square massive bulk of the giant sign clearly silhouetted
against the evening sky.
"Judith!" He went into the kitchen and
took her over to the window. "That sign, just behind the
supermarket. When did they put it up?"
"I don't know." Judith
peered at him curiously. "Why are you so worried, Robert? Isn't it
something to do with the airport?"
Franklin stared thoughtfully at
the dark hull of the sign. "So everyone probably thinks."
Carefully he poured his whiskey into the sink.
After parking his
car on the supermarket apron at seven o'clock the next morning,
Franklin carefully emptied his pockets and stacked the coins in
the dashboard locker. The supermarket was already busy with
early-morning shoppers and the line of thirty turnstiles clicked
and slammed. Since the introduction of the "24-hour spending day"
the shopping complex was never closed. The bulk of the shoppers
were discount buyers, housewives contracted to make huge volume
purchases of food, clothing and appliances against substantial
overall price cuts, and forced to drive around all day from
supermarket to supermarket, frantically trying to keep pace with
their purchase schedules and grappling with the added incentives
inserted to keep the schemes alive.
Many of the women had teamed
up, and as Franklin walked over to the entrance a pack of them
charged toward their cars, stuffing their pay slips into their
bags and gesticulating at each other. A moment later their cars
roared off in a convoy to the next marketing zone.
A large neon
sign over the entrance listed the latest discount-a mere 5
percent---calculated on the volume of turnover. The highest
discounts, sometimes up to 25 percent, were earned in the housing
estates where junior white-collar workers lived. There, spending
-had a strong social incentive, and the desire to be the highest
spender in the neighborhood was given moral reinforcement by the
system of listing all the names and their accumulating cash totals
on a huge electric sign in the supermarket foyers. The higher the
spender, the greater his contribution to the discounts enjoyed by
others. The lowest-spending were regarded as social criminals,
free-riding on the backs of others.
Luckily this system had yet to
be adopted in Franklin's neighborhood. Not because the
professional men and their wives were able to exercise more
discretion, but because their higher incomes allowed them to
contract into more expensive discount schemes operated by the big
department stores in the city.
Ten yards from the entrance
Franklin paused, looking up at the huge metal sign mounted in an
enclosure at the edge of the car park. Unlike the other signs and
billboards that proliferated everywhere, no attempt had been made
to decorate it, or disguise the gaunt bare rectangle of riveted
steel mesh. Power lines wound down its sides, and the concrete
surface of the car park was crossed by a long scar where a cable
had been sunk.
Franklin strolled along, then fifty feet from the
sign stopped and turned, realizing that he would be late for the
hospital and needed a new carton of cigarettes. A dim but powerful
humming emanated from the transformers below the sign, fading as
he retraced his steps to the supermarket.
Going over to the
automats in the foyer, he felt for his change, then whistled
sharply when he remembered why he had deliberately emptied his
"The cunning thing!" he said, loud enough for two
shoppers to stare at him. Reluctant to look directly at the sign,
he watched its reflection in one of the glass door panes, so that
any subliminal message would be reversed.
Almost certainly he had
received two distinct signals-"Keep Away" and "Buy Cigarettes."
The people who normally parked their cars along the perimeter of
the apron were avoiding the area under the enclosure, the cars
describing a loose semicircle fifty feet around it.
He turned to
the janitor sweeping out the foyer. "What's that sign for?"
man leaned on his broom, gazing dully at the sign. "Dunno," he
said, "must be something to do with the airport." He had an almost
fresh cigarette in his mouth, but his right hand reached
unconsciously to his hip pocket and pulled out a pack. He drummed
the second cigarette absently on his thumbnail as Franklin walked
Everyone entering the supermarket was buying cigarettes.
Cruising quietly along the 40 mph lane, Franklin began to take a
closer interest in the landscape around him. Usually he was either
too tired or too preoccupied to do more than think about his
driving, but now he examined the expressway methodically, scanning
the roadside caf6s for any smaller versions of the new signs. A
host of neon displays covered the doorways and windows, but most
of them seemed innocuous, and he turned his attention to the
larger billboards erected along the open stretches of the
expressway. Many of these were as high as four-story houses,
elaborate three-dimensional devices in which giant, glossy-skinned
housewives with electric eyes and teeth jerked and postured around
their ideal kitchens, neon flashes exploding from their smiles.
The areas of either side of the expressway were wasteland,
continuous junkyards filled with cars and trucks, washing machines
and refrigerators, all perfectly workable but jettisoned by the
economic pressure of the succeeding waves of discount models.
Their intact chrome hardly tarnished, the mounds of metal shells
and cabinets glittered in the sunlight. Nearer the city the
billboards were sufficiently close together to hide them, but now
and then, as he slowed to approach one of the flyovers, Franklin
caught a glimpse of the huge pyramids of metal, gleaming silently
like the refuse grounds of some forgotten El Dorado.
Hathaway was waiting for him as he came down the hospital steps.
Franklin waved him across the court, then led the way quickly to
"What's the matter, Doctor?" Hathaway asked as Franklin
wound up the windows and glanced around the lines of parked cars.
"Is someone after you?"
Franklin laughed somberly. "I don't know.
I hope not, but if what you say is right, I suppose there is."
Hathaway leaned back with a chuckle, propping one knee up on the
dashboard. "So you've seen something, Doctor, after all."
I'm not sure yet, but there's just a chance you may be right. This
morning at the Fairlawne supermarket . . . " He broke off,
uneasily remembering the huge blank sign and the abrupt way in
which he had turned back to the supermarket as he approached it,
then described his encounter.
Hathaway nodded slowly. "I've seen
the sign there. It's big, but not as big as some that are going
up. They're building them everywhere now. All over the city. What
are you going to do, Doctor?"
Franklin gripped the wheel tightly.
Hathaway's thinly veiled amusement irritated him. "Nothing, of
course. Damn it, it may be just autosuggestion; you've probably
got me imagining-"
Hathaway sat up with a jerk, his face mottled
and savage. "Don't be absurd, Doctor! If you can't believe your
own senses what chance have you left? They're invading your brain,
if you don't defend yourself they'll take it over. completely!
We've got to act now, before we're all paralyzed."
Franklin raised one hand to restrain him. "Just a minute. Assuming
that these signs are going up everywhere, what would be their
object? Apart from wasting the enormous amount of capital invested
in all the other millions of signs and billboards, the amounts of
discretionary spending power still available must be
infinitesimal. Some of the present mortgage and discount schemes
reach half a century ahead, so there can't be much slack left to
take up. A big trade war would be disastrous."
Doctor," Hathaway rejoined evenly, "but you're forgetting one
thing. What would supply that extra spending power? A big increase
in production. Already they've started to raise the working day
from twelve hours to fourteen. In some of the appliance plants
around the city Sunday working is being introduced as a norm.
Can you visualize it, Doctor-a seven-day week, everyone with at
least three jobs?"
Franklin shook his head. "People won't stand
"They will. Within the last twenty-five years the gross
national product has risen by fifty percent, but so have the
average hours worked. Ultimately we'll all be working and spending
twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. No one will dare
refuse. Think what a slump would mean-millions of layoffs, people
with time on their hands and nothing to spend it on. Real leisure,
not just time spent buying things." He seized Franklin by the
shoulder. "Well, Doctor, are you going to join me?"
himself. Half a mile away, partly hidden by the four story bulk of
the Pathology Department, was the upper half of one of the giant
signs, workmen still crawling across its girders. The airlines
over the city had deliberately been routed away from the hospital,
and the sign obviously had no connection with approaching
"Isn't there a prohibition on subliminal living? How can
the unions accept it?"
"The fear of a slump. You know the new
economic dogmas. Unless output rises by a steady inflationary five
percent the economy is stagnating. Ten years ago increased
efficiency alone would raise output, but the advantages there are
minimal now and only one thing is left. More work. Increased
consumption and subliminal advertising will provide the spur."
"What are you planning to do?"
"I can't tell you, Doctor, unless
you accept equal responsibility for it.
"Sounds rather quixotic,"
Franklin commented. "Tilting at windmills. You won't be able to
chop those things down with an ax. "
"I won't try." Hathaway
suddenly gave up and opened the door. "Don't wait too long to make
up your mind, Doctor. By then it may not be yours to make up."
With a wave he was gone.
On the way home Franklin's skepticism
returned. The idea of the conspiracy was preposterous, and the
economic arguments were too plausible. As usual, though, there had
been a hook in the soft bait Hathaway dangled before him-Sunday
working. His own consultancy had been extended into Sunday morning
with his appointment as visiting factory doctor to one of the
automobile plants that had started
Sunday shifts. But instead of
resenting this incursion into his already meager hours of leisure
he had been glad. For one frightening reason he needed the extra
Looking out over the lines of scurrying cars, he noticed
that at least a dozen of the great signs had been erected along
the expressway. As Hathaway had said, more were going up
everywhere, rearing over the supermarkets in the housing
developments like rusty metal sails.
Judith was in the kitchen
when he reached home, watching the TV program on the handset over
the cooker. Franklin climbed past a big cardboard carton, its
seals still unbroken, which blocked the doorway, kissed her on the
cheek as she scribbled numbers down on her pad. The pleasant odor
of pot-roast chicken-or, rather, a gelatine dummy of a chicken
fully flavored and free of any toxic or nutritional
properties-mollified his irritation at finding her still playing
the Spot Bargains.
He tapped the carton with his foot. "What's
"No idea, darling, something's always coming these days, I
can't keep up with it all." She peered through the glass door at
the chicken-an economy 12-pounder, the size of a turkey, with
stylized legs and wings and an enormous breast, most of which
would be discarded at the end of the meal (there were no dogs or
cats these days; the crumbs from the rich man's table saw to
that)-and then glanced at him pointedly.
"You look rather worried,
Robert. Bad day?"
Franklin murmured noncommittally. The hours
spent trying to detect false clues in the faces of the Spot
Bargain announcers had sharpened Judith's perceptions, and he felt
a pang of sympathy for the legion of husbands similarly
"Have you been talking to that crazy beatnik again?"
"Hathaway? As a matter of fact, I have. He's not all that crazy."
He stepped backward into the carton, almost spilling his drink.
"Well, what is this thing? As I'll be working for the next fifty
Sundays to pay for it I'd like to find out."
He searched the
sides, finally located the label. "A TV set? Judith, do we need
another one? We've already got three. Lounge, dining room, and the
handset. What's the fourth for?"
"The guest room, dear; don't get
so excited. We can't leave a handset in the guest room, it's rude.
I'm trying to economize, but four TV sets is the bare minimum. All
the magazines say so."
"And three radios?" Franklin stared
irritably at the carton. "If we do invite a guest here how much
time is he
going to spend alone in his room watching television?
Judith, we've got to call a halt. It's not as if these things
were free, or even cheap. Anyway, television is a total waste of
time. There's only one program. It's ridiculous
to have four
"Robert, there are four channels."
"But only the
commercials are different." Before Judith could reply the
telephone rang. Franklin lifted the kitchen receiver, listened to
the gabble of noise that poured from it. At first he wondered
whether this was some offbeat prestige commercial, then realized
it was Hathaway in a manic swing.
"Hathaway!" he shouted back.
"Relax, man! What's the matter now?"
--Doctor, -you'll have to
believe me this time. I tell you I got on to one of the islands
with a stroboscope, they've got hundreds of high speed shutters
blasting away like machine guns straight into people's faces and
they can't see a thing, it's fantastic! The next big campaign's
going to be cars and TV sets; they're trying to swing a two month
model change--can you imagine it, Doctor, a new car every two
months? God Almighty, it's just-"
Franklin waited impatiently as
the five-second commercial break cut in (all telephone calls were
free, the length of the commercial extending with range-for
long-distance calls the ratio of commercial to conversation was as
high as 10: 1, the participants desperately trying to get a word
in edgeways to the interminable interruptions), but just before it
ended he abruptly put the telephone down, then removed the
receiver from the cradle.
Judith came over and took his arm.
"Robert, what's the matter? You look terribly strained."
picked up his drink and walked through into the lounge. "It's just
Hathaway. As you say, I'm getting a little too involved with him.
He's starting to prey on my mind."
He looked at the dark outline
of the sign over the supermarket, its red warning lights glowing
in the night sky. Blank and nameless, like an area forever closed
off in an insane mind, what frightened him was its total
"Yet I'm not sure," he muttered. "So much of what
Hathaway says makes sense. These subliminal techniques are the
sort of last ditch attempt You'd expect from an overcapitalized
He waited for Judith to reply, then looked up
at her. She stood in the center of the carpet, hands folded
limply, her sharp, intelligent face curiously dull and blunted. He
followed her gaze out over the rooftops, then with an effort
turned his head and quickly switched on the TV set.
"Come on," he
said grimly. "Let's watch television. God, we're going to need
that fourth set."
A week later Franklin began to compile his
inventory. He saw nothing more of Hathaway; as he left the
hospital in the evening the familiar scruffy figure was absent.
When the first of the explosions sounded dimly around the city and
he read of the attempts to sabotage the giant signs, he
automatically assumed that Hathaway was responsible, but later he
heard on a newscast that the detonations had been set off by
construction workers excavating foundations.
More of the signs
appeared over the rooftops, isolated on the palisaded islands near
the suburban shopping centers. Already there were over thirty on
the ten-mile route from the hospital, standing shoulder to
shoulder over the speeding cars like giant dominoes. Franklin had
given up his attempt to avoid looking at them, but the slim
possibility that the explosions might be Hathaway's counterattack
kept his suspicions alive.
He began his inventory after hearing
the newscast, discovered that in the previous fortnight he and
Judith had traded in their
Car (previous model 2 months old)
sets (4 months)
Power mower (7 months)
Electric cooker (5 months)
Hair dryer (4 months)
Refrigerator (3 months)
2 radios (7 months)
Record player (5 months)
Cocktail bar (8 months)
purchases had been made by himself, but exactly when he could
never recall realizing at the time. The car, for example, he had
left in the garage near the hospital to be greased, that evening
had signed for the new model as he sat at its wheel, accepting the
sales- man's assurance that the depreciation on the two-month
trade-in was virtually less than the cost of the grease job. Ten
minutes later, aass hhee sped along the expressway, he suddenly
realized that he had bought a new car. Similarly, the TV sets had
been replaced by identical models after developing the same
irritating interference pattern (curiously, the new sets also
displayed the pattern, but as the salesman assured them, this
promptly vanished two days later).
Not once had he actually
decided of his own volition that he wanted something and then gone
out to a store and bought it!
He carried the inventory around with
him, adding to it as necessary quietly and without protest
analyzing these new sales techniques, wondering whether total
capitulation might be the only way of defeating' them. As long as
he kept up even a token resistance, the inflationary, growth curve
would show a controlled annual 10 percent climb. With that
resistance removed, however, it would begin to rocket upward out
of control . . . .
Then, driving home from the hospital two
months later, he saw one of the signs for the first time.
in the 40 mph lane, unable to keep up with the flood of new cars,
had just passed the second of the three clover leafs when the
traffic half a mile away began to slow down. Hundreds of cars had
driven,,, up onto the grass verge, and a large crowd was gathering
around one ,~ of the signs. Two small black figures were climbing
up the metal face_~ and a series of huge gridlock patterns of
light flashed on and off, illuminating the evening air. The
patterns were random and broken, as if the sign was being tested
for the first time.
Relieved that Hathaway's suspicions had been
completely groundless, Franklin turned off onto the soft shoulder,
then walked forward through the spectators as the lights blinked
and stuttered in their faces.., Below, behind the steel palisades
around the island, was a large group~,~ of police and engineers,
craning up at the men scaling the sign a hundred feet over their
Suddenly Franklin stopped, the sense of relief fading
instantly. With a jolt he saw that several of the police on the
ground were armed with shotguns, and that the two policemen
climbing the sign carried submachine guns slung over their
shoulders. They were converging on a third figure, crouched by a
switchbox on the penultimate tier, a ragged bearded man in a grimy
shirt, a bare knee poking through his jeans .
hurried toward the island, the sign hissing and spluttering, fuses
blowing by the dozen.
Then the flicker of lights cleared and
steadied, blazing out continuously, and together the crowd looked
up at the decks of brilliant letters. The phrases, and every
combination of them possible, were entirely familiar, and Franklin
knew that he had been reading them unconsciously in his mind for
weeks as he passed up and down the expressway.
BUY NOW BUY NOW
BUY NOW BUY NOW BUY NOW
NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW NEW CAR NOW
YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES YES
Sirens blaring, two
patrol cars swung up onto the verge through the crowd and plunged
across the damp grass. Police spilled from its doors, batons in
their hands, quickly began to force back the crowd. Franklin held
his ground as they approached, started to say: "Officer, I know
the man-" but the policeman punched him in the chest with the
flat-of his hand. Winded, he stumbled back among the cars, leaned
helplessly against a fender as the police began to break the
windshields, the hapless drivers protesting angrily, those farther
back rushing for their vehicles.
The noise fell away abruptly when
one of the submachine guns fired a brief roaring burst, then rose
in a massive gasp of horror as Hathaway, arms outstretched, let
out a cry of triumph and pain, and jumped.
"But, Robert, what
does it really matter?" Judith asked as Franklin sat inertly in
the lounge the next morning. "I know it's tragic for his wife and
daughter, but Hathaway was in the grip of an obsession. If he
hated advertising signs so much why didn't he dynamite those we
can see, instead of worrying so much about those we can't?"
Franklin- stared at the TV screen, hoping the program would
"Hathaway was right," he said simply.
Advertising is here to stay. We've no real freedom of choice,
anyway. We can't spend more than we can afford; the finance
companies soon clamp down."
"You accept that?" Franklin went over
to the window. A quarter
of a mile away, in the center of the
estate, another of the signs was being erected. It was due east
from them, and in the early- morning light the shadows of its
rectangular superstructure fell across the garden, reaching almost
to the steps of the French windows at his feet. As a concession
to the neighborhood, and perhaps to allay any suspicions while it
was being erected by an appeal to petty snobbery, the lowest
sections had been encased in mock - Tudor paneling.
stared at it numbly, counting the half-dozen police lounging by
their patrol cars as the construction gang unloaded prefabricated
grilles from a couple of trucks. Then he looked at the sign by
the supermarket, trying to repress his memories of Hathaway and
the pathetic attempts the man had made to convince Franklin and
gain his help.
He was still standing there an hour later
when Judith came in, putting on her hat and coat, ready to visit
Franklin followed her to the door. "I'll
drive you down there, Judith," he said in a flat voice dead voice.
"I have to see about booking a new car. The next models are
coming out at the end of the month. With luck we'll get one of
the early deliveries."
They walked out into the trim drive,
the shadows of the great signs swinging across the quiet
neighborhood as the day progressed, sweeping over the heads of the
people on their way to the supermarket like the dark blades of
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