Today I’ve reviewed the twentieth story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future. Frederik Pohl satirizes a post-apocalyptic world where advertising gets right to work after the bomb!
Previously: C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Advent on Channel Twelve” in Star Science Fiction Stories No. 4, ed. Frederik Pohl (1958). You can read it online here.
Alice Eleanor Jones’ “The Happy Clown” in If, ed. James L. Quinn (December 1955). You can read it online here.
Up Next: Ray Bradbury’s “Almost the End of the World” in The Reporter (December 26, 1957). If you have an Internet Archive account, you can read it online here.
Frederik Pohl’s “The Wizards of Pung’s Corners” first appeared in Galaxy Magazine, ed. H. L. Gold (October 1958). You can read it online here.
The year 1957 flashed subliminal messaging directly into the popular imagination. Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders (1957), that quickly became a best seller, and articles including “The Growing Power of Admen” in the Atlantic . In addition, research findings were released and publicized demonstrations occurred over the course of the year appeared to substantiate Packard’s primary claims. In September 1957 James Vicary, a pioneer in subliminal advertising, conducted his infamous “breakthrough media event” to gathered reporters –he intermixed a nature documentary with the subliminal message “Drink Coca-Cola” 169 times! –that built on his earlier studies .
The backlash to the demonstration was severe. Maurice Rappoport, of the Stanford Research Institute, called subliminal advertising “a virtual social H-bomb.” Advertising companies were forced to condemn the techniques as ridiculous and unethical . While some dismissed subliminal advertising as juvenile and blasé, others compared the tactic as a step in the “robotization” of the people and a “logical extension of the existing commercial culture” . In January 1958, Vicary conducted the first public television presentation of his device–“eat popcorn” flashed through an episode of The Grey Ghost–although no senators in the audience were compelled to buy popcorn . And it is these final two points that Frederik Pohl spins his satire.
Pohl’s “The Wizards of Pung’s Corners” imagines a nightmarish capitalist landscape that animates itself from the wreckage of a nuclear war. To avoid the complete destruction of the American population and industrial system, planners implemented a “dispersal plan” to provide the smallest possible target “for even the largest possible bomb” (81). I am reminded of a similar scheme in “The Nightmare” (1946) by Chan Davis, who passed away at 96 on September 24th. Factories, designed to extricate their own resources from the earth in order to protect supply lines, are hooked together so that their “dying messages pass their responsibilities to the next of kin” (82). Supposedly able to detect whether the world is in a state of peace or war, the factories modify their output accordingly. There’s another reason for automated factories with less and less human participation — to protect new products! More protected than nuclear secrets, the latest gimmick created by computerized randomization (“wobblators”) means a financial windfall. Everyone, even those newly emerged from nuclear shelters, want the new: “and so the world was full of dusty caverns from which wonders constantly poured” (84).
The small town of Pung’s Corners, somewhere on the Delaware River, remains isolated from the rest of the surviving states. Surrounded by radioactive nuclear wastelands that pummeled New York and surrounding regions, the town remains severed from the TV networks that sell the new products (forward thinking residents strategically removed all the TV antennas years in the past). Immediately after the bombs fell, its “Nike Battalion” shot down the helicopters (from the enemy or from friends no one exactly new) that attempted to land (69). Pung’s Corner has a history of avoiding conflict–“only little wars” has impacted its bubble (68).
But a Coglan drives through the wasteland with a lead-protected car after dropping strange drugs in the town’s water… and he’s about to bring a new form of war to Pung’s Corner. He modifies a TV set and starts to broadcast subliminal messages–naked men and women selling the new product–through the town’s closed-network. Coglan proclaims “it was only advertising that built [cities] up again” (75). And why the cosntant deluge of the new? Well “our chief job in research is to keep the customer reasonably dissatisfied with what he has” (75).
The elderly Jack Tighe, ex-advertising executive, leads the resistance against the forces supplied by the mighty automated machines. Sometimes the newfangled isn’t better or easier or comprehensible.
As with many stories, I find the ideas and general historical context of Pohl’s story far more interesting than the rather lackluster delivery. The story itself shifts radically between the activities of Coglan entering the town and lengthy explanatory passages covering the wide-strokes of post-nuclear war history. Pohl posits the entire story of Tighe and the resistance as a much later account of the past that might have taken on elements of the tall tale.
There are some nice touches throughout. Pohl clearly references the various subliminal message demonstrations that occurred in 1957 and early 1958. His description of how Tighe and his allies defeat the subliminal message relayed by Coglan across the town’s closed TV-network by placing one’s fingers in front of the eyes (see Wallace Wood’s illustration of the scene above) matches the images of the Precon demonstration in early 1958 (below) .
Pohl implies the complete saturation of the exterior world with products that keep on appeared from the subterranean factories: “‘Breakfast foods,’ [Coglan] says, ‘what’ve you got in the way of breakfast foods?’ So I told him. Oatmeal and corn flakes. Jack, he flew at me! ‘You don’t stock Coco-Wheat?’ he says. ‘Or Treats, Elets, Neets or Elixo-Wheats? How about Hunny-Yummies, or Prune-Bran Whippets, The Cereal with the Zip-Gun in Every Box?’” (77).
Perhaps the most disturbing implication of the story is the idea that even nuclear war will not pause or reframe the detrimental effects of commercial inundation. Industry will reactive itself. And humans, controlled entirely by their desires, will allow themselves to be recaptured as everyone wants the new. But amongst the laughs and chuckles, Pohl maps the flaws inherent in the system.
 Charles R. Acland’s Swift Viewing: The Popular Life of Subliminal Influence (2012), 110. Chapter five, “Crossing the Popular Threshold,” explores how the phenomenon became mainstream.
 Acland, 168. This built upon Vicary’s fraudulent 1956 “Eat Popcorn/Drink Coke” study in which he claimed audiences in a movie theater were subjected to subliminal messages that created a marked increase in popcorn and coke sales.
 Acland, 113.
 Acland, 114.
 Acland, 115.
 Acland, 128.
 Acland, 119.
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7 thoughts on “Future Media Short Story Review: Frederik Pohl’s “The Wizards of Pung’s Corners” (1958)”
Even reading your synopsis makes me feel like this is a little too similar to an earlier and much more famous (and presumably better) Pohl story, “The Tunnel Under the World.”
All of these stories obviously riff off of elements of Kornbluth and Pohl’s The Space Merchants (1953) as well. I have that “The Tunnel Under the World” (1955) on the list! Haven’t read it yet. As you know, I’m not really on the hunt for the “best” by a particular author else I probably wouldn’t have selected this one — but anything to do with subliminal messaging and advertising immediately is something I’m going to read because of the historical context.
This story was directly inspired by events–the subliminal message demonstrations I mentioned–in the preceding year (1957 and early months of 1958) which adds a bit of interest to the proceedings.
It’s interesting to see how Pohl and Kornbluth, mostly separately, elaborate on the themes presented in The Space Merchants in the following years. Especially Kornbluth, whose politics are a good deal murkier than Pohl’s.
I agree. Which is why I wanted to follow up Kornbluth’s “The Advent on Channel Twelve” (1958) with this one! As for his politics, I plan on reading more about Kornbluth before saying anything definitive. I find Kornbluth on the whole the better author in the 50s — that’s for sure. But I adore Pohl’s Gateway (1977)!
I guess that means I really should read some of Pohl’s “better” 50s visions — like “Tunnel.”
I enjoyed Pohl’s “The Hated” (1958) — more than many who read it to join the conversation, hah. https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2021/04/19/short-story-review-frederik-pohls-the-hated-1958/
Have you thought about covering J. G. Ballard’s “The Subliminal Man” for this series?
Absolutely. One of the first ones I put on the list. But it’s still on the list with a good 20 other short stories! The reason I haven’t reviewed it sooner was I was demoralized a bit by Wilson’s monograph on Ballard I read recently. I wanted my memory of the monograph to fade… haha.
I DM’d you the master list on Twitter. Hah!