GOP Tries Subliminal Messaginggreenspun.com : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread
Democrats See, and Smell, Rats in G.O.P. Ad
By RICHARD L. BERKE, New York Times, Sept. 11
WASHINGTON, Sept. 11 At first glance, the Republican television commercial on prescription drugs looks like a run-of-the-mill attack advertisement.
The announcer starts by lauding George W. Bush's proposal for dealing with prescription drugs, and criticizes the plan being offered by Vice President Al Gore. Fragments of the phrase "bureaucrats decide" deriding Mr. Gore's proposal then dance around the screen.
Then, if the viewer watches very closely, something else happens. The word "rats," a fragment of the word "bureaucrats," pops up in one frame. And though the image lasts only one-thirtieth of a second, it is in huge white capital letters, larger than any other word on the commercial.
The advertisement then declares, "The Gore prescription plan: bureaucrats decide."
But as one might be expect in a tightly contested presidential race, the Democrats have given the 30- second advertisement more than a quick glance.
After being alerted by an eagle- eyed Democrat in Seattle, aides to Mr. Gore examined the advertisement frame by frame, spotted the suspicious word and gave a copy of a slowed-down version to The New York Times.
Those aides said they had no comment and preferred that the advertisement, which has appeared in 33 markets nationwide since August, speak for itself.
Alex Castellanos, who produced the commercial for the Republican National Committee, insisted that the use of the word was "purely accidental," saying, "We don't play ball that way. I'm not that clever."
Asked when he had first noticed the word in the commercial, Mr. Castellanos said, "That's all I want to say."
But several Republican and Democratic advertising consultants who were told of the commercial, as well as many independent academics, said they were startled that such a word would appear and said it appeared to be a subliminal attempt to discredit Mr. Gore.
Mr. Bush's chief media consultant, Mark McKinnon, who reviewed the advertisement before it was broadcast, said he had not noticed "rats." Most people probably have not noticed either, although some people who watched a tape of the commercial at normal speed today albeit very carefully said it was visible.
After being told of the word, Mr. McKinnon said the commercial should be corrected because it "certainly might give reporters or anybody else who looked at it" a reason to stir up attention.
But after taking another look at the advertisement, he amended his comment.
" `Rats' is not a message," Mr. McKinnon said. " `Bad plan' or `seniors lose' might be. But `rats?' We're just not that clever. I just watched it five times in a row. Hard as I looked, couldn't see `rats.' "
Almost every advertising professional interviewed said that given the technology by which commercials are assembled frame by frame, it was virtually impossible for a producer not to know the word was there.
"There is no way that anything Alex Castellanos does is an accident," said Greg Stevens, a veteran Republican admaker here.
Bobby Baker, chief of the office of political programming at the Federal Communications Commission, said that if the word had been deliberately inserted in the commercial that would be "an extraordinary development" and reflect "reckless" behavior.
While he said the commission did not prohibit subliminal advertising, Mr. Baker explained that "we have policy statements and public notices that indicate they are inherently intended to be deceptive and might be contrary to the public interest."
The commission issued its policy statement in 1974, ruling on the propriety of television commercials aired during the previous Christmas season in which the words "get it" appeared momentarily in reference to advertised products.
Darrell West, a political scientist and authority on political advertising at Brown University, said, "It is really extraordinary that something like this would appear. This is the first time I've heard of anything like this in a presidential campaign ad. The risk of a major voter backlash from something like this could be very high because, above all else, voters don't like to be fooled."
Jim Ferguson, the president of Young & Rubicam, who heads the Bush campaign's group of Madison Avenue advertising consultants, seemed astonished when told of the advertisement. "Are you serious? That's unbelievable," he said. "I hope we haven't stooped to that. That's pretty bad. I thought that was illegal anyway."
The party has spent an estimated $2.5 million on the commercial, which has run roughly 4,000 times.
Ray Strother, the president of the American Association of Political Consultants and a veteran Democratic admaker, said, "There is absolutely no way this can be an accident. I'd be stunned if it was a mistake. If that's an accident it's counter to everything I know about political consulting. When you're running a presidential race, you're really, really super sensitive to every frame of that spot. You're looking at what words are on the baseball cap that people wear."
The notion that subliminal messages embedded in advertisements could influence people became popular in the 1950's, when James Vicary, an advertising executive, reported that he had increased the sales of Coca Cola and popcorn during a moving by flashing "Drink Coke" and "Eat Popcorn," on the screen. (Mr. Vicary's report turned out to be a hoax.)
Three decades of research on subliminal advertising, however, have convinced the majority of researchers that the public is not so easily manipulated.
But Ronald C. Goodstein, a marketing professor at Georgetown University's business school who has studied subliminal advertising, said the word "rats" could have the effect of "making people feel more negative toward Gore," although he said there was "no way that people are going to switch votes because of it."
According to the Gore campaign, the word was first spotted by Gary Greenup, a 64-year-old retired Boeing technical writer in Seattle. To be sure of what he saw, Mr. Greenup taped the commercial soon after it was first broadcast in late August and slowed the tape down to reveal the word. "It somehow caught my eye," he said. Usually, he added, "I don't look this closely at ads mostly I'd just as soon not view them."
Mr. Greenup called the King County Democratic Party, which alerted the Gore campaign.
Mr. Greenup said that while he was a Democrat he was not active in local politics. "I'm not working in the party," he said. "I contribute a little annually it's very, very small."
One Republican admaker who defended Mr. Castellanos was Sal Russo. "I'm not as conspiracy minded as everyone else is," he said. "I can't imagine that that's deliberate. I've got to think it's inadvertent."
Mr. Castellanos is a veteran advertising strategist who is known as one of the toughest in the business. His best-known advertisement, broadcast in 1990 for Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, showed the hands of a white man tearing up a rejection letter he received from a prospective employer. The advertisement was intended to stir resentment among white voters toward Mr. Helms's black opponent.
When Mr. Castellanos worked for Bob Dole's presidential campaign four years ago, he produced some scathing commercials that campaign officials rejected. One featured a montage portraying President Clinton as corrupt set to the song, "You Cheated, You Lied."
Today, Mr. Castellanos sought to make light of the "rats" commercial by recalling the rumors in 1969 that Paul McCartney had died. The rumors were that secret messages were embedded in the Beatles's lyrics and their album covers contained coded messages.
"If you play the ad backwards," Mr. Castellanos joked, "it says, `Paul is Dead.' "
-- Rodent (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 12, 2000
Yep, that Shrubya likes to play dirty pool, that's for sure. There's no way the guy could legitimately get anywhere in life without being a sneaky rotten crooked cheating weasel.
-- (email@example.com), September 12, 2000.
These accusations are coming from supporters of such people as Joseph Lieberman and Tipper Gore. Maybe next they will be accusing the Republicans of putting backward messages in their radio ads, or hiding the number 666 in their campaign posters.
-- censors in the white house? (Tipper@gore.lieberman), September 12, 2000.
Well, rats I rats watched the rats ad over rats and over and rats I still rats can't see rats the word they rats were rats talking about rats in itrats. I think rats they're rats just making rats a mountain rats out of a rats molehill. Just rats my ratsopinion.
-- (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 12, 2000.