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Bill Cook of the Advertising Research Foundation
"The Democrats have turned this around and shot the Republicans with their own guns"
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The BBC's Philippa Thomas reports
"This is the political ad that has been run more than 4,000 times"
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banner Wednesday, 13 September, 2000, 18:02 GMT 19:02 UK
RATS ad: Subliminal conspiracy?
A still from Mr Bush's controversial campaign ad
A still from Mr Bush's controversial campaign ad
By BBC News Online's John Egan

George W Bush may have dismissed the controversy as "weird and bizarre", but there is no doubt that the Republican presidential candidate has been wrong-footed by one of his own campaign adverts.

The 30 second TV advertisement, which deals with who should pay for prescription drugs for the elderly, contains the word "rats".

It's cheap and manipulative and it certainly takes the level of political discourse down several notches

Prof Loyal Rue

Alongside images of Vice-President Al Gore, the ad shows fragments of the slogan "Bureaucrats decide". "RATS" is flashed for a split second, before the complete word "bureaucrats" appears.

Psychologists suggest that such brief messages can be processed by the brain but at an unconscious or subliminal level.

Mr Bush has denied that the words were planted intentionally as a subliminal message.

"This kind of practice is not acceptable. Conspiracy theories abound in American politics, but I don't think we need to be subliminal about prescription drugs", said Mr Bush.

Negative campaigning

Nevertheless the advert has been pulled to save the Bush campaign from any further embarrassment.

Conspiracy theories abound in American politics, but I don't think we need to be subliminal about prescription drugs

George W Bush

Alex Castellanos, who made the ad for the Republican National Committee, has fuelled the controversy by apparently changing his explanation as to how the word "rats" came to appear in his advert.

Renowned as a maker of attack ads for political campaigns, Mr Castellanos claimed initially that the use of the word was "purely accidental".

By Wednesday he had admitted that the word "rats" was "a visual drumbeat designed to make you look at the word bureaucrats."

Mr Bush's protests that the word was not intentionally placed in the advert have been questioned by media analysts.

Rat attack

"The word is so carefully superimposed. It's not like it just randomly appears on the screen," says Darrell West, an expert on political advertising at Brown University.

Bush campaign ad
Purely accidental? The letters R-A-T-S momentarily dominate the screen
Lynn Vavreck, from the Department of Political Science at Dartmouth College agrees. "Somebody made this frame specifically. You can see the word is in a larger font and comes on top of the previous text."

Loyal Rue, who studies political deception at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, is very critical of subliminal messages in advertising.

"It's cheap and manipulative. It certainly takes the level of political discourse down several notches," he says.

But while Mr Bush may like to forget the Rats controversy, his opponents are determined to keep the issue high on the news agenda.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been asked to investigate whether the TV advert amounted to deliberate, deceptive and subliminal advertising.

Although it is not strictly illegal, in 1974 the FCC adopted a policy saying that subliminal advertising was contrary to the public interest.

Subliminal scepticism

But even if the "rats" message was intentional, there is no conclusive evidence that it will have the effect desired by its creators.

Bill Cook of the Advertising Research Foundation says that subliminal advertising is part of the popular science agenda like astrology and alien abduction.

He is sceptical of the power of subliminal messages in advertising. "If we have such a hard time communicating simple message in 30 seconds, how likely is it that something could be communicated in a fraction of a second?" asks Cook.

Bill Benoit, who studies political advertising at the University of Missouri agrees. "There is no conclusive research evidence that subliminal advertising works. Of course that doesn't stop advertisers," he says.

After a fortnight in which his presidential campaign has appeared increasingly accident prone, George W Bush must be hoping that he can put these particular rats back in their hole.

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See also:

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12 Sep 00 | Election news
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