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CAMPAIGN 2000

Republicans Try to Still Criticism of 'Rats' Ad

September 13, 2000|JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Republican Party officials on Tuesday denied they were trying to send a subliminal message by inserting the word "rats" for a nearly invisible split-second in a recent television advertisement criticizing Al Gore's Medicare plan.

The 30-second commercial ends with the words, "The Gore prescription plan: Bureaucrats decide," in white lettering on a black screen. In one frame just before the ad closes, "rats"--a fragment of the word "bureaucrats"--appears in large white capital letters, superimposed over the phrase: "The Gore prescription plan."

GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush, appearing in Orlando, Fla., told reporters the allegations of psychological warfare are "bizarre."

"One frame out of 900 hardly in my judgment makes a conspiracy," he said. ". . . I am convinced this is not intentional. You don't need to play, you know, cute politics."

Alex Castellanos, a longtime Republican media consultant who made the spot and whose firm is buying air time for Bush's campaign, said the depiction of the word was inadvertent.

He said he "didn't see the edit go down," but he approved the final cut of the commercials for broadcast late last month. "I heard the music; I didn't hear the note."

Castellanos said he wasn't aware of the frame until it was shown on a Fox News Channel program Aug. 28. Even then, he said he thought it was "another cute observation" and wasn't worth retracting the spot.

Terry Holt, a spokesman for Victory 2000, the party's campaign arm, said GOP officials also learned of the frame two weeks ago and found it "did not rise to the level of sinister plot."

"Obviously, we're looking at these spots from the standpoint of whether or not it addresses a serious issue," he said. "We felt strongly that this was a good spot that talks about health care . . . and we were satisfied that it did address the issue seriously."

GOP officials spent more than $2.5 million airing the ad in 35 media markets for the last two weeks. They said it was taken off the air Tuesday, as previously scheduled.

Gore campaign officials also learned of the "rats" frame about two weeks ago, when it was reported with little attention by Fox News Channel and when they were alerted by a Democratic supporter in Seattle. But Gore aides decided to stoke the story by waiting for the commercial to complete a two-week broadcast schedule before they delivered a slowed-down version of the spot to the New York Times.

On Tuesday, Democrats offered only limited comments.

"I find it a very disappointing development," Gore said. "I've never seen anything like it. I think it speaks for itself."

His running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, called it "very disappointing" and "strange."

Political consultants working for both parties and advertising experts said they found it hard to believe the frame was an editing mistake.

"The nature of the digital editing process means this didn't happen by accident," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

"There are instances where people are playing around in the editing room late at night. . . . They're not giving you that as the explanation," Jamieson said.

Jamieson also said Castellanos faced similar allegations regarding a highly controversial ad he did in 1990 for Sen. Jesse Helms' race in North Carolina against Democrat Harvey Gantt, who is black. In the spot, the hands of a white man are seen crumpling a letter telling him he has been rejected for a job in favor of a minority applicant.

Jamieson said there was a subliminal message contained in a black mark on the crumpled letter. In a focus group, some viewers told Jamieson the mark appeared to be the hand of an African American person. Castellanos said that was a coincidence.

Experts said studies have found subliminal messages can register with viewers, but Jamieson said that "it doesn't show that people change votes based on it."

Gary A. Copeland, a University of Alabama professor and author of a 1997 book "Manipulation of the American Voter," said the "rats" frame "isn't going to create any kind of behavioral change. You can get some subliminal effects [in advertising], but it's in very special circumstances."

"Where this may have some effect is, it plays into the Gore camp's effort to turn around the issue of trustworthiness and character on George W. Bush," Copeland said. "Every time that he runs one of these ads, the people from the Gore campaign can say, 'How can you trust this man?' "

Bush campaign aides noted that in an earlier segment of the ad, the word "with" is momentarily highlighted and appears as the word "wit" on the screen.

"But the Democrats don't suggest we're trying to send a subliminal message that Al Gore is a funny guy, do they?" asked Jim Nicholson, national chairman of the Republican Party.

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