Producer denies putting subliminal message in Bush ad

Tuesday, September 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON – At first glance, the Republican television commercial on prescription drugs looks like a run-of-the-mill attack advertisement.

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The announcer starts by lauding Texas Gov. George W. Bush's proposal for dealing with prescription drugs and criticizing Vice President Al Gore's plan. Fragments of the phrase "bureaucrats decide" – deriding Mr. Gore's proposal – then dance around the screen.

But then, if you watch 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 letters, larger than any other word on the commercial. The tagline of the advertisement declares, "The Gore Prescription Plan: Bureaucrats Decide."

As might be expected, though, 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.

Alex Castellanos, who produced the 30-second 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 noticed the word in the commercial, Mr. Castellanos said, "That's all I want to say."

But several Republican and Democratic admakers 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 by the GOP to discredit Mr. Gore.

Mr. Bush's chief media consultant, Mark McKinnon, who signed off on the advertisement, said he had not noticed "RATS." Told of the word, he 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 reviewing the ad, 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 professional admaker interviewed said that given the technology by which commercials are assembled frame by frame, it virtually was impossible for a producer to not know the word was there.

"There is no way that anything Alex Castellanos does is an accident," said Greg Stevens, a veteran Republican admaker.

Bobby Baker, chief of the office of political programming at the Federal Communications Commission, said that if the word was deliberately inserted in the commercial, that would be "an extraordinary development" and reflect "reckless" behavior.

While he said the commission does not explicitly 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."

Jim Ferguson, president of Young & Rubicam, who heads the Bush campaign's group of Madison Avenue advertising consultants, said, when told of the ad: "Are you serious? That's unbelievable. ... I hope we haven't stooped to that. That's pretty bad. I thought that was illegal anyway."

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."

The party has spent an estimated $2.5 million on the commercial, which is being broadcast in 33 markets. The advertisement has run roughly 4,000 times.