WASHINGTON — Rats!
That four-letter word spelled big trouble Tuesday for GOP contender George W. Bush. The Republican National Committee announced it will stop airing a TV ad attacking Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, in which the word appears for one-thirtieth of a second.
Democrats accused Republicans of inserting the word as a subliminal message in the 30-second ad. Republicans, however, said the appearance of the word was an accident.
The Federal Communications Commission has long banned subliminal advertising, saying that “whether effective or not, such broadcasts clearly are intended to be deceptive.”
Disputing that the ad was being yanked, a Bush campaign spokesman said the ad, which aired about 4,000 times in the last few weeks in about 33 markets, had completed its set cycle.
The ad, which calls into question Gore’s prescription drug plan, shows a clip of Gore, followed by the phrase “bureaucrats decide” dancing about the screen. As the words dance, one frame shows the blown-up phrase “rats” for about one-thirtieth of a second.
Under FCC rules, broadcasters could potentially be liable if they knowingly air a subliminal message. In this case, it’s moot, since no one is accusing broadcasters of having known about that aspect of the ad.
Broadcasters usually are eager to air campaign ads, since the Federal Election Commission requires networks to air political plugs.
Advertising execs said it’s doubtful that the “rats” flash was accidental.
“Frames don’t appear by themselves and type doesn’t get bigger on its own. There’s no question in the world that this was deliberate,” Donny Deutsch, of Deutsch Advertising, said on CNN. “What’s really stupid is that (subliminal messages don’t) work. The Republicans have a lot of rat stuff on their faces.”
Deutsch, who has worked on behalf of several Democratic campaigns, said he was surprised, since he has great respect for the producer of the ad, Alex Castellanos.
Castellanos told reporters that the appearance of “rats” was indeed accidental. “We don’t play ball that way. I’m not that clever.”
The Federal Trade Commission has jurisdiction over deceptive advertising. FTC officials could not be reached for comment about the spot.
A Gore spokesman told reporters, “We have never seen anything like this. The ad speaks for itself.”
Bush and top guns at the Republican National Committee, which paid for the spot, angrily stated that the flash of the word “rats” was accidental, and not an intentional edit. Nevertheless, the ad will no longer be aired, as of today.
Hounded by reporters, Bush seemingly had word trouble himself, continually mispronouncing the word “subliminal” as he defended the ad’s honesty.
“Conspiracy theories abound in America’s politics,” Bush said.