W A S H I N G T O N, Sept. 12, 2000 -- Vice President Al Gore is accusing Republicans of dirty tricks for running a television ad that flashes the word “RATS” on screen for a split second.
“I’ve seen the pictures from the ad,” the vice president told reporters as he campaigned in Ohio today. “I find this a very disappointing development. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. I think the ad speaks for itself.”
In a Republican National Committee commercial criticizing Gore on health care, the word “RATS” appears on screen for a brief moment before the full word “bureaucrats” appears.
But GOP nominee George W. Bush dismissed the notion that the visual effect was intended to subliminally manipulate voters, as the Gore campaign has suggested.
“The idea of putting subliminal messages into ads is ridiculous,” Bush told reporters this morning in Orlando, Fla. “One frame out of 900 hardly, in my judgment, makes a conspiracy.”
Ad Man Denies Dirty Tricks
The 30-second spot, which has run in several battleground states, touts the Republican candidate’s plan for adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare, arguing that seniors would have more control over their health care under Bush’s proposal.
Under the Gore plan, the ad says, drug coverage would be run by bureaucrats.
Words flash on the screen to echo the announcer’s message: “The Gore prescription plan: Bureaucrats decide.”
As the announcer says “Bureaucrats decide,” the word “RATS,” in large capital letters, flashes on and off the screen just as the phrase “Bureaucrats decide,” appears.
“I’m responsible for the advertisements that are run in my name,” Gore told reporters aboard his campaign bus in Ohio today. “My staff would not do this.”
But the man who crafted the ad for the RNC denied he was trying to send any subliminal messages.
“It’s a silly charge to try and get an effective ad off the air,” said Alex Castellanos, a veteran GOP consultant.
He said he faded in the word “bureaucrats” to make the ad visually interesting, and that it was just a coincidence that the letters appearing first spell the name of a rodent.
“It’s a visual drum beat,” he said. “People get bored watching TV. You’re trying to get them interested and involved.”
One viewer who became involved was Gary Greenup, a retired Boeing technical writer from Seattle, who spotted the offending frame and brought it to the attention of county Democrats, who then alerted the Gore campaign.
“I thought … it’s somewhat underhanded, a little bit devious and I thought it should be brought to light,” Greenup, a Democrat, said on CNN this afternoon. “I believe it’s intentional. I can’t see how you could miss that.”
But experts say that so-called subliminal advertising doesn’t even exist.
“There’s no conclusive evidence that it works,” said Bill Benoit, who studies political advertising at the University of Missouri.
“There are no evil conspiracies, and there is no Sasquatch,” Advertising Age Editor-at-Large Bob Garfield said during an ABCNEWS.com online chat. “There is no subliminal advertising — just clumsy politicians doing stupid things, and Americans in morbid fascination noticing it.”
GOP Dismisses Claim
Republicans accused the Gore campaign of trying to manufacture a scandal.
“The word bureaucrats ends with ‘rats’ just like the word Democrats,” said Terry Holt, spokesman for Victory 2000, which represents the Bush campaign at the RNC. “It is a spot about health care. It’s not a spot about rodents.”
“It sounds like happy hour at the Gore campaign lasted a little too long,” added Ari Fleischer, spokesman for the Bush campaign. And, referring to decades-old rumors about a Beatles song, he added jokingly, “If you play the ad backwards, you hear the words ‘Paul is dead.’”
But even as the Bush camp publicly dismisses the matter as much ado about nothing, it is acutely aware that it is but the latest in a string of controversies surrounding GOP commercials.
Last month, the party abruptly dropped plans to air an ad featuring a clip of Gore claiming that he and President Clinton had never lied. The ad appeared to suggest that the vice president was referring to the president’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, but the sound-bite was from a 1994 interview. Bush himself decided to pull the ad at the last minute because it was not “appropriate.”
Days later, the GOP released a spot featuring footage of Gore’s appearance at an infamous 1996 fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple as well as his admittedly false claim to have created the Internet. The Texas governor said the ad was intended as “tongue-in-cheek” humor, but critics said the attack on his opponent’s truthfulness was inconsistent with the Republican candidate’s promise to “set a new tone” in Washington.
And even before the “RATS” flap developed, the very same ad was under fire for having been aired before Bush actually released his prescription drug proposal.
Flap Overshadows Bush Message
Today’s controversy also comes as Bush is struggling to get his campaign back on-message, after having lost his lead in the polls and committed a number of high-profile gaffes on the campaign trail, such as bobbling an explanation of his tax cut proposal and using profanity to describe a reporter over an open microphone.
Bush’s message of the day was supposed to be on health care, as he campaigned in the battleground states of Florida and Missouri. But the candidate’s aides spent much of their time answering questions about the “RATS” ad.
As for the ad itself, GOP officials say the ad will stop running today — but only because the two-week run it was scheduled for has come to an end. It will be replaced by a new ad already produced by the RNC contrasting Bush’s prescription drug plan with Gore’s — an ad that is sure to be as closely scrutinized as the last.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.