The Rat Pack

The word “rats” flashes for one-fifteenth of a second in a Republican National Committee ad attacking Vice President Al Gore’s healthcare proposal. Accidental? Intentional? Subliminal?

Just Dangerous. This is not subliminal advertising—a concept researchers have debunked—because the flashing word would have to function below the threshold of consciousness and remain unseen by the viewer. Instead, the visible image in the ad is part of a well-proven psychological technique called priming.

Here’s how it works: If I were to flash a series of violent words at you—hate, kill, blood, guts—then tell you a story in which I asked you to supply the ending, you are more likely to provide a violent conclusion. You have been “primed” to make the violent association due to the words I flashed at you.

Enter highly skilled and veteran Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos who produced the spot. In the controversial ad, called “Priority,” George W. Bush’s prescription drug proposal is praised, while Al Gore’s plan is criticized. When the phrase “bureaucrats decide” appears on the screen, the “rats” in bureaucrats, which is increased in size, flashes briefly. The association Castellanos wants viewers to make is that bureaucrats are rats—and so are Democrats.

There is nothing accidental about this spot, which cost the Republicans more than $2.5 million to air in 35 media markets. “The computer does not wake up one morning and decide ‘I will put rats in this ad,’ ” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied political advertising and is the author of Everything You Think You Know About Politics And Why You’re Wrong. “Humans generate these effects.”

Even Castellanos, after first denying responsibility for the ad with a self-deprecating “I’m-not-that-clever” response, later admitted that flash technology was used in the editing of the commercial.

The Republicans explain it this way: Political ads are boring. To capture the attention of voters, you must make them more interesting.

“Political ad makers tend to bring motion to their advertising to make it more compelling,” says Republican National Committee spokesman Terry Holt. The intent, he says, is to have “a light flash in the middle of the screen as the words ‘bureaucrats decide’ appear. The light originates on whatever words are in the middle of the screen.”

For their part, Democrats say they are disappointed. “We have never seen anything like it before,” says Dagoberto Vega, a Gore spokesman. “The ad speaks for itself.”

The trouble with the spot is clear: Technology gives political ad makers the opportunity to distort messages in ways that aren’t easily detectable. The priming undermines voters, who are not given a chance to decide if they find a political ad (or a candidate’s policies) credible by playing it straight. Flashing messages at a conscious level is dirty pool.

Unregulated technology is harmful to the democratic process. It’s time to develop a set of voluntary ethical guidelines—so no voter ends up mislead.