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The Age:

'Rats' ad puts Bush on back foot

 

Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush ( first election ) stumbled through another day of unwelcome distractions on Tuesday, this time about an apparent subliminal message in an advertisement that flashed the word "rats" for a fraction of a second.

Governor Bush insisted the word's placement was coincidental and any suggestion otherwise was bizarre and a "conspiracy theory". But the campaign immediately pulled the advertisement, ostensibly a critique of Democrat nominee Al Gore's health plan.

Mr Gore looked glum and called the advertisement unprecedented and a "disappointing development" but privately the campaign was delighted at the story, which the Democrats leaked to The New York Times.

The 30-second advertisement accuses Mr Gore of putting American lives into bureaucratic hands through his plans for a prescription drug benefit for the elderly. It finishes with a picture of Mr Gore, and the words "Bureaucrats Decide".

That phrase bounces about the screen, and just before the ad's end, the last four letters of "bureaucrats", or "rats", appears in large white type on the screen.

Without freeze-framing the image, it is almost impossible to see. "Campaigns take bizarre twists and this has to be one of the more bizarre accusations," Mr Bush said.

"We don't need to be manufacturing subliminal messages to get my message across."

The impact of the ad is not yet clear but at the least it overshadowed Mr Bush's attempts to focus on his health-care plan in Florida and on his retooled campaign, designed to lift sagging poll numbers.

Mr Bush has a new slogan - "Real plans for real people" - and is holding question-and-answer sessions with voters. It also exacerbates arguments about campaign strategy between Mr Bush's campaign team and the Republican national committee. The ad's producer, Alex Castellanos, said the use of "rats" was purely accidental.

Advertising experts generally insisted the placement of "rats" in huge letters could not possibly be unintended but was designed to put a negative view of Mr Gore in the minds of voters.

The idea that subliminal messages could influence advertising has existed since the 1960s but there is no clear evidence it works.

Political scientist Darrell West said that he had never before heard of subliminal advertising in a presidential campaign.

"The risk of a major voter backlash from something like this could be very high because, above all else, voters don't like to be fooled," Mr West said. 

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