Political attack ads are the last place most people would look for hidden meanings. But that changed yesterday, when word got out that a Republican commercial appeared to contain a subliminal message that Democrats are rats.
The 30-second ad criticizes Vice President Al Gore's prescription drug plan, saying it would put the elderly at the mercy of government paper-shufflers.
As the words "The Gore prescription plan: Bureaucrats decide" dance across the screen, an announcer echoes them. In the blink of an eye, the word "rats" in bold white letters flashes past.
Some Republicans scoffed at fears that the ad was trying to manipulate the electorate's collective subconscious, saying the word appeared accidentally.
Gore's opponent, George W. Bush, spoke dismissively of "conspiracy theories."
But psychologists said the word appeared in such a way that it could sway voters, although very briefly, to view the Democratic candidate in a negative light.
And scholars who study political commercials - the extravagantly expensive strategic weapons of campaigns - say that each split-second of video is scrutinized for content and impact. Everything on the screen has been carefully chosen.
"The word 'rats' was clearly put there intentionally," said Dartmouth College political scientist Lynn Vavreck. "Somebody made this frame specifically. You can see the word is in a larger font and comes on top of the previous text."
The 1/30th of a second that "rats" appears is long enough to register with viewers, whether they're aware of it or not, said Anthony G. Greenwald, a psychologist at the University of Washington who has studied subliminal messages for 15 years. And the word itself is just the sort needed to elicit a strongly negative emotional reaction.
"It would work fine in our experiments as an unpleasant-meaning word," he said.
After Democrats brought the ad to the attention of reporters, Bush was forced to defend it. "I am convinced this is not intentional," he said. "You don't need to play, you know, cute politics."
Alex Castellanos, who made the ad for the Republican National Committee, said he just wanted to keep viewers watching with a lively presentation of the text.
The snippet that appeared just happened to be "rats."
"It's a visual drumbeat," he said. "People get bored watching TV. You're trying to get them interested and involved."
The commercial was broadcast about 4,000 times in 33 markets around the country, and it cost the Republican Party $2.5 million. It was off the air yesterday, GOP officials said, pulled as planned after a two-week run.
Greenwald said studies suggest that subliminal ads sway people's emotions. But the same research suggests the effects last only a few seconds or minutes.
More important, he said, anyone slipping subliminal messages in TV ads is almost certain to get caught. "You really can't get away with this," he said.
Gore, whose picture appears shortly before RATS, said he was disappointed by the commercial.
"I've never seen anything like it," he said. His running mate, Joseph I. Lieberman, demanded an explanation.
Karen Hughes, Bush's campaign director, said the word "wit" also flashes by in big letters, part of the phrase "Interferes with doctors."
"I can assure you that we are not spending Republican ad money to call Al Gore a wit," she said.
Wire services contributed to this article.