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Reductio "Ad' Absurdum

It's an Oliver Stone world. Can't you just smell the political paranoia in the air?

I say it was bound to happen. Any presidential campaign in which one candidate changes his image and improves his ratings in the polls by 10 points just by soul-kissing his wife on national television is doomed to be filled with wacky accusations of political shenanigans.

The Democrats are screaming that they're shocked that the Republicans have, subliminally, inserted the word RATS in a commercial attacking Al Gore. The charge is a joke to anyone familiar with making commercials. The word BUREAUCRATS appears on the screen almost at the same time as the word RATS was allegedly inserted. R-A-T-S are the last four letters of bureaucrats, not to mention the last four letters of Democrats. But that's another story.

I'm positive that the editor of this commercial zeroed in on a tight close-up of the word BUREAUCRATS and what appeared was a one- or two-frame ghost image. This is sloppy editing, not subliminal advertising. Even if the word RATS were inserted subliminally, it would not work very well since the commercial was paid for by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. What is to keep those weak-minded people who are susceptible to being hypnotized by a single word, RATS, from believing it applies to Messrs. Bush and Cheney?

Subliminal advertising has long been alleged to be the most hidden of persuaders. I have been in advertising since the 1960s. I've attended hundreds of thousands of meetings. I've been associated with tens of thousands of commercials and ads. I've been chief judge at Cannes, viewing commercials from all over the world. I've never heard anyone in the business suggest, even facetiously, that subliminal advertising be considered. Subliminal advertising just does not exist. This latest charge is a carry-over from the antiadvertising, antibusiness days of the 1970s.

During that decade, I appeared on a nationally televised morning show to debate a wild-eyed bearded man who was a professor at an obscure college in the Midwest. He had written a book on subliminal advertising.

"Look at this filthy ad," he screamed. The ad, for a popular brand of gin, a frosted glass complete with the requisite droplets of water running down the sides. It was filled to the brim with gin and tonic; a few cubes of ice were submerged in the drink and a slice of lime rested on the rim of the glass.

"Look at this drop," he said pointing to a drop that, frankly, looked like a drop. "That's the shape of a woman. And look at these two drops that have come together at the bottom of the glass, that's a man and a woman locked in a sexual embrace."

Starting to fear violence I said: "I've never seen a man and woman shaped like water droplets before. Can you tell me where he starts and she leaves off?"

Ignoring me, he pointed an accusatory finger at the ice cubes and hissed, "Don't tell me you don't see what's going on in those ice cubes."

"Going on in the ice cubes?" I answered lamely.

"It's an orgy-a vile orgy."

Here, I finally succumbed. When the show was over, I sidled up to him. "Would you mind loaning me that gin ad with the orgy scene for the weekend?" I inquired.

The RATS controversy is tailor-made for a political campaign in which both candidates seem to be everyone's second choice, but no one can quite articulate who his first choice might be.

This makes for a dull campaign. The media are desperate for an exciting political story. Then along comes Ratgate. The story took Firestone off the front pages. On Tuesday CNN, a network whose executives go to bed every night and pray for war, took the rat commercial and practically looped it and ran it all day long.

The Republicans don't realize it, but they've come up with a great gambit. If I were doing their presidential advertising, I would pretend that I had intentionally inserted RATS subliminally in the offending commercial. Then I would announce that I was planning to subliminally insert a word or picture in every commercial I make from now until election day.

I would turn it into a national contest. I would urge voters to look at all Bush-Cheney commercials closely to find the hidden message. I would encourage them to tape these commercials and run them back, frame by frame, to find the hidden message.

Will Buddhist nun appear superimposed for 3/100ths of a second over Al Gore's nose? Will Lusts for Sharon Stone be flash-printed for 1/1,000th of a second over Joe Lieberman's face? Will Dick Cheney have the words Fun Guy subliminally inserted every time he appears in a commercial? How about the words Cute and Brilliant on George W.'s forehead?

The winner, the person who identifies the most subliminal messages in Republican commercials, will receive a prize. He will be named secretary of health and human services should the Bush-Cheney team carry the election in November. Runners-up will be awarded with ambassadorships to small, hostile countries in the Balkans. Let the games begin.

To close, as a Republican ad man, I say:

  • Republicans don't practice skullduggery.
  • All our ads are honest.
  • Tricks and treachery are not our thing.
  • So ignore this subliminal message.


Jerry Della Femina, The Wall Street Journal. September 14, 2000

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