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FCC On RATS, Rats, rats...

Dateline: 09/14/00

Democratic US Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and John Breaux of Louisiana have requested that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigate the Republican Party's "RATS" presidential campaign ad.

You've probably heard the "RATS" flap -- the disclosure on Tuesday that a George W. Bush presidential campaign TV ad critical of Vice President Gore displayed the word "RATS" momentarily over the smaller words, "The Gore Prescription Plan -- Bureaucrats Decide."

While Gov. Bush's campaign asserted that "RATS" took up only one out of 900 frames, appeared for only 1/30th of a second, and was accidentally created, the ad was criticized by the Gore campaign as being a deliberately delivered subliminal advertisement.

Subliminal TV advertisements are visual messages, either text or pictures, which are displayed repeatedly during the ad for such short periods of time that consumers do not "see" them with the naked eye, but may comprehend them with the subconscious mind.

What can the FCC do about the "RATS" ad?

The FCC issued its only regulation on subliminal advertising on Jan. 29, 1974. The entire regulation states:

"Subliminal Programming. The FCC sometimes receives complaints regarding the alleged use of subliminal techniques in radio and television programming. Subliminal programming is designed to be perceived on a subconscious level only. The Commission has held that the use of subliminal perception is inconsistent with the obligations of a licensee and contrary to the public interest because, whether effective or not, such broadcasts are intended to be deceptive." (39 Federal Register 3714, January 29, 1974) (Note: The Federal Register prior to 1995 is not available online.)

Under this regulation, FCC-licensed TV and radio stations are banned from knowingly broadcasting programming containing subliminal messages of any nature.  While broadcasters are not expected to screen ads or programs for subliminal messages, they are expected to stop airing them as soon as they become aware of their existence.

The FCC issued its regulation in response to a 1974 TV toy commercial found to repeatedly flash the phrase "Get It" on the screen during the ad.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has a similar regulation against the use of subliminal messages on highway billboards in which the agency contends that viewing a highway billboard from a car traveling 60 miles per hour is equivalent to being exposed to subliminal messages on a TV screen.

Under the scrutiny of the FCC and FTC, the use of subliminal messages in advertising has essentially vanished. While the effectiveness of subliminal messages has never been clearly determined, they are often used for non-advertising purposes in "motivational" programming found on audio and video tapes, as well as computer programs.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) deals only with the laws of political campaign financing and has no jurisdiction over the nature or content of political advertising. (See: Federal Election Campaign Contribution Laws, from your About Guide.)

According to a CNN Report of Sept. 13, 2000, Bush campaign managers told reporters that the $2,576,600 ad, which had aired more than 4,400 times in 33 markets nationwide in the last two weeks, was already scheduled to be removed from the air.

Reference Links

Two Democrats ask FCC to review controversial 'RATS' ad
CNN - Sept. 13, 2000

Rat Flak  
A picture might be worth a thousand words, but it's a snippet of a word in a political spot that's causing some to cast a critical eye on George W. Bush's campaign tactics. But was the ad a subliminal effort to influence voters? From US News Guide Clare Saliba.

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