Subliminal 'rats' ad could backfire on Bush, GOP

September 11, 2000

"Rats" the subliminal political commercial will never rival "Cats" for longevity, but it may prove to be one long bad memory for the national Republican Party, according to a University of Washington researcher who was among the first to show that subliminal visual messages can influence human thought processes and decision-making.

"Reputable advertisers avoid using subliminals, such as the one in the Republican party ad, because they are now relatively easily detected by viewing slowed-down videotapes," said Anthony Greenwald, a UW psychology professor.

"It is reputation damaging to be caught doing this. The main impact of this kind of advertising is not from subliminal influence, but from subsequent media attention that scrutinizes the motives behind its use," he said.

The Republican Party has denied that it deliberately produced a commercial with a subliminal message and said the use of the word rats was accidental.

Greenwald said that while subliminal ads and other visual subliminal influences have a history of controversy, recent research has established that subliminal visual images can indeed influence behavior.

"However, no scientific research has yet demonstrated that visual subliminal messages can produce more than brief influences," he said.

Four years ago Greenwald and several of his students reported in the journal Science the first reproducible evidence that subliminal visual messages can influence human cognition, although its impact is very small. At the time, he said:

"The influence of a subliminal message is fleeting, lasting only a brief flicker of time, perhaps as little as one-tenth of a second. The techniques we are using in our laboratory are not that different from the highly edited images put on television. People have been afraid that those images might contain subliminal messages that they couldn't detect. This is something that advertisers have sometimes been accused of, even though it's rarely done - and, when done, is fully detectable on videotape."

Subliminal messages became a controversial topic in 1957 when James Vicary, a New York motivational researcher, claimed he could persuade drive-in movie theater patrons to purchase popcorn and Coca-Cola with "hidden" or "invisible" visual messages.

Vicary's claim of being able to influence purchases is now widely believed to be a hoax and his alleged two-word messages of "eat popcorn" and "drink Coca-Cola" appear to be too complex to be deciphered by unconscious thought.
For more information, contact Greenwald at or (206) 543-7227.

University of Washington

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