Castellanos's commercial begins as a fairly civil dismemberment of Al Gore's prescription plan and degenerates into what appears to be an astonishing sneak attack. During the last few seconds, in literally the blink of an eye, the word "RATS" appears in bold capital letters superimposed over the phrase "Bureaucrats Decide." The 30-second blurb, which has been running in 33 markets since August, was not pulled, per se, but "was coming out of rotation anyway," according to the Bush campaign.
Castellanos, whose past work includes a race-baiting Jesse Helms advertisement showing white hands ripping up a job rejection letter, has struck an unapologetic stance over the subliminal blip. "We don't play ball that way," he told reporters Monday. "I'm not that clever." Unfortunately for Castellanos, the rest of us aren't that stupid. We know that political advertising is a high-stakes game; ads are built from the ground up, and every single frame is scrutinized for unwelcome intrusions and subtle messages. Somebody on Castellanos's staff deliberately injected the "RATS" frame, and now everybody is playing dumb.
The RNC, disavowing any foreknowledge of the ad's little surprise, will be given the benefit of the doubt at least for the moment. And perhaps that's not as ridiculous as it sounds: It's possible to imagine the RNC advertising staff watching Castellanos's ad with a distracted eye, and missing the reference altogether. (Of course, that line of reasoning makes it difficult to explain how the split-second flash was visible to a Seattle television viewer; the registered Democrat called the Gore campaign to register surprise over the ad's content.)
Even assuming the public buys their line of defense, the committee remains in an unenviable spot: To distance themselves (and their candidate) from the ad, they've got to castigate Castellanos as publicly as possible. The fact that Castellanos is one of the best in the business won't make their decision any easier; with the exception of his work on Bob Dole's 1996 presidential bid, the adman has generally thrown his hat into the winning ring. He can be venomous, but he gets the job done.
And, of course, it's very tempting to stick with a winner. But as they mull their next step, the RNC may want to consider a couple of things: First, the candidates each vowed to stick to the high road this year and while both parties have strayed, on several occasions, from the letter of that promise, the spirit remains, battered but intact. More of this kind of stuff and voters aren't likely to think too kindly of the party (and by extension, the candidate) they perceive as responsible for pushing the campaign irrevocably off that road. Second, with a candidate already proving to be irresistible for the late-night joke writers, it doesn't behoove them to add fuel to the fire.