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“Why are the letters ‘NIG’ on the child’s pajamas?”

Asks a commenter — “Tom” — on my post about the new Hillary Clinton commercial, the one that shows several children sleeping and then Clinton taking a national security phone call in the middle of the night. You can see the commercial at the link, and the pajamas in question are on display during seconds 11 and 12. On pausing, staring, and thinking, I believe these are pajamas that say “good night” all over them, but the letters “NIG” are set apart by a fold in the fabric.

Is the campaign responsible for sending out a subliminal message to stimulate racist thoughts in the unsuspecting viewer? It is either deliberate or terribly incompetent. There is no other writing on screen until the very end of the commercial, and if letters appear in any place in a commercial, they should be carefully selected letters. Certainly, each image is artfully composed and shot and intended to deliver an emotional impact. Could this be a mere lapse?

In 2000, there was a much-discussed commercial for George W. Bush that displayed the letters “RATS”:

The announcer starts by lauding George W. Bush’s proposal for dealing with prescription drugs, and criticizes the plan being offered by Vice President Al Gore. Fragments of the phrase ”bureaucrats decide” — deriding Mr. Gore’s proposal — then dance around the screen.

Then, if the viewer watches very closely, something else happens. The word ”rats,” a fragment of the word ”bureaucrats,” pops up in one frame. And though the image lasts only one-thirtieth of a second, it is in huge white capital letters, larger than any other word on the commercial.

The advertisement then declares, ”The Gore prescription plan: bureaucrats decide.”

But as one might be expect in a tightly contested presidential race, the Democrats have given the 30-second advertisement more than a quick glance.

After being alerted by an eagle-eyed Democrat in Seattle, aides to Mr. Gore examined the advertisement frame by frame, spotted the suspicious word and gave a copy of a slowed-down version to The New York Times.

Those aides said they had no comment and preferred that the advertisement, which has appeared in 33 markets nationwide since August, speak for itself.

Alex Castellanos, who produced the commercial for the Republican National Committee, insisted that the use of the word was ”purely accidental,” saying, ”We don’t play ball that way. I’m not that clever.”

Asked when he had first noticed the word in the commercial, Mr. Castellanos said, ”That’s all I want to say.”

But several Republican and Democratic advertising consultants who were told of the commercial, as well as many independent academics, said they were startled that such a word would appear and said it appeared to be a subliminal attempt to discredit Mr. Gore.

Mr. Bush’s chief media consultant, Mark McKinnon, said he had not noticed the word ”rats” when he reviewed the advertisement before it was broadcast. Most people probably have not noticed either, although some people who watched a tape of the commercial at normal speed today — albeit very carefully — said it was visible.

After being told of the word, Mr. McKinnon said the commercial should be corrected because it ”certainly might give reporters or anybody else who looked at it” a reason to stir up attention.

But after taking another look at the advertisement, he amended his comment.

” ‘Rats’ is not a message,” Mr. McKinnon said. ” ‘Bad plan’ or ‘seniors lose’ might be. But ‘rats?’ We’re just not that clever. I just watched it five times in a row. Hard as I looked, couldn’t see ‘rats.’ ”

Almost every advertising professional interviewed said that given the technology by which commercials are assembled frame by frame, it was virtually impossible for a producer not to know the word was there.

”There is no way that anything Alex Castellanos does is an accident,” said Greg Stevens, a veteran Republican advertising consultant here.

The intense scrutiny of the “RATS” ad heightens the assumption that presidential candidates these days pay close attention to any incidental lettering that appears in their ads. “RATS” as part of the word “bureaucrats” in an ad criticizing Gore’s prescription plan is nothing compared to “NIG” isolated on a sleeping child’s shoulder in an ad intended to create doubts about a black man’s ability to take an urgent phone call at 3 a.m., an ad authorized by a candidate who has already heard accusations that her campaign is slipping racial material into its attacks on her opponent.

This is either a revolting outrage or shocking incompetence.

IN THE COMMENTS: Some controversy, of course. I know this is hard to take. But let me front page this one, from Mortimer Brezny, who is responding to a commenter who said: “[F]or subliminal messaging to be effective, I think it has to be intelligible. In this case, you really have to fill in the dots (reconstruct the right-half of the G) to make it so. If it had said NIC, would there be an issue, because you could imagine C => G?”

Oh, that is incorrect. The way the mind makes closure is by filling in the blanks. You don’t need to see an entire face to envision what the other half of it looks like. That is not a conscious activity of the brain, it is neurological, like seeing the color red.

Certainly, Ann is correct that you activate associational networks in the brain. NIG is quite obviously in the same area of the brain as NIGGER, just as both words are nearby in the dictionary. And the commercial is about Obama. Associating those two neural pathways (Obama, Nig__) at the same time may create the subliminal message Ann is talking about. In that case the real fear being exploited here is “Do you really want a nigger in the White House?”

This is not bunk. Drew Westen has done a good amount of empirical work on it. And political hacks use such research in crafting their ads.

You may disagree with Ann’s conclusion. But her analysis explains why the commercial — incoherently — focuses on kids in bed. No one is scared that terrorists will break into their home late at night and harm their children. The threat depicted does not correspond to the threat described by the narrator. But the threat depicted does prey on fears of criminals breaking into your home. And it is a persistent stereotype that black people are the source of crime. Indeed, being tough on crime has been a GOP code word for being tough on blacks. Longtime Republican strategist Lee Atwater himself admitted that.

“So if, with our subconscious, we actually notice these 2.5 letters, and our subconscious assumes that this is a G and not a C, then this forms a fragment of a racial slur, which some of us might subconsciously pick up on, and associate, naturally, with Obama.”

Yes. The mind does this everyday, as when you see a sign behind Obama’s head that reads “CHANG”. You don’t think Obama has chosen a Chinese running mate. You think Obama’s head is obscuring the E because you have seen a “CHANGE” sign before. It does not require conscious thought and it takes less than a second to process.

It’s funny that Ann often dithers around for fun to mass appeal, but when she writes a post that clearly demonstrates she’s a genius, the claws come out.

Feel free to observe the claws out on many other websites, where personal attacks on me take the place of any serious effort to engage on the merits. For example, the usually serious blogger Kevin Drum calls me harebrained and a glue sniffer. The vicious attack on the messenger bespeaks fear of the message and lack of a substantive argument against it.

NOTE: I’ve added a link to the video in the first paragraph of the post and two screen captures from the video, taken at 0:11. The first capture is the full screen, with no digital editing. The second capture is a closeup of the lettering, and I’ve turned up the contrast, saturation, and sharpness. There’s no question that there are letters on the pajamas. The letters N and I are very clear. The third letter, G, appears only partially, but it is definitely a G. You can see the center line slightly, and the other letters in the area make it likely that the words “good night” appear as a pattern on the pajamas.

MORE IN THE COMMENTS: Pastafarian wrote:

You must be kidding, right? The G is partially obscured, on the side of the screen and slightly out of focus, written sideways, and present for a second or so; I wouldn’t even have guessed that it was a G, had I not been told. I would have assumed a C, had I even noticed this.

Amba aptly responds:

That’s exactly how a subliminal-advertising genius would do it. With deniability, with doubt, right on the edge of intelligibility. If it was even a little more obvious, it wouldn’t work. This way, anyone who brings it up can be called paranoid and crazy; it can be reflected back on the hypersensitive Obama campaign. We’ll never know for sure if it’s real, but one way to check would be to find out who made the ad and check out some of that person’s other work.

By the way, the sleeping child appears to be black. Mere coincidence?

MORE: In this new post.

AND: If you’ve mocked me for this post, read this and then send me your apology.

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posted by Ann Althouse at 7:19 AM


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