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November 9, 2008 / JV

Implicit vs. Explicit Racial Appeals in Political Advertising

A lecture I attended a couple of weeks ago given by Eric Dickson provided some of the inspiration and material for this post. So thanks, first and foremost.

In my last blog, I touched on social desirability (people don’t like to go against social norms) and modern racism. I favor the school of thought that believes in symbolic racism vs. the principled objection model. The latter says that white americans vary in the degree to which they blame inequalities on structural factors (such as the legacy of slavery and system-wide discrimination), and individual factors (such as individual acts of prejudice). The general idea is that people are not necessarily prejudiced based on their agreement with a negative description of a group, or based on their objection to “equality-based” policy — but that their views are nuanced and might be informed by everyday experience. This is also known as the “politics-is-complicated model”. Symbolic racism basically says that in america today racism lives through the guise of traditional American individualist values. More on symbolic racism from Introduction to Political Psychology:

The dispute between the two models centers mostly around the relationship between conservative values, particularly those ranking individualism very high, and racism… Because many White Americans believe that Black Americans do not work hard enough, they regard Blacks with disdain: This is a new form of racism, based upon American values. Those values giving primacy to individualism are held most strongly by conservatives, whereas liberals tend to value equality (of opportunity, under the law, etc.) more highly. Hence, the relationship between conservative values and the new racism.

Although I don’t think the concept of symbolic racism can explain the existence of racism altogether in the United States, I find it useful when discussing politics and systematic racism through policy (“official terror”).

The fact that these hostile racial attitudes can be expressed through policy choices (and attributed to “ideology”) enables the electorate to participate in the more “sophisticated” racism that I referred to in the last post. It has thus become an interest of conservative candidates to appeal to such racial attitudes (but in a way that is not explicit so people are not aware that they are responding to racial cues and thereby violating the supposed social norm of equality). By way of Mendelberg: Where there is a “norm of equality,” any use of racial imagery must be indirect in order to be effective.

More on implicit racial references from Martha Cottom, et al:

References to issues like law and order, urban crime, local control of schools, voting blocs, and protection of property rights, are all code words or phrases used to implicitly prime resentments against African-Americans among those who believe that Blacks do not try hard enough and are lazy, violent, and take power away from Whites. This pattern was noted in Richard Nixon’s campaign strategy in 1968, as well as in the Reagan campaigns in the 1980s (Kinder & Sanders, 1996; Mendelberg, 2001). Perhaps the most infamous and hotly debated example of the use of implicit advertisements is the Willie Horton campaign during the 1988 George H.W. Bush. campaign


Ad from 1988 Presidential race when Vice President GHWBush ran against Mass. governor Michael Dukakis.

“Dangerous” ad from John McCain’s 2008 candidacy against now President-elect Barack Obama.

In the absence of a norm of equality, one might expect more direct appeals to be used instead.


Swiss People’s Party 2007 General Election

Swiss People’s Party 2004 ad about citizenship. (I don’t mean to pick on the Swiss). In Switzerland citizenship must be attained, it is not a privilege of being born there as it is in the U.S.

We’ve also seen the use of racial appeals (or just racism?) in advertising.

Sony’s ad that never made it to america for the white PSP, 2006. Implicit? Explicit? — from a consumer standpoint.

This could be analogous if you consider the candidate a ‘product’ of sorts that must be properly marketed to his/her constituency. Politicians differ from video games in the respect that one’s underlying racial attitudes may inform political ideology, but those attitudes do not (assumedly) inform one’s choice of video game. However, it sounds like an interesting study could be under way (racial attitudes + video game type/system correlation).

Intel’s ad for Core 2 Duo Processor, 2007. check out the ad that was run in India here. I can’t figure out if this one is supposed to be implicit or not…


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