That issues of race are no longer found in American political advertising is an easy assumption to make. Explicitly, this is almost the case, in today’s campaigns you would likely never see an ad as equally blatant in its goals to trigger racial divides as the Helms “White Hands” reference to affirmative actions in ’90. The ad featuring white hands crumpling a piece of paper in frustration as a male narrator lists the negative affects of affirmative action on employment was able to draw support from Helms’ white voter base in a tight election with African-American democrat Harvey Gantt (Iyengar, McGrady, 21).
However, just because these goals of triggering the wedge issue of race or even racist image ads are not as visible to the increasingly race-sensitive eyes of today’s viewers, does not mean that they don’t still exist. Race is still a wedge issue sensitive to many viewers, and a micro-target accessible to most candidates, they simply have to be more discreet about advertising it.
North Carolina’s senate race provides the perfect contemporary examples of discreet racism in political advertising. I will focus on the ads of Thom Tillis, the Republican Party’s senatorial candidate, since many of the wedge issues the ads target are typically “owned” by the party. It’s important to note though, that Kay Hagan’s ads are certainly not without their own implicit goals.
In Thom Tillis’ ad attacking Kay Hagan through associating her with the Obama administration, Tillis makes sure to reference “Obamacare”-the opposition coined term. He places himself in an office to convey himself as the business-savvy candidate, sending a clear performance message. What’s interesting about this ad, with the clear intention to convey authority and business-related competence, is that it features almost entirely middle-aged to older white men surrounding him in the office, shaking hands, trading files, etc. I would argue that ads such as this perpetuate the impression that this conservative candidate fears a more diverse office space would not convey the same degree of exclusiveness he is using to appeal to his audience of apparently all white viewership.
To compare, Tillis’ other ad featuring him in a small-town diner scene, is attempting to portray him as coming from humble beginnings working in positions from “bus-boy to line-cook” implying in a way that if anyone works hard enough, they can find success as he has. The striking comparison here is that Tillis is surrounded by black actors in his diner ad, nodding to the black line cook pouring him his coffee, while in his office ad (the implication here being that the office serves as a physical representation of his business success) there is no one of color. This is the perfect example of implicit racism, implying that diners and labor-related jobs are where minorities belong, and that they are not members of successful offices because they simply haven’t achieved that level of success.
In another ad introducing Thom Tillis to the audience- a necessity for a candidate running for office against the incumbent- he introduces himself in a cliché suburban neighborhood, standing on a perfectly manicured lawn with a young white boy tossing a news-paper onto the stoop. The commercial then cuts to him back in the office surrounded by middle-aged white folk, and then finally to what presumably is a neighborhood discussion taking place with more white folks. This is a perfect example of a Republican commercial targeting their base by using a combination of image ad (comfortable suburban neighborhood) and touching on the wedge issues of family values- one “owned” by the Republican Party as McGrady argues, which makes it ideal in getting out the base. By this same logic, there is then the underlying implication that what is comfortable to his base is a neighborhood and office space with little to no diversity- reminiscent of the Reagan “Morning in America”.


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