Race in Political Advertising

Race has long been a factor in television political advertising. Presidential candidates across the political spectrum have often featured Black supporters in advertisements as a strategy to speak to communities of color. For example, John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign featured a conversation between the Massachusetts senator and Harry Belafonte, ending with the actor endorsing Kennedy for president. In 1976, President Gerald Ford deployed a similar strategy by featuring an advertisement with singer and actor Pearl Bailey discussing why she supported the incumbent president.

Watch Kennedy and Belafonte on The Living Room Candidate.

Watch Pearl Bailey on The Living Room Candidate.

Advertisements have also been used as racist dog whistles to mobilize white voters by demonizing civil rights demonstrations and activism. In 1968, Republican strategist Kevin Phillips advised Nixon to emphasize “crime decentralization of federal social programming and law and order” in order to win support from white voters, notably racially conservative Southerners and blue collar workers in northern cities.

Watch Nixon’s law and order ad on The Living Room Candidate.

The infamous Willie Horton advertisement promoting George H.W. Bush’s election in 1988 explicitly tapped into these racialized ideas of criminality to stoke fear of Black men among white voters. According to Bush’s advisor Lee Atwater, “If I can make Willie Horton a household name, we’ll win the election.” He did both.

Watch the Willie Horton ad on The Living Room Candidate.

The 2020 election takes place during a time in which the movement for racial justice has grown following the police murders of Breonna Taylor in March and George Floyd in May. As Nadia Brown, a political scientist and author of Sisters in the Statehouse: Black Women and Legislative Decision Making, notes, the Biden campaign has begun to listen to and talk with (rather than just to) Black voters. A recent advertisement, “Mayors,” features the voices of Black women and highlights the ways in which they have formed the backbone of the Democratic Party and are driving efforts to turn out the vote in Black communities for the Biden-Harris ticket.

Like those of Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush before him, the Trump campaign has once again foregrounded the issue of “law and order.” The advertisement “Abolished” puts forth false information about the Black Lives Matter movement and misconstrues the debate around defunding the police and criminal justice reform to stoke fear and backlash politics among white voters.

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