Campaign advertising is an interesting art form. In just 30 to 60 seconds an advertisement wants to use images, sound, and a small amount of text to strike a chord in potential voters. Positive ads aim to provide images and words that will make viewers identify with a candidate, often by appeals to values (family, patriotism, smaller government, environmental protection, education, and so on). Negative ads aim to conjure adverse reactions to one's opposition with unpleasant images and phrases (like "higher taxes" or "soft on crime" or "liar").
Over the last week or so, I've found McCain's ad campaign curious and confusing. Never before have I seen the ads of one candidate (the ads actually "approved by" the candidate) feature positive and attractive images of his opponent so prominently, for such a large percentage of the ad time. Yet that is exactly what the McCain ads do. Yes, the big evil word "TAXES" is display prominently next to Obama's picture in one part of the ad, but for the most part the images of Obama are attractive, show him smiling, show people smiling at him. This is unprecedented in national campaign advertising, especially negative advertising where the few pictures of the candidate being slammed are generally chosen to be unflattering and appear only briefly. Which left me puzzled -- why would McCain promote these positive images of Obama?
This afternoon, while watching the Olympics my husband and I were talking about how Americans view athletes who immigrate from other countries to the U.S. and compete on our teams. My husband, a serious competitive runner, who spends a lot of time on-line on running discussion boards and blogs, has told me that many of the people on the boards have expressed negative feelings about Bernard Legat and Lopez Lomong, as "foreigners" who should have stayed where they belonged. We were watching women's gymnastics at the time, and the performance of Nastia Liukin a member of the U.S. women's team. Liukin is the daughter of a former USSR Olympic medalist in men's gymnastics; in other words she is an immigrant like Legat and Lomong. We were speculating whether attitudes about immigrants similar to those expressed in the running world were expressed in gymnastic circles about Liukin. We wondered if age made a difference. Then we wondered if race and ethnicity made a difference; do you get a pass if you are blonde and blue-eyed?
Suddenly I had a flash of an idea. What if the unspoken subliminal message of the McCain ads is "Look at this extraordinarily popular BLACK man -- he just might get to be president! Be afraid, be very afraid." What if, the McCain ads are aimed at the unspoken reservoir of racism that they know runs deeply under the surface of American life? What if the ads are just simply to visually underline the one thing that they are not allowed to actually say -- "oh, my God, this is a BLACK man."
I'd like to think it isn't true, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder. Let me be clear, I am most definitely not saying that McCain is a racist. Nor am I saying that the individuals who plan and produce McCain's ads are racists (I don't know who those people are and would not presume to attach that label to someone I didn't know well). What I am suggesting is that the people responsible for the content of the ads may be hoping to strike a chord with the racist values of some Americans, values that they know exist out there in America, and that if they can mobilize some voters around that particular value, McCain is likely to benefit. What do other people think?