Black People and Political Ads

Black People and Political Ads


A disproportionate and overrepresented number of African Americans could have a major impact on the 2012 elections.


Between Twitter’s announcement that it will start accepting political advertisements this week and the expected increase in television ads, Black people will have a prominent voice.  Both mediums are excessively utilized by people of color.  Observers are curious to see how much political ads will influence their political action and voting decisions.

But, with a bad economy, rage at a Black president, and much needed Black support eroding, how will African Americans factor into political advertisement spending?  Expected to peak over 3 billion dollars next year, will campaigns take the time to tailor messaging for the Black community? Or can we expect a plethora of Willie Horton-like ads?

“I think in 2012 you will see a mix of advertisements that will be colored by race,” notes New York University Professor Charlton McIllwain, author of Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns in an interview with

“Some, by Tea-Party-styled interest groups, will be a little more explicit in targeting Obama’s otherness in ways that some did in 2008. They will find new ways to claim that he is “not one of us,” added McIllwain.   McIllwain contends however that things are still different than in the time of Horton, with news media and the public more likely to bring attention to racist advertising. “Citizens are more adept at decoding subtle racial messages than they were twenty years ago, and, largely because of the internet, they have an influential voice in calling attention to race-laced advertisements that they see as out of bounds,” he said, pointing out the “Call Me” commercial used against Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. (D-TN) in his unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate.

Campaign Media Analysis Group President Ken Goldstein told the Los Angeles Times that television advertising spending could reach almost 3.2 billion this year, despite the growing popularity of internet advertising, saying “… it’s still the only way to reach passive voters.”

According to Nielsen statistics this summer, African Americans watched 213 hours of television a month, compared with about 156 hours for Whites.

Though Herman Cain’s candidacy may complicate the race issue, it seems race will still be a factor as Republicans try to woo democrats and Republicans alike that are angry at Obama.

McIllwain said that while Horton style ads may not be in the future, messages targeted at either group may be still be coming to a television near you, noting that in 2008, Senator John McCain deflected comments about racists ads, calling out Obama for bringing up the race issue.

“Ad producers simply have to increasingly either become more sophisticated in the language and imagery they use to convey racist messages in political ads, and/or be able to marshal plausible responses to potential criticism.”

Still, the Internet, and particularly Twitter, may prove another important method of communication to reach African Americans who are dealing with redistricting, high unemployment numbers and wavering in their support of the president. African Americans account for 25 percent of users on Twitter, compared to just 9 percent of whites.

“I do think there is significant potential there. The overabundance of African Americans on Twitter means that it can be tapped as a significant resource to deliver political messages. What’s more about Twitter is its easy circulation. With tweets, retweets, direct messages, responses and the like, the potential audience circulation can reach exponential proportions,” noted McIllwain.

However, he cautions that Twitter does not come without risk. “If voters do not like something they see or hear, they may retweet and forward a campaign message, but do so with their own accompanying criticism. Once the political campaign delivers its message, the user then takes control over it.”