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Racist Harold Ford Ad

A recent ad features a sexually suggestive white woman telling viewers she met Ford at a Playboy party. After several mock interviews satirizing Ford's positions, the woman returns to end the ad with a wink, asking "Harold" to call her. It's been criticized as racist and received enough attention to make the front page of the New York Times. Twice.

I submit that it's the Ds, not the Rs, that played the race card.

First, it's perfectly legitimate to criticize Ford's attendance at a Playboy party, for reasons that appeal to both liberals and conservatives. Many people believe that pornography is immoral for its dehumanizing objectification of women, and how that depiction translates into higher rape incidence and laxer sentences for violence against women. Christians believe that pornography is sinful for its sexual excess. The latter criticism is especially relevant since Ford has painted himself as a Christian moralist, announcing his candidacy in a church, and running ads like this one, shot in a church, where Ford explains "this is where I learned the difference between right and wrong." When recent books have argued that the higher ranks of the GOP privately condescend to the evangelical base and ally themselves purely for votes, and when the New York Times runs stories that make it obvious gay marriage is merely an election ploy ("GOP Moves Fat to Reignite Issue of Gay Marriage" 10/27/2006), testing the ideological sincerity of candidates is surely fair game.

Second, given that Ford's attendance is relevant information to voters, it seems perfectly fair to make an ad about it. It also seems perfectly fair (but also probably over the top) to feature an ad that satirizes Ford's supporters. With the majority of Playboy's models being white, it makes sense to use a white woman for the Playboy archetype. Had the woman been black, the ad could even be seen as more racist. She was hyperbolically salacious and ditzy. Making her black would have been sure to offend.

Third, to the extent that people with antimiscegenational feelings would respond negatively to Ford after seeing the ad, this could hardly be blamed on the producers and does not necessarily make the ad immoral. Consider: if a white politician was involved in a corruption scandal with a group of black businessmen, one could expect to see TV-spot with scary music and a photo of said white politician with his black collaborators. If anyone watching the ad was sufficiently racist, the ad would play on those sensibilities. But at the same time, it would convey valuable information to the electorate, and should be aired. Having it the other way logically requires anything questionable that happens between white people and black people is immune from criticism. This is an absurd and undesirable result.

I want Ford to win this race, but I have to call bullshit on the response to this ad.

The problem is not that the ad incites racist emotions, but in the medium of television itself. We respond to images passively and emotionally. We respond to the printed word more critically and logically. Because of this, television will always have some benefits and shortcomings. The best example of both was the Michael J. Fox stem cell ad. Proponents of the ad argued that while the ad played on people's emotions, it did so fairly: the symptoms Fox was displaying are the consequence of a disease that could be eliminated with stem cell research. The TV-spot accomplished something printed word could not. Opponents argued that the ad forced people to view the issue emotionally rather than critically, and this was wrong by itself.

People often criticize political ads for tugging at our emotions - but what TV political ad doesn't? The music, colors, and voice of the speaker in every ad are all carefully calibrated to get you to respond emotionally. And any issue, event, or whatever, that crosses racial lines is vulnerable to inciting racist sensibilities. That should not be reason to exclude valuable information from the public discourse.