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October 27, 2006

Playing With The Code



I was taking a closer look at the RNC’s racist anti-Harold Ford commercial.

Because the ad is so blatant — associating Ford with ugly stereotypes regarding the black man’s sexual appetite and hankering for white women — one tends to overlook the more subtle touches.  Those spatial, tonal or environmental elements, however, are what reinforce the coding at a more subconscious level.

For example, notice how the dress and the sighting of the two couples is so similar.

In each case, one person is wearing blue (true blue; blue collar; democratic blue; neutral blue; blue jean demin) while the other is (severe; extreme; racially suggestive) black-and-white.  As well, the vista of the sidewalk (which I sliced for emphasis) emphasizes the difference.


And then, doesn’t the hunter look a little paramilitary, or survivalist?  And if that’s not a little curious, how many people hunt in black face?


As for the main attraction, the implication is that the girl is naked, no?

I also like Josh Marshall’s structural breakdown.  His point is that, because the segment with the party girl is inconsistent with the rest of the scenes — those, done like “man-on-the-street” interviews — Miss Infidelity “wins” as much by contrast as titillation.

View ad here (via YouTube).


Update Oct. 28. 9:07 am GMT:  Thanks to the readership for drawing out the sexism, especially in the two shots leading this post.

In the scenes with the couples, the women are the silent ones, either looking on adoringly or staring goofily off into space. So there’s another underlying misogynistic message here. In the presence of men, women should be seen and not heard. And women who support Ford are either stupid and misguided (the lone black woman and the liberal-style woman) and/or sluts.

(video frames: Republican National Committee via

  • Keir

    The punchline of the anti-Ford ad is “He’s not right.”
    Which is wrong. He is Right. So Right, in fact, that when I saw his tv-ad (having never heard of him before) I could easily have mistook him for a white, christian fundamentalist right-winger. In his ad he touts his right-wing (not to say proto-fascist) voting record.
    The BAG’s commentary on the anti-Ford ad isn’t wrong, but I don’t see the points won for progressive values by examining this particular Senate race.

  • marysz

    The ad opens with an African-American woman saying “Harold Ford looks nice. Isn’t that enough?” So the ad starts with the premise that black voters aren’t discerning (and not very bright) and goes on from there. Then we get the liberal-schoolteacher-do-gooder type who says “terrorists need their privacy.” The fake on-the-street voters reinforce the idea that Ford isn’t “one of us.” The only woman who speaks up with the sarcastic “truth” (about the marriage tax) is shown without her husband–the ad goes a little off-message here. In the scenes with the couples, the women are the silent ones, either looking on adoringly or staring goofily off into space. So there’s another underlying misogynistic message here. In the presence of men, women should be seen and not heard. And women who support Ford are either stupid and misguided (the lone black woman and the liberal-style woman) and/or sluts.

  • Mad_nVT

    Kier: it isn’t necessary that this site promote progressive values, but it is important that we discuss the visual aspects of what is going on in our media. And the issues raised in this ad are very, very important.
    Regarding “blackface”: that is a funny term for Bagman to be using in this discussion. But it is what it is. And turkey hunters and some other hunters do commonly smudge up their face.
    Being on dial-up, we can’t see this video, but the photo of the slut is stunning.

  • E Wesp

    In case anyone is looking for further mulling over of this ad, I’ve written it up over at our site: printculture. I definitely agree that it’s a look at the details that’s needed to get a sense of how the ad works.

  • Nezua-Limón Xolografik-Jonez

    There are some good ideas in the comment thread from this post, too, where we talked about this same ad a day or two ago. I agree on many points here at the BAG. The blackface insinuation, the nakedlusty white woman. as far as whether or not some hunters actually use dark paint, yes they do. (I don’t know how many actually walk down suburban streets in that makeup, though….) I will also tell you that I sat in class after class at film school where we studied images and media and how to work over the viewer and prepare for the ad world and the movie world and the music video world. For years. I would bet anything that hunter’s mask was meant to conjure up the blackface icon! Just as the other anti-Ford ad using jungle drums under Ford’s name was meant to conjure up the big, bad, black man of African jungles. After all. It’s Tennessee. And this is Harold Ford. He’s just not White!
    marysz: a commentor in the thread I linked above mentioned that an implication of the first woman’s “He looks nice isnt that enough” phrase is also that PoC will vote for PoC, no matter what. And I think you forgot in addition to “stupid, misguided, and sluts” to add “unkempt.” I mean, dig that first woman’s hairdo! It’s that damn nappy hair, I guess. Sigh.
    With all the racist and sexist implications that lace this whole dealio together, we clearly see who the GOP thinks their base is and isn’t. They are probably dead on.

  • mugatea

    In the second photo of the simpletons, in the sidewalk vista there’s the pedestrian sign/symbol.
    The first definition (per MW) of pedestrian is ‘commonplace, unimaginative.’
    It supports your blue colar average folk observation. A good one.

  • Rafael

    This is the 21st version of:
    “The Birth of a Nation”

  • readytoblowagasket

    I find it nearly impossible to evaluate this ad because the characters are so visually repellent to me that I can hardly watch them (and they’re on for mere SECONDS apiece). Then, right in the middle of feeling queasy, I get to hear the Playboy Bunny girl’s *voice* — louder than the others and so obnoxiously affected and harsh — and I think, TURN IT OFF! If I were a voter in Tennessee, I would vote against whichever party subjected me to this unbearable ad. But that’s just me. While Tennesseans might not react to it as I would, I do think there’s something visceral about the ad. But how the Republicans think that’s going to work *for* them rather than *against* them is beyond me. Racism aside, it’s SO SLEAZY! And the party that runs the sleazy ad IS the sleazy candidate. (This comment is not presuming there are very many campaign ads that *aren’t* sleazy, just that some are so much sleazier than others.)
    Thanks, Nezua-Limón Xolografik-Jonez, for the obvious leap: “Harold Ford. He’s just not White.” That’s pure Karl Rove.
    And thanks to E Wesp for providing a workable link to the video via printculture. TPM didn’t work on my computer, and I couldn’t find it on YouTube because I didn’t know what it was called.

  • rchsod

    everyday middle americans just walking down the street offering opinions on harold ford,yup an average day in america…how sweet.
    the girl? couldn`t they find a hotter girl than that? i mean she looks like a “dancer” in sleazy club just off the interstate. i guess they could not find any girl that actually looked like a playboy model…or maybe they just got this girl cheaper.

  • jt from BC

    E Wesp’s printculture link to his article is detailed and incisive in examining this subject. I noted particularily ” The blond woman has (in the fiction) *actually met* Ford, so she is not just a symbol, but also a potential object of his secret sexuality, in much closer connection than any of the other”
    Now I don’t know how many bunnies or officials attended the Super Bowl Party, did Ford “press the flesh” in a chorus line, single her out for a smile, request her vote, get a phone # or what, so my question is, what does *actually met* mean ?.
    I would like to know this, as I look at “Playing With The Code” in The Print Media of my country
    Izzie Asper’s Press & TV Empire, Can West News Service presents three characters in reporting this controversial ad, The Hunter, The Bunny & The Foreign Affairs Expert, identifying only one stereotype.
    Izzy’s Boys Worship the USA and Love Harper, this little story is really intended for domestic consumption and chirping about (pretend) wounded pride.
    “..does a drive-by smear on Canada, suggesting America’s northern neighbour is a do-nothing country on world affairs. (“Let Canada take care of North Korea. They’re not busy,”)
    “..the ad fosters stereotypes about Canada’s..that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has tried hard to dispel”
    “..I met Harold at the Playboy party, a reference to the Democrat’s attendance at a Super Bowl party hosted by Playboy magazine. “Harold, call me,” she whispers into the camera.”
    We are not informed of Harold’s Afro American Heritage(usually standard fare) or last name (sloppy reporting)
    Who then in Canada would imagine the controversy was about racial stereotypes.
    Fellow WASP’s really scrutinize B & W couples in particular, face smudged hunters in Canada are stereotyped as wannabe soldiers or Paint Ball players
    I assume then this advertisement was pulled when Americans learned that Canadian soldiers were really busy, “ Afghanistan where they are still nearly six times more likely to die in hostilities than a U.S. soldier serving in Iraq”.

  • readytoblowagasket

    I agree with jt: I have a hard time seeing this ad as unequivocally racist. In order for the ad to *be* racist, the audience needs to *know* that Ford is African American. But if you don’t know his race in advance (and you can’t know it just by looking at Harold Ford), the subliminal black man/white woman stereotype, the blackface reference, and the rest of the coding analyses are no longer valid as far as a white audience is concerned. And a white audience who doesn’t know Ford (if that’s possible) is going to automatically assume that a candidate, any candidate, is white (rendering the racist coding ineffective, because no one is going to think, “Oh my god, we can’t elect that scary black man”).
    I think the naked Playboy Bunny and the closing reference to the porn industry are about *promiscuity,* and promiscuity is a triggering reference to Bill Clinton. (Don’t forget that native son Al Gore LOST Tennessee in 2000, a referendum in that state on the morality of Clinton presidency.) With this read, the ad’s message is: Attention Voter! BE WARNED, do not bring humiliation upon the Great State of Tennessee by electing a Democrat (= PlayBOY = Certain Sex Scandal). Do not vote in anger against the Republicans. If you waste your vote in anger, a whole bunch of dire shit (sex scandals, taxes, nuclear war, proliferating terrorism, emasculation of the right to bear arms) is going to happen.
    No mention of Iraq in this ad, of course. These other things are meant to rapid-fire distract white voters from the very issue that is motivating them to go to the polls: Iraq.
    Since Republicans MUST hold on to the Senate, this is a crucial seat race and voters must be distracted from the anger vote.
    I find the characterization of the black woman and the ad’s final words — ”He’s just not right” — to be the racist parts of the ad. Those are the two things that are *off* because they are subtle. Everything else in the ad is heavy-handed irony or pure alarmism. The Bunny falls under “alarmism.”
    Not that I mind the furor over this ad. I just don’t see it. But then, I’m a Yankee, so I don’t know how this ad plays to Southern whites. But I can guess how it plays to blacks in Tennessee, who do know who Ford is. I expect we’ll see a heavy black turnout.

  • Lightkeeper

    Wow I just can’t stop laughing.
    Only in America people. Only in America would this happen. Sometimes – when I see stuff like this – I have almost no hope for the American people.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Lightkeeper, if you’re going to insult Americans you should at least be specific. Otherwise your point is vague and therefore wasted. Don’t be shy: Step up to the plate.

  • jt from BC

    rtbag, I rarely have the desire to answer a query directed to another but yours to Lightkeeper broke me up, if Lighkeeper is a Canadian she/he probably sees Rick Mercier a great NFLD comedian doing one of his “Talking to Americans” on site USA straight faced interviews. This ad bears some resemblance, thus for us its a hoot. Check out wiki and you’ll see why.
    I’m still laughting, jt

  • readytoblowagasket

    Yes, Rick Mercer is funny. Some American comedians, including David Letterman and Jay Leno, do the same schtick — man-on-the-street interviews with Americans — only they do it about *American* history, news, politics, geography, pop culture, with the exact same results. Americans don’t know the answers to the questions about their own country. Which is funny at first, and then it’s not funny, don’t you think? Unless meanness and stupidity are your cup of tea.
    Since this is an ad and these are actors following a script, the connection is a stretch. But I’m sure I don’t know enough Rick Mercer to make the connection.

  • readytoblowagasket

    Since my last comment, I have been trying to think of humor that *isn’t* mean to *someone* and I can’t, especially contemporary humor. So I guess meanness and stupidity are everyone’s cup of tea, including mine.
    As Gilda Radner used to say: “Never mind.”

  • Randolph

    Until someone from Tennessee comments here, I’ll fill in: I can almost guarantee that every voter in TN knows that Ford is black. He’s been on their TVs. Every bigot has already spread some nastiness about him to all who will hear. And then there’s this:

  • Samantha

    Well, I saw something interesting in that commercial, but I had to watch it a few times to notice. But more on that later.
    In regards to the top two photos and the vista and clothing choices, I don’t know if much can be read into that. Yes, I agree the one black/white outfit is an underlying message for black and white. But what does blue mean? Or Brown? Or Pink? Or Green? These were ALL the colors of the commercial. They were all very different people. (As diversified as Tennessee is, anyway). One black woman, perhaps umarried. One white career woman. Two married couples. One hunter. One LA type guy. Some had southern accents, some didn’t at all. Some looked like they came off a tractor and some looked like they’re walking out of wall street.
    The ad is supposed to put words into their mouths that don’t fit, or seem ridiculous. The ideas are as different as the people themselves.
    It has a quirky feel. The actors expressions are often exaggerated and comical. The music is comical.
    I disagree that the bunny girl is not man-on-the-street with the others. She is. But she stands out, doesn’t she? Another thing I noticed is that this takes place after a rainstorm. The streets are wet and you can hear the splash of water as the cars go by. Why not wait until a nice day to shoot this? Maybe because it lends a spontaneous feel, a realism. The implication here is that the wet streets PROVE it all takes place in a very short time span, in the same afternoon, where one can easily pan the camera and put a microphone up to 6 or 7 people and get these quick responses.
    Now back to what I noticed.
    There was another stand-out person to me besides the girl, which was the LA type guy with the shades. He seemed especially sleezy. His shot is against a dirty brick wall, instead of an open street like the others. And he seems especially supportive. Although all the characters have words expressing understanding or support of Ford’s notions, only the girl and guy express support of Ford’s CHARACTER, or lack thereof. That is pretty slick.
    The definite feeling you get is that the sleezy bunny girl and the sleezy LA guy talking about porn are much more aligned with Ford. The others not only have less significant lines but they just seem to be robotically reciting them. In contrast, the girl and guy in question are animated, move their bodies around more, and are more memorable. So the message of sex and sleeze is paramount here in this ad. To underline that, the girl appears yet again at the end.
    It’s about sex and sleeze, with racial undertones. The last line is powerful: He’s not right. Meaning, he’s not just a nut as the ad on the surface implies, but he is not LIKE us as the underlying sleeziness of the ad implies.

  • Rafael

    Well, the Hollywood guy seems like he is going to offer the viewer something that “just fell from the back of a truck”. He is someone who is clearly “not from around here.”

  • Samantha

    One of the posts on here included a link to PRINTCULTURE, which I didn’t click on until today.
    At Printculture they ALSO identify the 2 characters (male bimbo and sleezy porn guy) as a pair. It is not just about the female character, it is about both, because they provide entirely different messages than the group. As Printculture pointed out, they are exaggerations, not satiric as the others are.
    Also, there is a post over there (I didn’t post because you have to register), which excellently expresses the racial tone of the words, not just images of the piece, explained below:
    “He’s just not right” also reproduces one of the classic “I’m-not-a-racist-but” maneuvers. “We interviewed him for the company and despite his perfect SATs and flawless grammar, he just wasn’t right for us.”
    Those words “right for us,” was what I was thinking yesterday but couldn’t think of the words. Thanks to that poster who did.

  • Lightkeeper

    rtbag: Stuff like “terrorists need their privacy” and “Canada can take care of North Korea” being presented as though this is what any “progressive” really believes! Don’t you find that funny?
    Thanks jt. I’ve seen those interviews from a variety of sources and yet they retain their astounding ability to shock and awe anyone who is unfamiliar with America’s complacent majorities. We all know that they are selectively chosen but just the fact that people can be so out of touch with reality and yet so sure in the superiority of their knowledge & judgement – and so astutely assured in their belief that they have the moral high ground – and all this usually just because they are American!!!…It just boggles the mind.

  • David

    Excellent post. The BAG picked up on this before CNN did.

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