Did John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign darken Barack Obama’s skin in advertisements to capitalize on negative racial stereotypes?
It appears so, concludes a new study published in the research journal Public Opinion Quarterly.
Playing off past studies showing that darker skin and “Afrocentric” facial features trigger “the part of the brain associated with fear” in whites and “activate” stereotypes about minorities being “dirty, lazy, uneducated,” researchers were curious to see how campaign ads during 2008 may have fit into this pattern.
“Subtle darkness manipulation is sufficient to activate the most negative stereotypes about blacks – even when the candidate is as famous and counter-stereotypes as Barack Obama,” the researchers write, adding that because “stereotypes have played a part in past political campaign narratives,” they were curious to see how stereotypes played out in “the first general election campaign involving a black candidate.”
And sure enough, they found “that darker images were more frequent in negative ads – especially those linking Obama to crime – which aired more frequently as Election Day approached.”
The researchers are clear to point out that it’s possible the darkening was unintentional, but they do say “many images from the 2008 presidential campaign appear to have been manipulated and/or selected in a way that produces a darker complexion for Obama.”
The study included 534 still images (259 of Obama and 275 of McCain) from 126 English-language ads that aired between July 1 and November 2, 2008, to examine “how skin complexion varies with content.”
What they discovered was that “as the election approached, attack ads featured images with darker depictions of Obama,” and “the McCain campaign’s own images of McCain grew on average lighter over time.”
The changes were “systematic, suggesting that the presence of darker images in certain advertisements is not likely to be due to chance [or be] a byproduct of how the opposing campaign uploaded images and video to the web.”
To study how skin tone variation affected peoples’ perception of racial stereotypes, researchers used a common word-based test that asked people to fill in the blanks.
They used 11 fragments, each of which “has as one possible solution a stereotype-related completion.”
For example: LA _ _ could be any number of things – lady, lamp, land – but could also be “LAZY,” which is a common stereotype about minorities.
The ten other examples were: CR _ _ _ (CRIME)
_ _ OR (POOR)
R _ _ (RAP)
WEL _ _ _ _ (WELFARE)
_ _ CE (RACE)
D _ _ _ Y (DIRTY)
BR _ _ _ _ _ (BROTHER)
_ _ ACK (BLACK)
MI _ _ _ _ _ _ (MINORITY)
DR _ _ (DRUG)
So what was found? Well, even though Obama is a quintessential “counter-stereotypical” minority, darker images of him did influence how people responded to the quiz.
When shown a darkened photograph of Obama, 45 percent of people responded with the common stereotype answer, while 33 percent responded that way when shown a lightened image.
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McCain did not immediately respond to New Times’ request for comment, which means we can’t know definitively whether the manipulation or selection of photographs was intentional, but, as the authors of the study point out, the big takeaway from the research is “that presenting an image of a black candidate with a darker complexion can shape how individuals respond to political advertisements and think about politics.”
Watch an example of an exceptionally dark-skinned Obama in this negative campaign ad from McCain:
**Editor's Note: This article has been updated from its original version.