Attack ad's darkened images prompt questions

9:59 AM, Oct 30, 2008   |    comments
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A Republican attack ad invites viewers to "meet the real Ashwin Madia," but the still photos featured in the spot present a noticeably darker version of the 3rd District DFL congressional candidate. "At least three of the photos of Madia were obviously darkened, using one method or another," public affairs and media consultant Dean Alger told KARE 11. He said the viewing public has grown accustomed to hearing distorted claims, or statements and votes used out of context. However, Alger asserts the altered images of Madia, the son of Indian immigrants, crosses a line. "There is an attack ad tactic that goes beyond distortion, and frankly, is a betrayal of what Minnesota politics is all about." The commercial, produced by the National Republican Congressional Committee, borrows footage from Madia's own ad which features him running in his Marines sweat shirt. In the NRCC ad, entitled "Running to Raise Taxes," the word on his shirt is obscured in darkness in some angles and cut off by graphics in others. Three still pictures of Madia, borrowed from his campaign website's photo gallery, are added to a visual montage supporting the ad's claims that he'll bring higher taxes. Subconscious level
Clay Steinman of Macalester College, who writes and teaches about advertising and consumer response to mass media messaging, told KARE it appeared at least two of the images were darkened for the ad. "There's a lot of scientific data that shows that even if we think that we're not racist," Steinman said, "People of all races, when confronted with images that are darker and different, have a kind of visceral, negative response." As he put it, "It can contribute to people's fears; it can make people feel like this person is not like me." Alger, who systematically analyzed hundreds of campaign ads for a major election study he co-directed at Harvard, said, "Put starkly, it's essentially an appeal to racism." Steinman said all three still images in the ad appeared to be de-saturated, a digital photo editing tool that drains color from an image and has the affect of a "colder" image. It's a visual trick used often in negative advertising, designed to influence voters on a subconscious level. But Steinman argues that altering an image takes on new meaning in the context of this candidate's ethnicity. "I'm not saying that I know the people who made the ads knew this would happen," he said, "But I think they knew that darkening him and de-saturating the color, making him look a lot less lively, would have negative connotations." And, while most pundits concern themselves with the claims in attack ads, Steinman argues that the visual imagery of all advertising goes to a deeper level of the human psyche. "Images reach that visceral level," he remarked, "So even if the sound is off, even if you're fast-forwarding through an ad, the image gets through, and that's especially the case when you have still pictures." Response and Reaction
Reached by phone in Washington Wednesday, NRCC spokesman Ken Spain replayed the ad on YouTube and told KARE, "We stand by the ad." Spain said he's with the messaging side of the NRCC, as opposed to the Independent Expenditures side NRCC which produces the ads placed in local races such as Minnesota's 3rd District. Because of that separation, Spain noted, he wouldn't be in a position to know what editing techniques were used in the production of any of those television spots. Ashwin Madia's campaign manager, Stu Rosenberg, was already unhappy with the ad's claims, which he considers distortions of the candidate's stand on taxes. But when asked about the darkened image, Rosenberg expressed outrage. "It's just deplorable that the national Republicans have chosen to sink to this level," Rosenberg said, "I've seen negative campaigns but nothing as deplorable as, or disgusting as this advertisement." The NRCC by law must operate independently of the candidate's campaigns, so Madia's Republican rival, State Representative Eric Paulsen had nothing to do with the creation of the ad in question. All the same, Madia's campaign is calling on Paulsen to publicly denounce the ad and formally request that the NRCC take it off the air.

By John Croman, KARE 11 News

(Copyright 2008 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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