MassForward’s “Mother’s Ad” Disappears and Social Science Suggests Why: Race

All the talk this week in the Massachusetts Governor’s race is on the ad Martha Coakley is running that paints her as a political outsider who has never been embraced by the old boy’s club. She’s right …and I’ll get to that in a forthcoming post. But the ad story going under the radar is the one we’re no longer seeing: The Mother’s Ad.

As you’ll recall, the ad was paid for by the Super PAC Mass Forward and featured African-American mothers who lost their sons to gun violence (it is no longer available on youtube or in the link provided by MassForward in their July 28 press release). Mass Forward supports Steve Grossman and attacked Martha Coakley’s perceived weakness on a policy that would limit Bay Staters to purchasing one gun a month. CommonWealth magazine reports that the Super PAC has abruptly dropped the ad from rotation – despite the fact ad buy data shows that it was scheduled to run much longer. They indicate the reason likely has to do with not having the money on hand to support the full ad buy.

Let me hypothesize another reason: the ad undermined white support for legislation that curtails gun violence in urban, majority-minority communities. And it therefore did not drive Grossman’s numbers up or Coakley’s down.

As I posted last week, the ad relies on confidence in voters that violence in African-American communities, especially towards African-American men, is a policy issue they care about, prioritize, and find motivating in selecting a candidate for Governor. Sadly, I indicated, for many whites this is simply not the case. I received pushback from some on the post (which is good – the whole point here is spirited, informed discussion) who did not believe the ad would be read negatively or that it would cue symbolic racism for substantial numbers of white voters in the Commonwealth. New research by Stanford University researchers, however, indicates otherwise.

In two experiments, social scientists Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt altered either the visual or textual depictions of the percentage of African-Americans in prison and then asked respondents about their support for punitive criminal justice policies. The upshot was clear: when whites were presented with images indicating more African-Americans are imprisoned, they were less likely to support policies that eased existing criminal justice statues. And this was not one of those “white coat” artificial studies were external validity is in question. As the Stanford News describes it:

Their first experiment unfolded at a train station near San Francisco. A white female    researcher asked 62 white voters to watch video containing mug shots of male inmates. Some of the participants saw a video in which 25 percent of the mug shots were of black men, while others saw a video in which the percentage of black men among the mug shots rose to 45 percent.

The participants then had an opportunity to sign a real petition aimed at easing the severity of California’s three-strikes law. “It seemed like a great opportunity – a real-life political issue – to test this question of whether blacker prison populations lead people to accept these more punitive policies,” Eberhardt said.

The results were clear. Over half of the participants who’d seen the mug shots with fewer black men signed the petition, whereas only 27 percent of people who viewed the mug shots containing a higher percentage of black inmates agreed to sign. This was the case regardless of how harsh participants thought the law was.

This research comes on top of empirical studies that find whites’ support for welfare, the death penalty, and other criminal justice policies is driven to a great degree, though not exclusively, by views on African-Americans. When those views  endorse racist stereotypes, support for social welfare plummets and support for the death penalty and highly punitive social welfare policy increases.

It is in this context that the “Mother’s Ad” is properly placed. Surely, the Super PAC did not aim to stir racist sentiment – they wanted to move Grossman’s numbers up. But we live in a deeply racialized culture where black boys are all too often treated as expendable. Look to Michael Brown and Ferguson, MO for yet another timely example. The fact is, even in liberal Massachusetts, running an ad that featured the epidemic of violence against black boys did not move the needle towards Grossman or undermine support for his chief opponent, Martha Coakley.

Money may be the reason Mass Forward stopped running the ad. But social science indicates the sad reason why it didn’t work.

About Erin O'Brien

Dr. Erin O’Brien is Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science at The University of Massachusetts Boston as well as the co-director of the Scholar Strategy Network, Boston chapter. She is a frequent commentator for NPR and other news outlets on American politics, voter access, inequality, and representation. Dr. O’Brien’s scholarship has been extensively covered by media outlets and organizations including: The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Daily Beast, The Dallas Morning News, Huffington Post, The Houston Chronicle, The London School of Economics, The Miami Times, Melissa Harris Perry Show, the New York Times Editorial Board, Project Vote, Salon, Slate, The Takeaway w/ John Hockenberry, Talking Points Memo, Up with Steve Kornacki, and Washington Post. She has published two books and has articles appearing in journals such as the American Journal of Political Science, Perspectives on Politics, Political Research Quarterly, and Women & Politics. Dr. O’Brien has given keynote lectures and talks for audiences including the League of Women Voters United States, Harvard Ethical Society, the Center of American Political Studies and Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy at Harvard, University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, the National Community Tax Coalition, and to international audiences in Greece, China, and South Korea.
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