Stoking xenophobia to win the hearts and minds of Ohioans

Curator's Note

In the Senate race between Lee Fisher (D) and Rob Portman (R) Ohio’s job loss has been a major focus of attention. One of the Fisher campaign’s earliest ads, “Economic Plan”, makes a xenophobic appeal to Ohioans who continue to struggle with unemployment in the post-manufacturing era. The ad associates Rob Portman (R) with George W. Bush, but also with China and Chinese workers. The association with an unpopular former president is common in negative ads, but the association with China is unusual.

Chinese workers function as a sort of “third persona” in the ad.  The third persona is a theoretical concept developed by Philip Wander which builds off of Edwin Black’s “second persona.” In explaining the second persona Black argues that rhetoric constructs ideologically ideal listeners—the language used may give the critic clues to who the message is for beyond the actual audience of listeners or viewers. The third persona mirrors the second persona in that “[w]hat is negated through the Second Persona forms the silhouette of a Third Persona– the ‘it’ that is not present, that is objectified in a way that ‘you’ and ‘I’ are not” (p. 209).

The ad opens with the line “Congressman Rob Portman knows how to grow the economy… in China,” as a “red” China appears and then fades into a grainy image of assembly line workers who are presumably Chinese. These are the people perceived as benefitting from Ohioans’ losses. The images of a red China draw on old Cold War fears of a “red menace” as well as contemporary fears of socialism and communism vehemently voiced by some in the Tea Party. China is in the ad, but not fully present as a complex entity, and Chinese workers are to be understood primarily as a communist threat to Ohio workers.

The producers of the ad seem to have some awareness of the ad’s xenophobic appeal, thus the final image of a smiling Fisher shaking hands with a smiling young girl of color who is beside another smiling woman of color. The image works hard to portray a friendly and inclusive Fisher. The overall xenophobic appeal, however, is hardly undone by the ad’s final image. Further, the ad suggests an ideological link with the contemporary far right, something a Democratic candidate might want to reconsider.


Thanks for this excellent post.  We are going to feature a couple of posts in IMR this week about the recent Stewart/Colbert Rally to Restore Reason and/or Fear, but your post, Sheryl, does something quite important.  It makes the case that fear is not exclusively a tool of the Right.

To what extent do these types of ads speak to a particular demographic of voters?  Much fuss was made over the ad that purportedly told Hispanic voters not to vote, but it seems your use of the third persona identifies how this ad makes a similar claim in a more subtle fashion.  

How effective are ads that incite fear through the figure of the Other?  To what extent do most political ads, from the Left and the Right, attempt to divide citizens from each other?  How do we better hold our candidates accountable for the fear tactics embedded within their efforts?  


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