American Political Science Review

Cues that Matter: How Political Ads Prime Racial Attitudes During Campaigns

a1 Assistant Professor of Communication Studies and faculty associate at the Center for Political Studies, University of Michigan. His mailing address is 4244 Center for Political Studies, Institute for Social Research, 426 Thompson Street, P.O. Box 1248, Ann Arbor, MI 48106-1248 (
a2 Assistant Professor of Political Science and faculty associate at the Center for Political Studies, University of Michigan.
a3 graduate student in political science at the University of Michigan.


Recent evidence suggests that elites can capitalize on preexisting linkages between issues and social groups to alter the criteria citizens use to make political decisions. In particular, studies have shown that subtle racial cues in campaign communications may activate racial attitudes, thereby altering the foundations of mass political decision making. However, the precise psychological mechanism by which such attitudes are activated has not been empirically demonstrated, and the range of implicit cues powerful enough to produce this effect is still unknown. In an experiment, we tested whether subtle racial cues embedded in political advertisements prime racial attitudes as predictors of candidate preference by making them more accessible in memory. Results show that a wide range of implicit race cues can prime racial attitudes and that cognitive accessibility mediates the effect. Furthermore, counter-stereotypic cues—especially those implying blacks are deserving of government resources—dampen racial priming, suggesting that the meaning drawn from the visual/narrative pairing in an advertisement, and not simply the presence of black images, triggers the effect.