The midterm elections are almost here and the ever exciting campaign ad season has officially begun with professional advertisers looking to target certain groups and demographics. One attempt at appealing to women has already created headlines by comparing President Obama to an abusive boyfriend, at least according to the GOP. The ad which is running online at Politico and in a few states features a woman talking about her boyfriend in terms that many people have recognized as language common to battered women. Phrases like “he promised he’d be better” have brought criticism from some in the media. In light of the spotlight on domestic violence caused by the situation in the NFL, this ill-timed commercial release has reinforced the gap between women and the Republican party rather than bridging it as was its intent.
The ad starts out with a woman, possibly of Latino origin, talking about her boyfriend who she met online. His appearance online made him seem like a really good guy, but after a while the truth came out. In 2012, the as yet unnamed boyfriend promised to be better and the woman believed him because “he’s great at promises.” Nevertheless, those promises were all broken and soon he was spying on her, monitoring phone calls and emails, while ignoring real threats. The ad closes with a picture of Obama on the computer screen and the woman saying that while she may be “stuck” with him for another two years, she does not have to deal with his friends. Thus, the overall message in the ad is that Obama is bad and by extension his “friends,” other democrats, are bad, too, so voters should not re-elect them.
Campaign ads are meant to do two things. Either they are supposed to make a certain politician look good or an opponent look bad. This ad is designed to make Obama and all democrats look so bad that no one would consider voting for them. The reasoning behind its creation may have gone something like this: no woman wants to keep a bad boyfriend, so if Obama is a bad boyfriend then the women voters will “dump” him and vote for Republicans, who will be “good boyfriends.” This adheres to the strategy that campaign ads are supposed to follow. But the problem is that the issue is bigger than just a rocky relationship or a political point.
Domestic violence in America is a huge issue and one that affects many people. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 20 percent of all violence in the United States between 2003 and 2012 was some form of domestic violence. Intimate partners were the perpetrators of domestic abuse most often and women were overwhelmingly the victims in these cases, owning 76 percent of all recorded victims. To put this in perspective, one in four women are victims of domestic violence during their lives, meaning that almost no one is immune from its effects.
The GOP ad may not have directly referred to Obama as an abusive boyfriend, but according to its description of him, he obviously qualifies. The spying and suspicion about private conversations is often a sign of an abusive relationship, as is the continually broken promises about being “better.” Those who have experienced abuse will often recount the many times their abuser promised not to harm them again and the subsequent lapses into violence. The line delivered by the actress in the ad stating, “But I stuck with him” because of his promises is a classic indication of an abusive relationship with a partner. After looking closely at the phrasing of the ad, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the boyfriend in question is an abusive one.
Many news outlets have noted that the ad attempts to characterize the president as a “bad boyfriend.” TIME ran a headline that used the phrase “bad online date” to explain the ads point. Such casual phrasing does not convey the seriousness of the issues in question. By maintaining that Obama is only a “bad” boyfriend according to the ad, it disrespects the countless women who have experienced abuse at the hand of a partner. It trivializes the abuse they suffered and makes it nothing more than a political punchline.
The ad was launched by Americans for Shared Prosperity, a conservative group headed by multimillionaire John Jordan. When the ad was launched online, Jordan was interviewed by Politico and he explained the motivation behind the ad. “The purpose of this is to treat women voters more like adults than either the Democrats or Republicans have,” he said. The ad was specifically targeted at women who, Jordan feels, have been ignored by Republicans because of a “one-size-fits-all” approach to advertising. This explains why the ad features an issue that women can supposedly relate to, but the question is, has the ad hit its mark?
The answer must be unequivocally no. Instead, it treats a serious women’s issue like an opportunity to score a political point. Based on this ad, it looks more and more like Republicans do not care about the issues women face because they have not accorded one of the most harmful, prevalent and serious issues the respect and consideration it deserves. This is especially obvious in contrast to the issue of domestic violence in the NFL, which spawned a massive series of tweets by domestic abuse survivors under the hashtags #whyIstayed and #whyIleft. More than one tweet was eerily reminiscent of the ad’s phrasing, including one that read, “Because I believed him when he said it was the last time.”
The Republicans who okay-ed the ad and those who created it seem to be at fault for its terrible handling of domestic violence issues, but they are not the only ones at fault for perpetrating the idea that this is all okay. The media’s representations of the story, especially with soft headlines like that from TIME, have not called out the tones of abuse in the ad strongly enough. Few websites have been definite in calling the ad one that paints an abusive relationship. Instead, many have called it “weird” or “bizarre.” This does not acknowledge the fact that so many women experience this kind of abuse on a daily basis, so much so that it is not a bizarre aberration, but is a part of their daily routine.
In order to combat domestic violence, there must be a clear idea of what constitutes it. It is not only physical violence, but emotional and verbal abuse that crushes the spirit of a human being and diminishes their ability to live freely. Ads like this from the GOP and media coverage that does not call out the mistake make it seem okay to joke about the issue or to use it in a casual manner inconsistent with its seriousness. It is not okay to use domestic violence as a punchline and the GOP ad painting Obama as an abusive boyfriend crosses that line.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury