Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Did Clinton Darken Obama’s Skin?

Some Obama backers cry "racism." We find the accusation to be unsubstantiated.


Obama supporters on the Internet are agitated over the apparent darkening of Obama’s image in a Clinton attack ad.

Our video team took a look. Our conclusions:

  • The Obama frames from the ad do appear darker than other video of Obama from the same event.
  • However, the YouTube copy of the ad, on which the bloggers base their conclusions, is darker overall than other copies of the ad.  We obtained a digital recording of the ad as it actually appeared on a Texas TV station, and it is lighter.
  • Furthermore, our analysis of the Obama frames, using Photoshop, shows a fairly uniform darkening of the entire image including the backdrop. It is not just Obama’s skin color that’s affected.
  • Also, nearly all the images in the ad are dark, including those of Hillary Clinton. And dark images are a common technique used in attack ads.

Others will speculate about the Clinton campaign’s intentions and motives, as they already have. But without further evidence to the contrary, we see no reason to conclude that this is anything more than a standard attempt to make an attack ad appear sinister, rather than a special effort to exploit racial bias as some Obama supporters are saying.


A March 3 post by an Obama supporter on the liberal blog site Daily Kos framed the question starkly in its headline: "Is the Clinton Campaign Now Engaged in Intentional Race-Baiting?" A March 4 follow-up by another blogger on AMERICAblog.com asked, "Why is Obama’s skin blacker than normal in Hillary’s new attack ad?." The blogger concluded that the image had been intentionally darkened, going on to charge that Clinton is "using racism to win." Both of these posts have attracted hundreds of comments and have been re-posted on other widely-read Web sites.

The ad they refer to is "True," a 30-second spot that the Clinton campaign started running in Texas on March 3. The campaign also posted it on its YouTube site that day. The ad includes a clip of Obama from the Feb. 27 debate in Cleveland. We noticed nothing amiss about this ad when we first saw it, but in light of the widespread accusations from Obama supporters, we’ve taken a closer look.

The first thing to note is that the version of the Clinton ad that appears on YouTube, which prompted comments on the blogs, is darker overall than other copies of the ad that appear elsewhere.

YouTube Version Is Unusually Dark
Here’s one of the frames from the YouTube version:

Here’s nearly the same frame as posted on Clinton’s Web site, which to our eye is noticeably lighter:

And here’s a high-quality version recorded by the Campaign Media Analysis Group, a unit of TNS Media Intelligence, as it appeared at 5:27 p.m. March 3 on station KCEN in Waco, Texas:

The CMAG version is lighter still. We’ve made no color corrections nor otherwise manipulated these images. We simply took freeze frames directly from each video in its original format.

Ad Versus Debate

All of that said, when we compared the video of Obama in the Clinton ad (any of the versions above) with the video of the debate as it appears on YouTube, there are pronounced differences in color.

Here’s the YouTube version of the debate clip:

However, Obama’s skin tone is somewhat darker in MSNBC‘s streaming version of the debate on its Web site:

Our conclusion: Had the bloggers compared the CMAG version of the ad to the MSNBC version of the debate, they would have a far less compelling case for intentional darkening in the Clinton ad. To our eye the Clinton ad has a noticeably less reddish hue, but whether it looks darker or not depends on which version of the ad is being compared to which version of the original debate footage.

Why the Differences?

Without access to the project files of the editor who produced this ad, we can’t measure precisely what color manipulations were performed. However, we can offer some observations based on our own experience, if you’ll bear with a brief interlude of techy nerd-speak.

Some of the differences may be due to video compression required by YouTube, which encodes video to Flash format and re-sizes it, using its own required parameters before posting. The Clinton camp may have had one color scheme in its original video and ended up with a slightly different one after YouTube’s processing.

In our experience posting videos to our Just the Facts feature, conversion to Flash format drives up contrast and reduces the mid-range color values that are frequently found in flesh tones and facial detail. We’ve noticed that Obama, and other candidates, appear drained of a bit of their color in some of our videos after they’ve been processed for posting.

Still, the Clinton ad makers may have darkened the Obama images intentionally, to some degree. When it comes to video editing, the possibilities are overwhelming. But that doesn’t necessarily mean their motives were racist. We note that the entire ad is cast in dark tones and even Hillary Clinton herself appears in shadows, as though she were working late into the night.


A Page from the Attack-Ad Playbook

A standard technique used in attack ads is to portray the opponent in black and white while showing the person being supported in glorious, flattering color. And attack ads often use dark images to convey a sinister tone to the message. As the University of Pennsylvania’s Kathleen Hall Jamieson (who is director of our parent organization) stated in her 1992 book "Dirty Politics":

Dirty Politics (p. 51): Quick cuts, use of black and white, dark colors, shadowed lighting, stark contrasts, videotape, the voice of a seemingly ‘neutral’ announcer, and ominous music are the techniques associated with ‘oppositional’ production spots.

And in fact, when we compared the frames in the ad to frames from the debate video using the "eyedropper" tool in Photoshop image-processing software, we found that the frames in the Clinton ad are uniformly darker. We found no pronounced difference in the degree to which Obama’s skin, as opposed to his tie, his shirt, or the backdrop was darkened.

We’re not mind-readers, so we can’t say whether or not the makers of this ad intended to engage in "race-baiting" or were "using racism to win" as some Obama partisans are claiming. Based on evidence at hand, we find those claims to be unsubstantiated. And the many potential differences between source footage, encoding manipulations, and other variables only make it less likely that any such attempt could be proven.

A final note: The last time we became aware of any clear example of digital manipulation was two years ago, when the Republican National Committee posted a Web image of Howard Dean with a hint of a little Hitler mustache. And charges of foul play were confirmed when the RNC posted a revised version, without the apparent mustache.

-by Emi Kolawole and Justin Bank

Update, March 6: We received several e-mails about our article that attempted to further the discussion. The two Kos bloggers who originally posted the story contacted us separately with thoughtful e-mails arguing generally that the matter deserves serious discussion but not challenging the substance of our article. Both said they found no fault with our conclusions about the charges of racism. Troutnut said he didn’t "contest [our] assertion that the netroots’ accusation of race-baiting is ‘unsubstantiated,’ " and Jeff Cronin admitted the “Race-Baiting” headline on Kos "was phrased in starker terms than I would have liked."

Another blogger who posts under the handle Berni_McCoy on DemocraticUnderground.com falsely accused us of having "POSTED A DOCTORED VIDEO" of Clinton’s ad. Since his mistaken claims are attracting some notice in the blogosphere, we will point out his error here.

He compared the Windows Media video of the ad posted on our site with a QuickTime version of the ad that he obtained from Clinton’s campaign Web site. He then displayed frame shots from these two versions and stated "the difference is clear." He concluded that we are "completely wrong" or "directly falsifying the ‘facts.’ "
McCoy, however, falsely said that our Windows Media video is derived from the Clinton QuickTime version, which it is not. Our video is a copy of the high-quality video recorded by CMAG as it appeared on the air in Texas. So what McCoy imagines is evidence that we "doctored" video obtained from the Clinton Web site is actually evidence that supports what we said in the first place: Versions of the Clinton ad from different sources show different shadings, and the YouTube version on which the "racism" claim rests is the darkest of the lot.