All Is Not Fair: The Rules of Political Advertising

All Is Not Fair: The Rules of Political Advertising

Political advertising capabilities in recent years have far outpaced regulation. Once exclusively a matter of broadcast and print spots, digital spending on political campaigns in the U.S. boomed from $22.5 million in 2008 to $1.4 billion in 2016. The lack of regulation on digital ads combined with the ability to micro-target online communities with thousands of creative iterations made digital political advertising a powerful and destabilizing force; one capable of turning the tide in elections and political votes around the world.

Beyond election results, the consequences have been quite severe: charges of election meddling, violations of data privacy and the rise of extremist communities have sent legislators into a panic to introduce new regulations for online political ads.

This isn’t to suggest that your advertising strategy should shy away from digital; you just need to play by the rules—and that means getting to know them.

What’s the Legal Situation?

In a nutshell, political ads must adhere to regulations at three levels: federal, state and channel/platform terms of use.

Traditional Advertising: The Federal Election Commission (FEC) outlines your legal requirements nationwide. Essentially, all your mass media political ads and fundraising requests need to include disclaimers that clearly state who paid for them, and if a candidate has officially authorized them. This goes for broadcast, print, outdoor, mass email and phone ads.

Online Advertising: Online communications are a little different. Ads on political committee websites need the same disclaimers, as do paid ads on third-party websites. The FEC currently makes one exception to this: web-based text ads that you place on an outside website don’t need a disclaimer so long as they’re placed by an automatic ad program and link to a landing page with said disclaimer.

Social Media Advertising: While the FEC is pushing for all online political ads to disclose who paid for them, online platforms are stepping up with their own requirements. Twitter released a stringent certification process for accounts intended for political advertising and campaigning, while Facebook has proposed a stricter verification process for those wishing to run ads related to elections and big political issues. This means advertisers must prove they’re based in the U.S. and consent to the source of funding appearing in a “paid for by” disclaimer.

Interestingly, FEC laws don’t currently obligate issue-based ads (e.g. gun control, healthcare) to feature these disclaimers, so you’ll need to look into the individual requirements of each platform should you choose to run them.

Numerous states have gone ahead and announced their own legislation in response to harmful political ads. Maryland, for instance, requires online platforms to collect and report information on organizations that are placing ads, and puts reporting responsibility on the party requesting the ad if the online platform fails to collect their information. Meanwhile, California’s Consumer Privacy Act, a GDPR-like set of limitations on how companies can collect and use data, is set to pass in 2020. With so many new laws cropping up, it’s on you to find out the individual requirements of each state while you devise your political advertising strategy.

2020 and Beyond

Once you’re up to speed on the latest regulations, it’s time to dive into your ad strategy. New legislation may seem constricting on the surface of things, but there’s still plenty of room to experiment within established frameworks:

  • Unconventional Ad Placement: Fox News is probably the last place you’d expect to see a Democratic candidate, but here’s Julián Castro, delivering a blistering message to President Trump after the El Paso shootings. A bold yet relatively inexpensive move, Castro took a stand before an unlikely audience and received a great deal of media attention for free.
  • People Power: Each one of the tens of thousands of selfies that Elizabeth Warren has taken with voters on the campaign trail has created a positive shared moment with each person, boosted Warren’s public image and generated tons of free social media exposure. How can you get on the ground and directly connect with people?
  • Policies First: Issue-based ads aren’t subject to the same regulations as other political ads—not to mention that dedicating ad spend to your ideas can make people think twice and convince them of your vision more effectively than personality politics.
  • Data-Driven TV: TV is still the medium that receives the most political ad spending, and it’s getting more sophisticated by the day. Advertisers are increasingly able to segment viewers beyond the traditional age demographics, so buy with purpose. Who are you trying to win over—and where?
  • Test, Test, Test: Social media ads are relatively inexpensive compared to TV spots, and you can analyze the performance of targeted ads on platforms like Facebook and retool as needed. Which part of your manifesto is going to resonate best across different communities?

The Takeaway

Regulation of digital political ads is still a work in progress, so keep yourself up to date on advertising in each state, on each platform. There’s no reason that a compliant strategy can’t produce compelling ads, and playing by the rules just proves your integrity to the public. After all, who would vote for someone they can’t trust?

Looking for another way to communicate your campaign message? Learn more about how .SUCKS fits into politics, and then find a domain that’s right for you.

Photo Credits: Shutterstock / PixieMe