On TV, Political Ads Are Regulated – But Online, Anything Goes

Yves here. This is a useful primer on the restrictions on TV advertising in the US. Of course, Americans being Americans, there’s no mention of how other countries regulate political advertisements and in particular, what if anything they are doing about Internet ads. For instance, I recall in Australia that any politician (I believe if running for national office) whose party hit a threshold level was entitled to a certain amount of free TV ads. I am not clear on how particular ad slots were assigned. In Australia, all mailboxes were also required to allow for hand delivery (as in the local union could slip in a one-pager promoting a candidate or issue, and similarly, the local Thai restaurant could drop off their take away menu). This meant you didn’t need costly mailers to reach voters either in targeted or larger areas; all you needed was a copier and foot soldiers.

It would be very informative for readers who know political advertising rules and practices in other countries to pipe up.

By Ari Lightman, Professor of Digital Media and Marketing, Carnegie Mellon University. Originally published at The Conversation

With the 2020 election just a year away, Facebook is under firefrom presidential candidates, lawmakers, civil rights groups and even its own employees to provide more transparency on political ads and potentially stop running them altogether.

Meanwhile, Twitter has announced that it will not allow any political ads on its platform.

Modern-day online ads use sophisticated tools to promote political agendas with a high degree of specificity.

I have closely studied how information propagates through social channels and its impact on political messaging and advertising.

Looking back at the history of mass media and political ads in the national narrative, I think it’s important to focus on how TV advertising, which is monitored by the FCC, differs fundamentally with the world of social media.

The Birth of Political Ads

Eisenhower was one of the first politicians to use TV as a medium to spread his message to the American public.

In 1952, Eisenhower met with Rosser Reeves, an American ad executive, to discuss how to use this relatively new medium. They created 20- to 30-second slots to run during prime-time, called “Eisenhower Answers America.”

These ads helped usher in how political campaigns would use new broadcast media to campaign.

An ‘Eisenhower Answers America’ ad.

TV ads were also used in the campaigns of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon in the 1960s to shock viewers into going to the polls by catering to their fears of a world that might exist should their opponent win.

Over time, TV ads became more negative and critical of opponents’ ideology and positions. For example, in the late 1980s, George H.W. Bush attacked Michael Dukakis on his prison furlough program giving weekend passes to convicted criminals. They used convicted felon Willie Horton to provide added emphasis and provoke fear-mongering.

The Willie Horton ad.

From TV to Twitter

To understand how effective their ads have been, TV advertisersuse measures of reach and frequency of views. These measures are based on a general understanding of the type of viewers that might be watching a given channel, show and time slot.

However, it’s hard to understand a given ad’s effectiveness in driving voters, especially as modern TV audiences migrate to video on demand and other streaming platforms.

In other words, TV political advertising today might provide highly skewed results based on demographics. That’s because the people who still watch live broadcast TV tend to be older than the average American.

With the advent of the web, political messaging went online. First, there were websites focusing on the campaign; then, videos on platforms like YouTube to show support for candidates; and now, political ads use social networks to campaign, create community and raise money.

Unlike TV, social networks offer the ability to hyper-target individuals by characteristics like geography, age and interests. They provide real-time measurable outcomes while rapidly disseminating political messages.

There is also the issue of cost. For example, a 30-second advertisement during the popular TV show “This is Us” cost about US$434,000 last year. Facebook political ads can run for a fraction of that cost and be much more effective at reaching specific audiences, due to targeting.

With a plethora of data on what drives people to click, share or pledge money, modern-day political strategists can now understand what messages help reinforce their base and slowly percolate them into the consciousness of those who might be swayed.

Hyper-targeting and tailoring messaging for individual users can reinforce a person’s deeply held beliefs. It also contributes to the spread of disinformation. This is a more fundamental issue than simply focusing on whether an ad is truthful or not.

The Regulation Gap

One of the other big differences between social network political ads and TV ads is the impact of regulation.

TV is regulated by the FCC, while social networks are self-regulated.

The FCC was established by Franklin Roosevelt with the assumption that the airwaves belonged to the people. With the growing popularity of TV in the 1950s, the FCC regulatedobscene and indecent material. It also set out to ensure there would be balance and truth associated with political messaging.

FCC regulations stipulate that broadcasters must allow any qualified candidates for political office the opportunity to purchase an equal amount of advertising time at the lowest unit charge.

In addition, regulations required transparency from political groups running the ads, which includes mentioning in the ad the name of the group purchasing the commercial time, and whether the advertisement is part of the candidate’s campaign efforts, or if another political action group paid for the spot.

In contrast, without regulation, political ads on social networks can hide behind a cloak of secrecy. The Federal Elections Commission does provide guidance on advertising and disclaimers on any public communication made by a political committee – requiring, for example, statements such as “My name is [Candidate Name]. I am running for [office sought], and I approved this message.”

However, Katherine Haenschen, an assistant professor of communication at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, found that Google and Facebook often requested and received exemptionsfrom requiring advertisers to include standard disclaimers.

Facebook recently decided on its own to require disclosures from advertisers when they purchased political ads, including the organization’s government-issued identification number.

However, social networks like Facebook will have a difficult time providing complete transparency on why members might be seeing a particular political ad. Financially, it is not in their best interest to do so. This is reflected in the company’s recent stancetoward several petitions against posting false political ads on the network.

What the Future Holds

I think the future of political ads on social networks involves greater levels of checks and balances.

In my view, the networks’ efforts on self-regulation and transparency are steps in the right direction.

Senators Amy Klobuchar, Lindsey Graham and Mark Warner have proposed the Honest Ads Act, which would force online political advertising to adhere to the same stipulations as political ads on TV.

Independent media outlets, like ProPublica, are also taking steps to inform the public about the power of targeted political messaging.

However, the size and scope of the problem of political disinformation and hyper-targeting in social networks still needs to be addressed. This is simply too powerful for political campaigns and political operatives not to exploit. I fear that it will invariably lead to greater manipulation of public opinion in the runup to the 2020 campaign.

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  1. vlade

    IIRC, the free-time is common in a lot of Europe, where for elections, the parties get certain free time at public TV/radio stations (not sure how it works with private ones). The time is often allocated IIRC by casting lots, so it’s fair to everyone. What it less fair is if there are any extra TV etc. discussions, which usually only “important” pols get, and it’s often curious to see how the media define “important”.

    For example, you’re almost certainly important if you’re at some threshold (in PR, usually around the threshold of being eligible for MPs). But you can be below that threshold if you’re a “personality” (which may mean “my dad was an important person once upon a time”). So it often ends up in front of a court..

  2. Jim A.

    Print advertisements are also almost completely unregulated. Publishers can be as partisan as they choose, their freedom of speech is almost unlimited. The reason that we regulate the speech of broadcasters is the fundamental limits of spectrum. You can’t have two different people sending two different signals over the same frequency at the same time. To prevent total chaos, frequencies are assigned by the government. Broadcasters (contrasted with cellphone companies) DO NOT PAY to use the airwaves. Instead their licenses are contingent upon them fulfilling their promise to operate “in the public interest.” In print, in person and online, you can say almost anything. (but not “I will pay $100 to the person who kills John Smith) But over the airwaves, broadcasters are at least theoretically limited by their promise to further the “public interest.”

    1. Carolinian

      Those licenses are like taxi medallions. In theory they are created and issued by the government in exchange for adherence to certain regulations. In reality they become a kind of capital good that can be bought and sold. The broadcasters would probably just as soon get rid of over the air television but maintaining a transmitter is the ticket to their privileged position. And it is very privileged indeed as they make a mint off of political campaigns while the public gets the shaft as politics becomes all about money–much of it to pay for TV advertising along with the consultants who get a cut. Perhaps we should think of the broadcasting industry as Democracy Incorporated, at least every two years.

  3. lyman alpha blob

    Unlike TV, social networks offer the ability to hyper-target individuals by characteristics like geography, age and interests. They provide real-time measurable outcomes while rapidly disseminating political messages.

    I say prove it.

    Google’s own research says over 50% of internet ads are never even seen by humans. Has this changed somehow since this article in 2014? Is there any way whatsoever besides these companies say-so to tell that certain ads are reaching a certain demographic and that results in better sales than blanket TV ads? I’ve never seen any independent verification and considering how these companies lie about everything else, I see no reason to assume they’re telling the truth here.

  4. Science Officer Smirnoff

    (two from my extensive notes. Placing in context is beyond my time limits but are instructive as stands)

    Former ad regime in Israel was mostly topsy-turvy of American regime
    The Israeli design acknowledged that all exposure has effect and attempts to level all, if only for the three week political campaign season. During the period news and news interviews of candidates are proscribed with sole access to television by paid advertising. In 1992 it was the most watched programming in its brief existence.

    Vietnam war & Political advertising vs. Fairness Doctrine & Judiciary
    The D. C. Circuit Court decided in FCC v. Green (1971) that government military recruitment ads did not trigger the Fairness Doctrine so the station could refuse to air counter speech. The Court affirmed these claims. First, the citizen group that wished to place counter ads was really making an anti-Vietnam war statement. Second, the station in question had presented a balanced treatment of Vietnam war opinion, and, therefore, the Fairness Doctrine was not at issue.

    The temptation for government to assert that a press organ has already given expression to anti-war, anti-government, or anti-majority sentiments must always be extraordinary. If speech is dangerous, government must argue for suppression on serious threat to the public interest or on claims of a competing right. Instead government simply affirmed the fairness and balance of a guardian’s editing which then meant spot access could not be justified even momentarily to breach the closing of ranks that typifies flag issues. Like a shell game the public trustee-government partnership allows manipulation that is unavailable if government directly silences. Indeed, it may be thought that government did not subvert speech by supporting the trustee’s residual speech right (when it suits government’s end). But how much conviction is there in independent political speech if the trustee and government partnership so trivially snuff out protest?

  5. Joe Well

    >>This meant you didn’t need costly mailers to reach voters either in targeted or larger areas; all you needed was a copier and foot soldiers.

    I have volunteered for lots of campaigns where we put the literature under doors, or on door knobs with special door hanger format leaflets. The issue is that you usually can’t do that for apartment buildings, just like you can’t canvass door to door. It is a really profound way of limiting democratic participation based on where someone lives, especially since single family homes tilt higher income, older, etc.

    Also, political consultants I talked with thought mailers are a waste of money because they can’t stand out during campaign season. Better to combine canvassing with leaving behind literature.

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