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Political Campaign Advertising: Navigating Election Messaging

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Published: Nov 7, 2023

Imagine a world where a single sentence has the power to determine the outcome of an election.

That’s political campaign advertising.

Political campaign advertising is where politicians and strategists craft their narratives, hoping to etch their message into the hearts and minds of the electorate, making it a crucial aspect of political advertising.

Every word and image can sway the course of history, and the battleground extends far beyond the podium and the debate stage. It unfolds in the political ads on our screens and the billboards that loom large on our streets. 

However, in the age of information and digital media, campaign advertising isn’t just about TV commercials and billboards. 

It’s about text messages, social media, and targeted online political ads as well, showcasing how political advertising has evolved in the digital era. 

The rules for political campaign advertising are constantly evolving, and understanding them is crucial to shaping a campaign’s success. 

We’ll discuss the intricacies of political advertising – from defining its scope to navigating the regulations.

Political campaign advertising: Definition

Political campaign advertising refers to a comprehensive range of strategies and tactics employed by politicians and their campaign teams to convey their message and engage with the electorate during election campaigns. It encompasses any form of public communication designed to either promote or oppose a candidate running for elected office, illustrating the diverse methods used in political advertising.

This definition highlights the diverse methods used in political advertising, which can include

  • Television and radio commercials, 
  • Print materials like brochures and flyers, 
  • Digital content on social media platforms, 
  • Outdoor billboards and posters, and 
  • Direct marketing through phone calls and personalized audio messages. 

The primary aim of political campaign advertising is to influence public opinion, sway voters, and ultimately secure electoral victory for the candidate or political party it represents.

political-campaign-advertising-evolution

Evolution of political campaign advertising

What does political advertising not include?

Political advertising, as defined by the Public Disclosure Commission, does not include the following:

  1. Communication in the form of letters submitted to a newspaper’s editorial section for publication. These letters express personal opinions and viewpoints and are typically printed without payment.
  2. Articles written by journalists for news or feature sections of newspapers, periodicals, or other media outlets. These articles provide objective coverage of events and issues.
  3. Statements or opinions expressed by editorial writers or editorial boards in newspapers, magazines, or other media. Editorials represent the stance of the publication, and they are generally unpaid expressions of the publication’s views.
  4. Responses or rebuttals to editorials published in newspapers or media outlets, provided that they are submitted without payment and in direct response to the original editorial content.

Political campaign advertising rules and regulations

Political campaign advertising is subject to specific rules and regulations, particularly concerning the identification of the sponsor. 

These regulations vary depending on the entity responsible for the advertisement.

Identifying the sponsor (Disclaimer)

Different entities must adhere to specific rules regarding how they identify themselves in their advertisements. 

Let’s take a closer look at these requirements:

Information required for identificationPreferred format for identifying the sponsor
Individual running for office or their campaign committeeThe candidate’s name or the committee name and the office they are seeking.Paid for by [Candidate’s name or committee name] for [Office sought]
Individual, entity, company, or political party committeeThe name of the individual, organization, business, or political party committee responsible for the advertisement.Paid for by [Entity name]
Political committee that is not an official party(If meets the criteria for An independent expenditure,Electioneering communication, or backing or opposing a ballot measure, andThe ad’s cost exceeds $2,000)The committee’s name and its top five contributors.Paid for by [Committee name]. Top 5 contributors: [List of top 5 contributors]
Political committee that is not an official party (If among the top five contributors, there are any political committees)The committee’s name and names of the top three contributors to the sponsoring political committee.Paid for by [Committee name]. Top 3 Contributors: [List of top 3 contributors]
Committees set up or directed by another individual or entityThe name of the individual or entity establishing, maintaining, or controlling the committee.Paid for by [Establishing entity]

Sponsor identification placement and size

The placement and size of sponsor identification vary depending on the medium used for advertising, such as print ads, websites, billboards, and more. Adherence to these regulations ensures transparency in political communication, especially in the case of political advertising.

Printed advertisements and website content

  • Separate the sponsor ID and any party preference from the ad text.
  • Place sponsor ID and party preference on the initial page for multi-page ads.
  • Use a minimum 10-point font size, using a color that provides sufficient contrast with the background.
  • Avoid using screened or half-toned text.

Billboards and posters

  • Use a font size that is at least 10% of the largest type size used in the ad.
  • Use a color that stands out. 
  • If the disclosure spans multiple lines, each line’s text should be 5% or more of the sign’s height.

Television, video, and digital audio advertisements

  • State the sponsor’s name and any party preference.
  • The disclosure should stay for a minimum of 4 seconds and employ a legible font that stands out against the background. 
  • The font should have a height of at least 4% of the video’s height.

Additional guidelines for videos and television ads about ballot measures:

  • The disclosure is a requisite at the beginning or end of the advertisement.
  • The required top 5 (and top 3 if relevant) contributor information can be displayed on-screen for at least 4 seconds. In the event that the broadcast is shorter than four seconds, the disclosure must remain visible for the duration of the broadcast.
  • Use a font size greater than 4% of the screen height.
  • Present this information on a solid black background, covering the entire bottom one-third of the screen (or one-fourth if the top five contributors aren’t required).
  • Ensure sufficient color contrast with the background.
  • Abbreviations are permissible when listing the top 5 contributors, provided their full names have been clearly spoken in the ad.
  • Spoken disclosure is mandatory if the written disclosure appears for less than five seconds in advertisements lasting 30 seconds or less or for less than 10 seconds in advertisements longer than 30 seconds.

Small online advertisements

  • Present sponsor ID via an automatic display like a mouse tip/rollover or non-blocking pop-up, visible for at least 4 seconds.
  • Alternatively, include sponsor ID on a linked webpage that can be accessed with a single mouse click.

When is sponsor identification not required?

Certain situations exempt political advertisers from including sponsor identification in their content. 

  • When an individual contributes cash, goods, or services to assist in funding an ad. In such cases, the candidate or the candidate’s committee may be presented as the sponsor, provided that proper contribution reporting is done.
  • If campaign paraphernalia, including novelty or miscellaneous items meant for individual distribution and use, have a printing surface area smaller than 4″ x 15″ (for example, pens, bumper stickers, campaign pins, campaign buttons). The exemption also applies when adding readable text is impractical (for example, wearing apparel or water towers), as is the case with expandable items like balloons when fully inflated.
  • If the printing surface area on a T-shirt is less than 4″ x 15″.
  • For newspaper ads of one column inch or less, excluding online ads.
  • Reader boards, where messages are displayed using movable letters and skywriting.
  • State or local voter’s pamphlets published in compliance with legal requirements.
  • Yard signs measuring 4′ x 8′ or smaller.
  • Items of minimal value that lack a political message and are used solely for administrative purposes, such as checks and receipts.
  • Invitations or tickets for political fundraising events or events aimed at garnering support for a candidate or officeholder.
  • Envelopes used to transmit political advertising, provided the disclosure statement is included within the envelope.
  • Circulars or fliers with a total publication and distribution cost of less than $500.
  • Posts or re-posts on a website
    • Given that the individual posting or re-posting is neither an officeholder, candidate, nor political committee, and their expenditure for political advertising during a reporting period does not exceed $100 beyond the basic costs of hardware, messaging software, and bandwidth.
    • If they include a link to a publicly viewable webpage that contains the disclosure statement or links to a social media profile webpage of a candidate or officeholder displaying the full name of the candidate or officeholder.
  • Social media profile webpages of candidates or officeholders displaying their full names clearly and conspicuously.

Note: Most of the information in this section was borrowed from the Public Disclosure Commission.

Now, let’s look into the regulations specific to each advertising medium.

Political campaign advertising rules for TV and radio

TV and radio political campaign advertising cover issues of content, airtime, and equal opportunities for candidates.

Equal-time rule

The “Equal Time Rule” is a fundamental principle in broadcasting. It stipulates that if a television or radio station provides airtime to one legally qualified candidate for a particular office, they must offer an equivalent opportunity to all other qualified candidates of that same office. 

Reasonable access

This obliges broadcasters to provide federal candidates with reasonable access to advertising time on their stations. Federal candidates include those running for President, Vice President, US Senate, and US House of Representatives. 

Public file requirements

Broadcasters are required to maintain a public file that contains information about political advertising. This includes data on the purchase of airtime by political candidates, rates charged, and details about the content of the advertisements. 

Special regulations regarding television and radio advertisements: The “stand by your ad” provision

  1. Authorized by the candidate’s committee:

In this case, additional language requirements apply. The candidate must personally deliver an audio statement identifying themselves and confirming their approval of the communication. 

For instance, they might say, “I am [candidate’s name], a candidate for [federal office sought], and I endorse this advertisement.”

In a television ad, the disclaimer must be presented in one of two ways:

  • A full-screen view of the candidate making the statement.
  • A voiceover by the candidate with an image of the candidate covering no less than 80 percent of the vertical screen height.

Here’s an example:

  1. Not authorized by the candidate’s committee:

Here, an audio statement from a representative of the political committee, corporation, labor organization, individual, or group responsible for the communication is required. This statement should declare which entity funded the communication. 

This requirement complements the statements identifying the communication’s sponsor and clarifying that it is not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.

Here’s an example:

Political campaign advertising rules for social media ads or other internet public communications

As online platforms become increasingly important in political campaigns, regulations have been established to govern advertising on social media and other internet platforms, including online political advertising.

Data privacy and ad targeting

Online advertising allows for precise ad targeting based on user data. However, campaigns must adhere to data privacy laws and regulations when collecting and using personal information for ad targeting. 

Google and Facebook have different approaches to microtargeting. Google restricts political ads to broad demographic categories and context-based targeting, aligning with established media practices. In contrast, Facebook has adopted a more permissive stance, allowing campaigns to microtarget without clear limits. 

Spreading misinformation

Facebook has outlined measures to combat misinformation, including flagging content from state-sponsored media and labeling disputed news stories as “false information.” 

In contrast, Google treats political ads like any other product, applying the same policies to all advertisers. It does not make carve-outs for politicians and aims to remove ads with clear and objectively false statements of fact about candidates. 

Bots and automated accounts

Many platforms have rules against deceptive or automated activity. Using such tactics may result in penalties or restrictions on the campaign’s online presence.

Special rules for Internet public communications

Unlike radio and TV ads, internet disclaimer provisions do not require the “stand-by-your-ad” provisions.

Internet public communications with text or graphics:

A written disclaimer is mandatory and must be easily viewable without user interaction. The disclaimer text should be large enough to be read comfortably, at least as large as most other text in the communication. 

Additionally, there should be sufficient color contrast between the background and the disclaimer text, achieved either by 

  • Using black text on a white background or 
  • Ensuring color contrast is at least as strong as the largest text in the communication.

Internet public communications with only audio or video:

  • In cases of audio content (no video, graphics, or text), the disclaimer must be included within the audio so that recipients can access it without additional actions beyond listening.
  • For video, the disclaimer must be visible for a minimum of four seconds, and viewers should be able to access it without any interaction. 

Adapted disclaimer option for Internet public communications:

In situations where space constraints prevent the use of a full disclaimer, an adapted disclaimer can be used. 

An adapted disclaimer includes:

  1. Identification of the sponsor: A clear statement indicating that the Internet public communication is paid for, along with the full name of the payor or a commonly understood abbreviation or acronym for the payor.
  2. Indicator and mechanism: An indicator is a visible or audible element associated with online communication, designed to inform viewers that they can access the disclaimer through a mechanism. The mechanism uses technology to enable users to access the disclaimer with a single action, such as hover-over text, pop-up screens, scrolling text, rotating panels, or hyperlinks to a landing page.

Here’s an example:

political-campaign-advertising-adapted-disclaimer-option-internet-public-communications-example

Source: FEC

Political campaign advertising rules for printed political literature

Printed materials, such as brochures and pamphlets, are also integral to political campaigns. 

Respect for private property

Political signs must not be installed or positioned on any property belonging to someone else, such as a highway right-of-way or utility poles, without obtaining consent from the property owner. After obtaining consent, campaign signs, including yard signs, are expected to be taken down within a week after the campaign concludes.

Placing political signs with the property owner’s authorization may also be subject to local zoning regulations. Signs that are unlawfully positioned may be removed, and the expenses for removal could be billed to the candidate or campaign responsible. 

Special rules for printed political literature

These rules primarily revolve around the inclusion and presentation of disclaimers in campaign materials.

  1. When multiple political communications are bundled together, each one that would individually require a disclaimer must still have a separate disclaimer. For instance, if a campaign poster is sent along with a solicitation for contributions, both the solicitation and the poster should have their respective disclaimers.
  2. For printed materials that exceed the standard poster size, compliance with font size and color-contrast requirements will be determined on a case-by-case basis, depending on the specific design and layout.
  3. A fixed font size of 12 points is deemed sufficient for disclaimer text on certain printed materials, such as newspapers, magazines, flyers, signs, and others, as long as these materials do not exceed the common poster size of 24 inches by 36 inches. 

Here’s an example:

political-campaign-advertising-special-rules-printed-political-literature-example

Source: FEC

Political campaign advertising rules for texts

Here’s what you need to know about the regulations governing political texting.

Opt-in requirements

Political campaigns must ensure that recipients have opted in to receive text messages, a crucial aspect of political advertising regulation. Unsolicited political text messages violate privacy regulations and lead to complaints.

Unsubscribe option

Each political campaign text message must include an option for recipients to unsubscribe from future messages easily. This complies with anti-spam regulations.

Frequency and timing

Campaigns should be mindful of the frequency and timing of text messages. Excessive messages or messages sent before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m. result in violation of the regulations.

How much do political campaigns spend on advertising?

The financial aspect of political campaign advertising is significant. Political campaigns allocate substantial budgets to reach their target audience through various channels, including political ads. 

political-campaign-advertising-spend

Source: Statista

In the United States, during the 2022 midterm elections and the presidential election, broadcast TV received the highest share of spending on political ads, with an estimated allocation of around $5 billion for financial or other support. However, digital video and connected TV (CTV) saw a decrease in spending, both totaling approximately $1.4 billion. 

All in all, in the world of politics, effective communication is the key to success, especially in the realm of online advertising. Political campaign advertising, with its rules and regulations, plays a pivotal role in conveying a candidate’s message to the masses through political ads and securing the financial or other support needed for a campaign. 

Featured image: Photo by Mikhail Nilov

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