The digital age has made it difficult to define what a political ad is
Political advertising has become a focal point in the run-up to the 2020 elections, in part because new technology makes it nearly impossible to define it broadly across all advertising channels.
Why it matters: Without a generally accepted definition of what a political display is, efforts to regulate it have been challenging. Experts fear that without intelligent regulation of political advertising, freedom of speech – a principle of democracy – can be played.
What is a political ad? The most common definition of a political ad is content that promotes a cause or calls a candidate for an election. To be considered an advertisement, it must be distributed or promoted in exchange for payment.
Yes but: The interpretation of what counts as a political display can be different.
- Profit-oriented: Some experts argue that a company committed to a cause doesn’t necessarily have to be political, but rather is part of its own corporate mission. An example of this would be Patagonia, which is running an ad arguing that it is important for the country to take care of its national parks.
- Business-to-business negotiations: Corporations sometimes lead their struggles through paid advertising to consumers – what some corporations see as political, others as entrepreneurial. For example, a television station may place an ad asking consumers to call their cable provider and tell them not to drop a television station they are negotiating prices with.
- Promoted material from news companies: News publishers promoting articles on politics or political topics through paid marketing are usually exempt from political advertising guidelines. It gets more complicated, however, when publishers with a political orientation use paid ads to promote articles that appear one-sided.
- Facebook suffered a setback when she initially put news companies in her political advertising archive for this reason, but has since changed her policy.
- Politicians in a commercial context: Most publishers ban ads that contain references to politicians promoting commercial goods. But if a former politician, not running for elected office, would buy ads promoting a commercial product like a book, advertising that product to market is usually not considered political, even if the book discusses politics or politics.
Where enforcement becomes difficult: Enforcing advertising policies becomes more difficult when ads take provocative positions.
- There has been controversy over whether a political ad should be fact tested or even run when it denies a common understanding or makes misleading claims.
- In 2015, for example, a Turkey-backed group published an ad in the Wall Street Journal denying the existence of the Armenian genocide. Many publishers, such as The Washington Post, chose not to run the ad, while The Journal backed its decision after backlash.
- Any type of artwork created or edited to create an opinion message is usually considered political in nature. For example, if an ad includes an image of a very big nose (a symbol of lies) over a candidate, it could be considered political.
According to the numbers: More pressure on people and businesses to take a public stand on politics and issues means that more political ads are bought today than ever before.
- In total, around $ 10 billion will be spent on all political and publicity ads in the 2020 campaign cycle, according to CMAG, the political research arm of advertising research firm Kantar.
Be Smart: Political advertising has become a hot topic as most campaigns buy lots of ads online instead of on TV and radio. But campaign funding laws have not been modernized to clarify how political advertising should be regulated online.
- In the 1970s, the Federal Electoral Commission drew up guidelines for political advertisements that were easy to comply with in print, radio and broadcasting. But these rules have not been updated by the Commission to suit the digital age.
- Some states have their own campaign finance laws that make a clearer distinction. In Washington state, for example, Facebook and Google are struggling to enforce political advertising bans, which they put in place in response to tough campaign funding laws.
The bottom line: Without a regulator to enforce political advertising rules, private corporations must set their own political advertising rules. But even if it does, there are so many ways to define a political display that these rules are difficult to enforce without human oversight and judgment.