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Why politicians have to say in their ads: “I agree with this message”

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As the election season worsens, voters will see a lot of campaign ads on television. Without exception, these advertisements conclude with a disclaimer that the supported politician has sanctioned the spot. Usually the person will say or be quoted as saying, “I approve this message.” It’s clearly a requirement, but why? And how did it start?

The practice is relatively new. In 2002, the bipartisan campaign reform law was passed along with the provision “Stand By Your Ad”. The law, which was endorsed by then Senators John McCain and Russell D. Feingold, was intended to further legitimize campaign contributions by banning large corporate donations. Stand By Your Ad stipulates that anyone who applies for the federal official stamp “I approve this message” as part of their campaign advertising. The aim was to curb the muckraking in which the candidates incessantly threw insults and accusations at each other. With Stand By Your Ad, lawmakers hoped political candidates would think twice before embarking on dirty tactics and then trying to deny involvement. Call it a self-imposed campaign shame.

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is very specific about what this disclaimer should look like. According to the FEC, the written statement must be at the end of the advertisement, appear for at least four seconds, be legible against a contrasting background and occupy at least 4 percent of the vertical image height. The candidate will usually identify themselves and say the message out loud.

If the message is not approved by a candidate, the spot usually names the person responsible – a political committee, group, or individual. There’s also usually talk of who funded the commercial.

So does this “play nice” edict actually work? According to a study by the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, published in the Journal of Marketing Research in 2018, the answer is, not really.

In 2000, negative campaign advertising made up 29 percent of commercials, compared to 64 percent in 2012. In the week leading up to the 2016 presidential election, 92 percent of the ads were rated negative.

One possible reason: putting a negative “I agree” message on candidates might actually be perceived as more credible by voters, as they show that they are willing to stand behind what viewers claim to be truthful. In a study of 2,000 people using both real and fictional advertising, the researchers found that “I agree with this message” did not change their perception of positive or personal attack ads, but it did increase their confidence in politicians using policy-based attack ads use.

The emergence of state regulation, even in the absence of actual government approval for a statement, seems to give the news credibility. As long as a candidate “confirms” a positive or negative message, voters can perceive their subjective statements as the truth.

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