What do we know about political advertising?

political ads graphic

It can be challenging to distinguish between a paid political ad and one that is not in today’s media environment, especially on social media. News Bureau editor Lois Yoksoulian spoke with advertising professor Michelle Nelson about the topic. New research from Nelson and her colleagues found that most adults—even those who are politically engaged and educated—do not fully understand online targeting, sources and funding for political ads, or the unique regulatory environment for political speech that is different from commercial speech.

Michelle Nelson
Professor Michelle Nelson (Photo by L. Brian Stauffer)

Are political ads regulated, and how do they differ from commercial ads?

Political ads are a form of political speech, which is given more protection than commercial speech under the First Amendment, with the idea that the free flow of political information is essential for the functioning of a democracy. Commercial speech, which includes advertising for products and services, has been defined as speech that merely proposes a commercial transaction.

Only commercial speech is regulated by the Federal Trade Commission, motivated by the governmental interest of providing true and nonmisleading information to consumers. Not all commercial speech is advertising, and not all advertising is commercial speech. An ad for a McDonald’s burger is commercial speech, subject to the FTC rules regarding false and misleading information. An ad for a candidate is political speech, not subject to the FTC rules or any content-based guidelines.

However, the Supreme Court has said that time, place and manner restrictions can apply to political ads. For example, laws that require funding disclosure don’t compromise the content of the speech because they provide citizens with information regarding the message’s source. So, there is some regulation for political ads regarding source disclosure.

Is this level of regulation adequate?

No, especially on social media. For example, the “Stand By Your Ad” provision of the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which requires anyone running for federal office to include the “I approve this message” as part of their ads, only applies to TV and radio, not to social media.

What this means for U.S. voters is that they may not be able to know the true source of the political message. It’s like the Federal Election Commission hasn’t caught up to what’s happening in the media environment. Increasingly, people are getting their political ads and information online. I believe that people have the right to know the source of messages so they can best evaluate the message.

False ads can be challenged through defamation and libel, but those processes take time. The challenge must be filed by the parties who feel wronged, and they probably will not be resolved before that campaign period is long over. So, these measures probably are not strong deterrents.  

Any regulations about the message content may be seen as ”chilling” political speech. I’m not sure we want the government to censor ads’ content.

How can citizens determine who is behind a political ad if it is unclear?

As political speech, political advertising is regulated by the FEC. There are clear rules for source disclaimers such as who paid for it, whether it was endorsed by the candidate—on radio, newspaper, TV, outdoor and “communications placed for a fee on another person’s website”—but none exist for social media.

Ironically, some of the big tech companies are offering transparency. You can find out some information. For example, Meta offers an ad library, so you can see which organizations are spending money on the platform and how many ads were run, etc., and from there, you could click on the organization’s website. Google now has a verification process and offers transparency on who’s running ads online, and the FEC offers information about super PACS. People could visit OpenSecrets.org to find out more information about super PACS, as well.  

However, that’s a lot of work. Most people probably do not have the time for this intensive search. It would be better, in my opinion, if there were clear, consistent and conspicuous guidelines for source disclosure in digital media, where people could see the organization and link to the organization’s website and donors.

What are some of the differences between political ads that we might see on television versus those we might encounter on social media?

First, it’s pretty easy to recognize a TV or radio ad. However, it’s not always so easy in social media. The FTC requires that paid advertisements or influencers include a “clear and conspicuous” disclosure—but not all ads have that disclosure, or it’s not so clear and conspicuous.

Second, you may not encounter political ads on all of your social media. In October 2019, Twitter announced it would stop accepting paid political advertising. This change was a significant move for a technology company whose revenue relied partly on political advertising. The action set off a series of decisions from other social media companies to regulate paid political advertising. While some companies also banned paid political advertising or instilled fact-checking, some platforms remained open for paid political advertising. YouTube announced it would do some limited fact-checking but would not allow microtargeting of ads.

I doubt there will be any governmental restrictions on political advertising on social media, but, interestingly, more than half of American surveyed in a Pew Research Center poll believed that social media shouldn’t allow political ads.

Third, some research suggests that a more diverse set of candidates advertise on Facebook, and the content of the messages may be less negative, less issue-focused and more partisan than TV commercials. This probably means that social media advertising is more targeted—probably to those who already agree with the messages. So we aren’t seeing a broad array of messages in our social media feed—we see those that we already know or with which we agree. The messages may be more like reminder messages or nudges to vote than informational content.

What steps can citizens take to increase their political advertising literacy in preparation for the current midterm and upcoming 2024 presidential election cycles?

Everyone could learn more about political advertising regulations and sources. Our research group made the brief video (see below) to help all voters understand some of the key issues. We also have a website with more information, tips and even a quiz where you can check out your knowledge.

Also, the Annenberg Public Policy Center runs a fact check website where you can get all kinds of information on ads and check out if an ad is false or misleading from across the political spectrum.

And know that even though most political ads are probably providing some good information, we should all carefully scrutinize the information and check a variety of sources before entering the voting booth.

Editor’s note: To reach Michelle Nelson, call 217-344-5068; email nelsonmr@illinois.edu.

Lois Yoksoulian, Physical Science Editor, University of Illinois News Bureau

View original press release.