Political ads have become a flashpoint ahead of the 2020 election, in part because new technologies make it nearly impossible to apply a universal definition of them to all advertising channels, media trends expert Sara Fischer writes.
- Why it matters: Without a commonly accepted definition of a political ad, efforts to regulate them fail. Experts worry that without smart regulation of political ads, free speech — a tenet of democracy — can be gamed.
By the numbers: More pressure on people and companies to take a public position on politics and issues means that more political ads are being bought now than ever before.
- About $10 billion is expected to be spent on all political and issue ads in the 2020 campaign cycle, according to CMAG, the political research arm of the advertising research company Kantar.
Between the lines: Political ads have become a hot topic now that most campaigns are buying lots of ads online instead of on TV and radio. Campaign finance laws haven't been modernized to address how political advertising should be regulated online.
- The FEC set up guidelines for political ads in the 1970s that were easy to adhere to in print, radio and broadcast. But those rules haven't been updated by the commission to address the digital era.
- Some states have their own campaign finance laws that draw clearer distinctions. In Washington state, for example, Facebook and Google have struggled to enforce political ad bans that they've established in response to strict campaign finance laws.
Enforcement is all over the map:
- There have been disputes over whether a political ad should be fact-checked or even allowed to run if it disputes a commonly understood fact or makes misleading claims. In 2015, a Turkish-backed group took out an ad in the Wall Street Journal that denied the existence of the Armenian Genocide. The Washington Post opted not to run the ad.
- Doctored imagery, like an ad with a Pinocchio nose superimposed onto a candidate, is an easier call.
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