Political ads are tricky to define in digital era

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

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.

Why it matters: Without a commonly accepted definition of what a political ad is, efforts to regulate them have been challenging. Experts worry that without smart regulation of political ads, free speech — a tenet of democracy — can be gamed.

What is a political ad? The most common definition of a political ad is a piece of content that promotes a cause or appeals for a candidate in an election. In order to be considered an ad, it needs to be distributed or promoted in exchange for some sort of payment.

Yes, but: The interpretation of what's considered a political ad can vary.

  • For-profits: Some experts argue that a corporation advocating for a certain cause may not necessarily be political in nature, but rather a part of its own corporate mission. An example of this would be Patagonia taking out an ad that argues it's important for the country to take care of its national parks.
  • Business-to-business negotiations: Businesses will sometimes take their fights to consumers through paid advertising — which some companies consider political, others corporate. For example, a TV network may take out an ad urging consumers to call their cable provider and tell them not to drop a TV channel that they're in pricing negotiations with.
  • News companies' promoted material: News publishers that promote articles about politics or policy issues via paid marketing are typically exempt from political ad policies — but it gets more complicated when publishers with a political leaning use paid ads to promote articles that appear one-sided.
  • Facebook received blowback when it initially placed news companies in its political ad archive for this reason, but has since changed its policy.
  • Politicians in a commercial context: Most publishers ban ads that include references to politicians promoting commercial goods. But if a former politician who isn't running for elected office were to buy ads promoting a commercial product, like a book, the marketing of that product through advertising isn't usually seen as political, even if the book discusses policy or politics.

Where enforcement gets tricky: Enforcement of political ad policies gets more difficult when ads take provocative positions.

  • 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.
  • For example, in 2015, a Turkish-backed group took out an ad in the Wall Street Journal that denied the existence of the Armenian Genocide. Many publishers, like The Washington Post, opted not to run the ad, while The Journal supported its decision after backlash.
  • Any sort of imagery that is created or doctored to create an opinion message is typically considered political in nature. For example, if an ad includes a picture of a very large nose (a symbol of lying) superimposed onto a candidate, that could be considered political.

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.

  • In total, about $10 billion is expected to be spent on all political and issue ads in the 2020 campaign cycle, according to CMAG, a the political research arm of the advertising research company Kantar.

Be smart: Political ads have become a hot topic now that most campaigns are buying lots of ads online instead of on TV and radio. But campaign finance laws haven't been modernized to address how political advertising should be regulated online.

  • The Federal Election Commission 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.

The bottom line: Without a regulatory body enforcing political ad rules, private companies have to set up their own rules around political ads. But even when they do, there are so many ways to define a political ad that those rules are hard to enforce without human oversight and judgment calls.

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