By Austin Graham
With election season approaching, TV viewers will once again face a barrage of political advertisements imploring them to support or oppose various candidates for office.
Though the content of such advertisements varies, they are usually followed by a disclaimer statement identifying that the ad was “Paid for By Candidate X.” While Americans have grown accustomed to enduring political advertisements on television, many voters will find that such ads have recently permeated another communications medium: the Internet.
Increasingly, politicians and political committees are utilizing the Internet to reach a wider and more diverse swath of voters. However, political advertisements disseminated on the web often are not subject to the same disclaimer requirements as television or radio communications, leaving viewers in the dark as to the ad’s source of funding.
At least 42 states require some type of disclaimer statement to accompany political advertisements. Typically, disclaimer statutes cover advertisements made through long-established media forms, such as printed publications, television and radio. Many statutes, however, are either ambiguous or silent regarding disclaimer requirements for political advertisements made via the Internet. For instance, Idaho requires identification of the source responsible for financing political communications made through “any broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine, outdoor advertising facility, direct mailing, or any other type of general public political advertising,” with Internet communications presumably regulated under the catch-all “any other type of general public political advertising.” Kentucky’s statute mandates disclaimers for “newspaper and magazine advertising, posters, circulars, billboards, handbills, sample ballots, and paid-for television or radio political announcements,” but contains no mention of Internet communications, nor any catch-all phrasing that might apply to online ads.
More than a dozen states have explicitly addressed disclaimer requirements for online political advertisements. Illinois obliges any “pamphlet, circular, handbill, Internet or telephone communication, radio, television, or print advertisement” to include the name of the political committee funding the ad. Nevada requires any “Internet website available for viewing by the general public” or “electronic mailing to more than 500 people,” if created for political purposes, to disclose the source behind the communication. Conversely, Alabama exempts political communications made “on an Internet website for which there is no cost to post content for public users” or “on a social networking Internet website, as long as the source of the message or advertisement is patently clear from the content or format of the message or advertisement” from its statutory disclaimer requirements.
A handful of states impose no disclaimer requirements on political advertising, regardless of the medium through which it is conveyed. In these states, the source behind a political advertisement is not legally obliged to identify itself, and viewers may be left without any information on the ad’s source. Disclaimer requirements aside, political advertising has expanded into virtually every publicly available mode of communication. So the next time you’re browsing YouTube, do not be surprised if you have to endure 30-seconds of political stumping before you are permitted to watch your desired video.
Austin Graham is a campaign finance intern with NCSL.