I Approve This Message, an exhibition about the emotional impact of political advertising in a landscape altered by the internet, was set to open at the New-York Historical Society this September. The COVID-19 lockdown halted those plans, but we want to share a few of the exhibition’s themes, particularly as we barrel towards our new date with destiny on election day, Nov. 3.

In this second of three posts, we’re going to look back at what was hoped to be a crucial turning point in political advertising—a new legal provision called Stand by Your Ad that was supposed to deliver more accountability and less deception and negativity. (Read the first post here.)

You might think that TV ads don’t matter anymore—that they’re a quaint artifact made obsolete by Facebook and Google. But campaign budgets say differently: $6.7 billion is projected to be spent on advertising during the 2020 elections, including $4.9 billion on broadcast TV, cable, and radio ads. The presidential race alone between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden is expected to account for $2.18 billion in ad spending.

One of the familiar elements of these ads will be “I approve this message,” the straightforward affirmation from the candidates that is tacked onto the beginning or the end of every TV or radio commercial. This fixture of political advertising was first heard during 2004 due to a legal provision called Stand by Your Ad. Much has changed in politics over the last 15 years, but Stand by Your Ad remains standing. As the 2020 presidential election hits high gear, we look back at what it accomplished; what it didn’t; and what you need to know about political advertising in an ever more frenetic messaging world.

Watch a compilation of presidential candidates “I approve this message”:

When was the first time you heard a politician say “I approve this message” in their television ad?

For most Americans, it was during the 2004 election, when the incumbent, President George W. Bush, a Republican, ran for reelection against Senator John Kerry, a Democrat. This message was the result of a new campaign finance law that included the Stand by Your Ad provision and required politicians to put their own personal stamp on their broadcast ads. While taken quite seriously at the time, it was also met with cynical fun and quickly became a punchline, a meme, and even a ringtone.

What are the origins of Stand by Your Ad?

In 2002, Senators John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, and Russ Feingold, a Democrat from Wisconsin, wanted to stem what they believed was the corrupting influence of money on the political process. They joined together to pass what became the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA, also known as McCain-Feingold) to ban the “soft money” being used in unlimited amounts during political campaigns.  (Spending laws around political advertising have since changed again and the battles continue.)

McCain and Feingold also thought that by encouraging candidates running for federal office to explicitly “stand by” their TV and radio ads, the candidates would be less likely to run deceptive or negative messages. That belief resulted in the BCRA’s “Stand by Your Ad” provision, sponsored by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon. After all, it seemed reasonable that the candidates who either didn’t tell the truth or who ran negative attack ads would alienate voters. This simple statement could provide at least some accountability.  Outside money, super PACS, and the internet, three of today’s biggest purveyors of misinformation, were not then a major factor.

While controversial for Democrats and for Republicans, the vote to pass the BCRA was based upon principle, not party— “a rare example of politics working the way civics textbooks would have it—with legislators voting largely on the basis of conviction, not calculation,” to quote The Atlantic.

Watch a George W. Bush attack ad from the 2004 election:

**What does the Stand by Your Ad provision require from candidates?
**For candidates running for a federal office, the provision requires an identifiable candidate image, a voiceover message, and sponsorship identification—all with specific size requirements. There’s a major incentive to cooperate: Candidates whose campaigns comply receive the lowest media rate status for radio or television time for political advertising.  Using “I approve this message” can save a candidate’s campaign millions in media dollars. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) can impose penalties on campaigns that fail to comply, including the loss of that enormous financial benefit.

Do candidates really give their approval to these ads?

There’s no question that when political ads began airing on TV, the candidates not only watched them, but were frequently involved in what was said and how the ads were produced. But in today’s always-on, 24/7 media world, there can be tens of thousands of different versions of ads running at any one time on different platforms. Yes, a candidate may still focus on an ad that they deem critical to their candidacy. But to approve every ad running on broadcast television or radio in every state is just not realistic.

Does Stand by Your Ad say anything about deception or misinformation in an ad? And does it say anything about negative ads?

First, let’s be clear about terms: A deceptive ad includes misinformation, omission, confusion, alteration, and, of course, plain ol’ lying. A negative ad or attack ad can be true or false, but it always puts the opponent or a particular issue in a bad light.

Stand by Your Ad does not address deceptive or negative ads per se, but the lawmakers who introduced it hoped it would reduce both because it was in the best interest of the candidate to stand up for their ad; thereby, showing accountability.

It hasn’t worked out that way.

During the 2016 election, 83 percent of Donald Trump’s ads and 96 percent of Hillary Clinton’s were scored as negative, according to Kantar Media. And for the 2018 midterms, negativity was up 61 percent from 2014. Obviously, campaigns must believe it works or they wouldn’t spend the money, and many political scientists agree that negativity helps to get attention and can be particularly useful when a candidate is running behind in the polls.

Watch a John Kerry attack ad from the 2004 election:

Who decides if an ad is deceptive or not?

To complicate matters, there is an alphabet soup of federal agencies along with the courts and Congress who have a hand in the rules around advertising. And none of them are charged with determining what’s true or false in a political ad.

A key reason is because the U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly has affirmed that political advertising falls under the First Amendment right of free speech, and that it is up to the electorate to find out the facts and discover the truth. There are liability laws for defamation of character, but the standard is almost impossible to satisfy, and by the time the case makes its way through court, an election is almost certain to be won or lost.

Voters often believe that political ads are bound by consumer truth-in-advertising laws. But while the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) protects consumers from lies about the products they buy, it is not authorized to regulate political advertising.  Furthermore, even when the content is deceptive, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) mandates that broadcast networks are not allowed to censor or refuse a political ad for a federal candidate. The broadcast networks can say no to a third party, super PAC, or issue ad, but rarely do because of potential liability. (Cable, however, can turn ads away.)

In addition to all of this, there are currently no federal laws that apply to online political advertising or messaging content. Social media companies like Facebook have no legal liability for what is posted on their platforms since they are regarded as intermediaries rather than publishers, a critical reason why Mark Zuckerberg refuses to call Facebook a media company. This is also the reason for the current strife over certain Tweets from President Trump. In the absence of regulation, Spotify, TikTok, and Twitter have opted to regulate themselves, banning, pausing, or labeling political advertising. Facebook has announced it will block ads from state-controlled media entities in the U.S.

If political advertising and the rules around it sound like a confusing way to evaluate our national leaders, well, that’s true. However, while recognizing the drawbacks, hearing a national candidate say “I approve this message” remains emotionally reassuring; eliminating the phrase seems depressingly defeatist.  Solving this conundrum is only one of the many thorny political advertising issues on Congress’s plate today.

So where does that leave us? To paraphrase the Supreme Court: For now, it remains up to each one of us to find out the facts and discover the truth. Being aware is our best defense.

In that spirit, stay tuned for our next post about all the ways we are manipulated online during election season. 

Read More: “I Approve This Message”: The Birth of TV Campaign Ads and 9 Presidential Election Classics

Written by Harriett Levin Balkind, Founder of nonpartisan HonestAds.org and creator and guest curator of the I APPROVE THIS MESSAGE: Decoding Political Ads exhibition hosted by the Toledo Museum of Art, 2016

Top image: Martin T. Meehan, D-Mass., Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., John McCain, R-Ariz., and others during a 1997 press conference on campaign finance reform (Douglas Graham, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)