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An Iconic Approach To Political Ad Transparency

As people consume more ads via digital channels, they need transparency about which political organizations are paying for the ads they see. As the U.S. advertising industry is still largely self-regulating, a standard notice may not be imposed from a governing agency, but it can work if the industry agrees to adopt a proposed set of guidelines.

Television, radio and print ads identify which organization paid for political ads, either in small print or in an announcement. In contrast, digital ads just blend into your timeline along with trending news links. This is a serious problem because the context and lack of clear ad markers can hide the fact that what looks like a media report is, in fact, agenda-driven.

In the wake of the questions surrounding the digital ads people were exposed to in the 2016 elections, the digital giants, Google and Facebook, have come under pressure to do something to combat the problem. Google took the step of disallowing any political ad purchases from someone who not either a citizen or permanent resident of the U.S.

Facebook, adopted a standard of verified identities. While that is nice in theory, in practice, it is not working out so well — much to the dismay of a Regina Bateson, a California Congressional candidate. According to the New York Times, Bateson found a number of political ads that appeared on Facebook as articles, though they were, in fact, funded by Sierra Nevada Revolution.

The Times article quoted an admission by Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management, that the system in place is not infallible. “We use signals such as two-factor authentication to detect and prevent this type of abuse, but steps like these won’t stop every attempt to game the system.”

If the platforms can’t be relied on to do the policing, perhaps we need advertisers to agree on a standard. That’s the idea behind the “PoliticalAd” icon proposed by the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA) as part of its Application of the Self-Regulatory Principles of Transparency & Accountability to Political Advertising.

The DAA is a consortium of major national advertising and marketing trade groups that collaborate on “self-regulatory solutions to online consumer.” It’s the organization behind the YourAdChoices program that is meant to deliver more relevant ads to consumers.

Building on that icon model, which has “now served more than a trillion times a month globally,” the DAA’s initiative to increase ad transparency offers instant access “to information and control over interest-based advertising (IBA) through a new icon.

The idea of offering a PoliticalAd icon will be to give people direct access for relevant information about the ad that extends to the following:

– Name of the political advertiser;

– Phone number, address, website, or alternative and reliable contact information for the advertiser;

– Other information required by applicable federal or state law for such notices;

– Link to a government database of contributions and expenditures for the advertiser, if applicable;

– Any disclaimers required by state or federal law, if the ad itself is too small to display them (as permitted by applicable law); and

– Name(s) of the advertiser’s CEO, executive committee, board of directors, or treasurer.

As Bob Liodice, CEO, Association of National Advertisers, pointed out in a statement:

“Unfortunately, in recent cycles, too many digital political ads have opted for secrecy over disclosure by hiding the identity of the advertiser and escaping accountability for the content of the ads. The DAA’s new PoliticalAd initiative will pull back the curtain on express advocacy ads for candidates, so people can easily identify and contact the advertisers and learn more about the funding for those campaigns.”

If such an icon were in place for the ads around Bateson’s election campaign, those who were served the ads placed by Sierra Nevada Revolution would have seen a clear identification of the ad for what it was, and given access to relevant information about the organization.

James Edmund Datri, President and CEO, American Advertising Federation, applauded the initiative and pointed to it as proof of the industry’s ability to self-regulate:

“In order to make informed choices, citizens need to know who is soliciting their vote. The Digital Advertising Alliance is providing a significant service through the ‘PoliticalAd’ icon giving voters easy access to this important information. I am very pleased that once again the advertising industry, through self-regulation, is stepping up to do the right thing for consumers and our political system.”

While there still may some who skirt the regulations, having them in place is still a step in the right direction toward improved transparency. The advertising industry should do what it can on its end and not rely on digital platforms to be effective gatekeepers.

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