Since the 2016 election cycle, we’ve lived through a number of significant changes by digital platforms on their approach to political advertising. These policies were intended to address the challenges of moderating political content, preventing foreign interference in elections, and giving users transparency in political advertising.
Despite these good intentions, many platforms have implemented policies that are overly broad, quite onerous, and severely restrict legitimate political speech which has traditionally been protected and privileged in the United States. Still, campaigners have to reach voters where they spend their time and consume media.
This post outlines the different policies around political advertising online, what campaigners need to know, and what you can do to overcome the limitations.
Political Advertising Bans
Some platforms have made the decision to ban any political candidates, PACs, or political parties from advertising at all. This typically also extends to a prohibition on ads mentioning candidates, elections, and other political topics.
If the platform does allow user-generated content, such as a social media network, you may still be able to reach voters with organic messaging.
These platforms all prohibit political advertising:
Verification Required For Political Advertisers
Most self-serve advertising platforms that still allow political advertising require verification of the advertisers and the entities paying for the ads. For example, Meta requires anyone running political ads to upload photo ID, demonstrate proof of residency through postal mail, and location through the app. Additionally, each Page running ads must have a disclaimer that matches FEC or IRS records. Google requires similar verification steps prior to advertising on political topics.
Campaigners should be aware of these requirements and take action long before they intend to run ads since compliance may take some extra effort.
These platforms have verification requirements for political advertising:
In addition to identity verification requirements, most self-serve advertising platforms place additional restrictions on political advertisers when it comes to targeting. Both Meta and Google restrict what demographic information can be used within their platforms to target political ads and certain political attributes – which were once available to all advertisers – are no longer allowed at all.
With these restrictions, political advertisers should be cautious about following too many generic “best practices” for marketers on the platform and pursue specific advertising objectives that are independently measurable, like on-site conversions.
What Campaigners Should Do
Building up owned audiences – web, email, and text – should always be a key focus of digital campaigning. If advertising is further restricted, your campaign still has the ability to communicate with supporters.
The best way to stay up to date on the latest news about digital platforms’ political advertising policies is by subscribing to publications like the Learn Test Optimize newsletter or Campaigns & Elections.
When uncertainty arises, having backup plans and diversifying your advertising strategy is the best way to manage risk. Maintain relationships with other vendors, publishers, and ad platforms in case your chosen provider makes an abrupt change in political advertising policies.
Unfortunately, as digital platforms turn their back on legitimate political advertisers in order to avoid hard choices about standing up for free speech, voters are the ones to pay the price.
Campaigns increasingly play an important role in keeping voters informed and turning them out to vote, as local media declines. With fewer ways to reach Americans on the platforms and technologies they use most, we’ll see continued shrinking of civic engagement.
But campaigns still have many worthwhile options and are resourceful enough to always find new ways to reach voters where they are.