Seeing Through The Mud: Promoting Political Advertising Literacy


According to AdImpact, spending on political advertising during the 2022 mid-election cycle is estimated at a record $9.7 billion. Against this background and a barrage of negative advertising, it is worth considering how political advertising is processed by the public and whether the regulations governing such advertising are appropriate.

An ongoing political advertising research project conducted by Michelle Nelson, Chang Dae Ham (both from the University of Illinois) and Eric Haley (University of Tennessee) has found that most US voters do not have enough information to vote the validity of information conveyed in political advertisements to be determined; and that there is an “extreme” lack of political advertising literacy among voters. The authors also point out that not all political advertising is bad, and that some candidates are delivering valid messages. However, they identify significant barriers to voters’ understanding of many ads.

Haley notes that the research team found an unexpectedly low level of political advertising literacy. “Our studies have shown that people, even politically active, highly educated people, don’t understand the regulatory environment in which political advertising (and political speech) live,” he says, “which coupled with a low level of knowledge about issues in general means this means that most voters are unable to evaluate these ads and make informed decisions based on them.”

As part of the Political Advertising Literacy Group’s (PALG) larger effort, the team has released a video (see above) and website aimed at promoting political advertising literacy. The group identifies three specific barriers to better voter understanding of political advertising:

1) Lack of specific regulations requiring the content of political ads to be truthful

The PALG notes that advertising truthfulness laws that apply to commercially sold products have not often been applied to political advertising, leaving a situation where advertising a bar of soap is more tightly regulated than political advertising. The real reason for this difference lies in the greater protection afforded political speech over commercial speech in light of World War ISt Amendment and Related Court Judgments.

Haley describes the situation as follows:

“There are a number of laws, such as those of the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, that regulate the content of commercial statements, motivated by the government’s interest in providing consumers with true and not misleading information. An advertisement for McDonald’s French fries is commercial speech and is subject to the FTC’s rules regarding false and misleading information. An ad for Candidate Y is political speech and is not subject to FTC rules or content-based guidelines. However, this does not mean that false political advertising cannot be challenged. False ads can be challenged by slander and slander. But these processes are lengthy, must be filed by the parties who feel defamed, and will not be resolved (or likely even filed) until this campaign period is long over.”

A key point here is that most consumers are unaware that political advertising is subject to less legal scrutiny of the veracity of claims compared to commercial advertising.

2) Political advertising is even less regulated on social media than on traditional media

Another finding of Nelson, Ham and Haley’s study is that consumers are unaware of the lack of government-mandated disclosure requirements on social media. This leads to a situation where anyone, even foreign countries and parties outside the US, can create political ads and place them on social media, provided that a social media company accepts social media ads.

Nelson describes the situation with social media regulation as one that could evolve. “It’s interesting – political advertising is regulated by the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), where there are clear rules on attribution (i.e. who paid for it, whether or not it was endorsed by the candidate) for all types of political advertising – on radio , newspaper, television, outdoor and “communications that are placed on someone else’s website for a fee” – but there aren’t any for social media (yet),” she notes, “It’s like the FEC isn’t quite on board kept pace with the current media environment. But both Google and Meta (Facebook) are now providing some transparency – for example, you can see who is spending money on political advertising on Facebook and how many ads are being placed. Google now has a verification process and you can also see ads and money spent.

It must be noted that some channels, including TikTok and Twitter, currently do not allow political ads, and Facebook has announced plans to ban such ads in the future. Nevertheless, criticism of the political communication of social media persists. Haley says: “Social media may choose not to accept political advertising, but this does not stop the flow of political information because political advertising, while not officially paid for, can come through channels through individuals’ (unpaid) organic posts. , shares, memes, etc. Monitoring backdoor channels for false and misleading information is problematic, although some social media companies have attempted to identify and remove false information.”

In particular, the research team found that despite the lack of understanding of political advertising regulation on social media, the public has significant concerns about it. Nelson notes, “A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center found that more than half of Americans polled believed social media shouldn’t allow political advertising. Our research shows that there is also support for some regulation of political advertising on social media, particularly among those interested in politics.”

3) Large donors and corporations can legally make large contributions through political action committees

A final area of ​​political advertising literacy that PALG has found problematic is that the public does not understand how large donors can spend vast amounts of money on advertising. A key issue is the limited transparency in determining who paid for an ad when it is viewed, as the information may not be transparent.

Haley cites the lack of required transparency regarding the source of an ad as a key impediment to the consumer’s ability to assess the veracity of an ad. “The laws that allow PACS and other front groups allow news sources to be hidden. As a result, voters have no way of knowing whether the message they see comes from a concerned citizen group or from the pharmaceutical industry. Source plays a role in how we evaluate the validity and intent behind information. This source is often legally withheld from us.”

Adds Nelson, “There have been tremendous changes in political advertising spending as a result of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which essentially states that corporations, special interests, or front groups such as political action committees or Super -PACS – can spend unlimited money on political expenses, including advertising.”

As a result, a significant portion of political advertising does not come from an easily identifiable source.

Improving political advertising skills

The researchers stress the importance of helping voters assess whether the political information they see in ads or other channels is true or false, misleading or not, and to understand the sources of those messages. So far, their educational efforts have been well received. An important point they make is that consumers can understand that a political advertisement has compelling intentions, but do not understand that the information may or may not be true and/or who is providing the information. Additionally, on social media, it can be difficult to distinguish a paid ad from an opinion or meme.

Haley summarizes the solution to political advertising literacy as a multi-pronged approach. “We found that people used their knowledge of current events, history, and issues to tell if a news story was false or true, or a news source was suspicious,” he claims. “Therefore, a more comprehensive education on issues is essential but difficult because these issues are wide ranging, from the environment, world affairs, economy, health, education, infrastructure, business, etc. But people also need to understand the news sources and news tactics. Our focus is to help voters better understand such issues – why political advertising is the way it is and how to evaluate advertising sources more carefully. This latter task seems more doable than the broader task of general education on issues, but both are essential.”

With the midterm elections approaching, the PALG website is a valuable resource for voters who want to be better informed about political advertising.



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