More about Truth in Campaign Advertising: Creating an Informed Electorate

The Project

A record number of political advertisements are flooding the television airwaves in communities across the nation. It is hard not to see a political ad when watching television, especially if you live in a presidential battleground state or a state with a competitive Senate race.

Broadcast television stations in the United States have a legal right to reject any television advertisement, other than from a qualified candidate, if the station believes the ad is inaccurate or misleading. Stations already have processes they use for consumer product ads. So this is not a new practice for them. We are asking them to be as vigilant about third party ads as they are about product ads.

We are concerned that a voter might decide not to vote for candidate whom otherwise the person would support because of being misled by outside-group advertising. We are concerned that this current environment - so filled with toxic charges, contradictory statements and deceptive practices - leaves voters so confused and disgusted that at a minimum, they can’t make their own best decisions and at worst they may decide not to vote at all.

The League’s Truth in Campaign Advertising project seeks to encourage and support local television stations as they exercise their responsibility to ensure the campaign ads they run are accurate, to reject those that are not, and, as part of their service to their communities, on the station’s news segments to provide viewers with nonpartisan, objective analysis of the political ads being run on their station. And help the public become critical/sophisticated/knowledgeable viewers of the ads that are on the air.

The Problem

The growth in the number of campaign ads on television can be attributed in large part to the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) case, which unleashed unlimited corporate and union spending for supposedly “independent expenditures” seeking to affect elections. The decision has also led to millions of dollars in secret campaign expenditures, as current federal campaign disclosure laws and tax laws did not anticipate this new kind of spending.

More and more of these political ads are being run by organizations that claim no direct connection with a candidate, even though many of the groups are run by former staffers of candidates or parties. Some groups have been running ads mentioning federal candidates by name, while claiming the ads are not campaign ads, but “issue discussion.” By making this claim and running the ad more than 60 days before the general election, the groups are evading the federal campaign finance laws that require them to disclose their donors.

These organizations are often referred to as “third-party groups” or “outside groups”.

In past presidential elections, the television ads run by non-candidate “outside groups” have contained a higher level of both attacks and inaccurate statements than candidate campaign ads. This finding appears to be even more true this election as the 2012 election cycle is seeing an unprecedented level of “outside group” advertising.

In sum, after the controversial Citizens United decision, millions of dollars are flooding into the 2012 elections and are drenching the television airwaves with campaign ads designed to influence the outcome of elections for President and the U.S. Congress. Many of these outside groups are paying local television stations top dollar to run their ads. And, some of this money is from secret sources.

As the Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) documents, the ads run by these non-candidate outside groups contain a higher level of both attacks and inaccurate statements than candidate campaign ads. Between December and early August, $108 million in ad dollars were spent by 10 outside groups and over half (51%) on 35 ads containing deceptive or misleading claims.

The Truth in Campaign Advertising Action Plan

The League of Women Voters has long worked to ensure that voters receive fact-based, nonpartisan information about elections, often partnering with the media to do so. We have heard from voters that they desperately want genuine, factual information so they can make their own best decisions and that they trust the League to provide this kind of information through voter guides and candidate forums/debates.

We are concerned that this current environment - so filled with toxic charges, contradictory statements and deceptive practices - leaves voters so confused and disgusted that at a minimum, they can’t make their own best decisions and at worst they may decide not to vote at all. We are calling on our partners in the media to play their all important role in our democracy by working with us to reduce the deceptive information coming from outside groups over the airwaves.

The Truth in Campaign Advertising project, consistent with the League’s long-term role in providing fact-based information about campaigns (including voters guides and televised debates), focuses on facilitating meetings between local Leagues and their local television broadcasters to encourage and support the stations as they exercise their responsibility to ensure the political ads they run are accurate.

Local Leagues, and individual League members, have a critical role to play in ensuring that their local stations understand and exercise their statutory obligation and right.

This Truth in Campaign Advertising toolkit provides resources to Leagues as they interact with their local broadcasters and with newspapers and social media in order to:

  • educate the public about the importance of this truth-in-political-advertising effort, and,
  • include in a TV station’s news segments stories that provide viewers with nonpartisan, objective analysis of the political ads being run on that station.