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Industry Opinion: Is the Honest Ads Act a viable solution for digital political advertising?


By Doug Zanger, Americas Editor

October 24, 2017 | 10 min read

At the forefront of the political advertising debate at the moment, the so-called Honest Ads Act seeks to provide more clarity and transparency around digital political advertising.

Senators Amy Klobuchar (MN) and Mark Warner (VA) introduce Honest Ads Act

Senators Amy Klobuchar (MN) and Mark Warner (VA) explain Honest Ads Act

Proposed last week, there appears to be support for the idea and spirit of the bill, though technology companies are beginning lobbying efforts to shape the regulations. In practice, however, what’s being proposed is likely not an easy fix and carries with it a large number of questions on its viability and complexity. Additionally, the prospect of infringing upon First Amendment free speech rights adds to an issue that has a highly opaque path forward.

With that in mind, The Drum asked professionals in the advertising and marketing business their thoughts on the bill as it begins its initial journey through the halls of government.

James Fraser, co-head of strategy, Mother New York

The Honest Ads Act appears big symbolically, but it’s actually quite small in substance. Yes, bringing online political advertising regulation in line with broadcast sounds significant, but ’fake news’ thrives precisely because it doesn’t look, feel or sound political, which puts it beyond the scope of this regulation.

In truth, our greatest hope for transparency online won’t come from regulation, but from proactive moves from the social media giants themselves who are looking to rebuild user trust post-election.

Kate Rush Sheehy, group strategy director, R/GA Austin

It is absolutely time for reform. Advertisers are held to standards across dozens of categories — advertising to kids, financial services, alcohol — and basically any other topic you’re supposed to avoid over the family dinner table.

Politics is no different, if not more important. The false information spread by digital advertising this past election cycle proves that we need regulation beyond traditional channels. We need to hold anyone who’s paying to influence consumers on any channel to a higher, more transparent moral ground. Otherwise, what’s to stop those with more sinister motives from compromising the trust brands have built online?

Jeffrey Finch, co-founder, chief product officer, Choozle, Denver

While a lofty goal, the reality is slightly unrealistic with the current technology in digital advertising because there are little regulations or verification to stop political advertising to run within the ecosystem. We, as an industry, would need to make significant changes in order to fit within these regulations. This also surfaces the question as to whether we, as facilitators and platforms, even “own” the creative to store.

Phil Vangelakos, senior vice president, Push Digital, Charleston, SC

The pros are - it will put political campaigns advertised through digital platforms on par with other mediums like TV, radio, print, etc. and make that process more transparent. That said, it will overreach. I don’t have to disclose what audiences I’m targeting for TV ads, so why do I have to for digital? This undermines my ability to be strategic, which seems a bit unfair in the grand scheme.

There’s lots of cons.

First, it doesn’t prevent what the Russians did, which was to advertise fake news. This bill only focuses on building in transparency measures for ads supporting a specific candidate, which companies like Push are already required to disclose through the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Because the Russians only advertised fake news, the bill is pointless in that regard.

Second, the level of transparency will basically give the government, and anyone willing to dig through the ads Facebook would have to save as part of the bill, access into detailed campaign strategy information — who a campaign targeted, when, with which content, and the costs associated, etc. So, from a campaigning perspective, it’s a playbook for the other guys to work from.

Third, it says nothing of organic content on social, which is bizarre because the bill itself lists some interesting stats about how Twitter was used to target swing states using fake news. Even though a lot of digital experts say organic is dead, we all know that every once in awhile a piece of content goes viral. If all you’re doing is pumping out fake news all day, the odds of something hitting are far better than a legitimate campaign which must follow certain standards when publishing content.

Mike Proulx, chief digital officer, Hill Holliday, Boston

At face value, the Honest Ads Act is a step in the right direction. Why shouldn’t the regulations that govern all other political advertising include online advertising? Especially as TV, radio, and print budgets continue to shift into digital.

Greater transparency through a public database of who is buying the ads won’t, by itself, solve the problem of election interference. Russian troll farms are far advanced in masking their foreign location. The sheer volume of online ads makes penetrating the proposed regulations virtually undetectable.

Kate Bristow, chief strategy officer, M&C Saatchi, Los Angeles

For decades, political advertising has been strictly regulated for broadcast and radio, so, for example, we have been able to check whether foreign money is being used to purchase such ads, in clear contravention of federal law. I see no valid reason why digital advertising should not be held to the same standards. Indeed, if I was in a senior leadership position at Google or Facebook, I would be supporting this proposed legislation wholeheartedly, rather than trying to fight it. You don’t want to be on the wrong side of history when it comes to protecting our democracy.

Matthew Hedberg, general manager of professional services at Semcasting, Boston

There are serious sticking points to this bill, which if left unaddressed, would create a ‘solution’ with its own problems. The bill proposes to regulate only sites with more than 50m monthly visitors, but barely 20 websites in the US qualify. It instructs the already deadlocked FEC to create rules on this subject within 90 days, which, if the timeline sticks, could grind digital advertising to a halt during the 2018 primaries.

Mobile devices, which make up some 70% of the ad display inventory, simply do not have enough screen space to include what would likely be onerous disclaimer copy for each ad. Candidly, the Honest Ads Act seems to completely misunderstand the industry that it proposing to regulate. If passed, it would be constantly challenged by those who claim infringement of free speech.

Aaron Goldman, chief marketing officer, 4C, Chicago

The challenge with legislating political ads on social media is that it’s not always clear which ads are political. An ad that features a politician and his or her views is relatively easy to spot and police. But an ad that is actually a promoted post of an article about racial or gender inequality is much harder to flag.

Ashley Banks, director of digital strategy and media, Iced Media, New York

When political ads can precision customize and hypertarget a message to sway opinion, it’s essential that there’s some oversight as to who is shaping the message and paying for it to be promoted. This bill isn’t the perfect solution and trolls will always find loopholes, but it’s a strong start to open a much-needed conversation about transparency in political ad buying in the digital ecosystem.

Jay Friedman, chief operating officer, Goodway Group, Dallas

Providing information on who political ads were targeted to sounds great, but I don’t believe Google or Facebook subscribe to the industry’s agreed upon taxonomy of targeting. So, if Google says someone targeted “environmentalists,” we won’t know what it takes to be identified as such. I also don’t believe Google will agree to disclose that. It’s easier with Facebook since they can just say “you liked the tree huggers page.” With Google, they don’t own most of the pages on which they place ads.

Additionally, Google, Facebook and other large firms like AOL will obviously comply with whatever they have to. But this does put smaller providers at a disadvantage if it applies to them and if the cost to comply is significant.

David Simon, CMO, SteelHouse, Los Angeles

Here’s why it’s good for digital. First, it puts digital on parity with traditional media. Media transparency has proven to be positive for the democratic process over the years and adding in digital means the voting public will know more of what they should know.

Second, I think H.R. 4077 actually elevates digital media to the same level as traditional media, casting it as at least as powerful and valuable as its print and radio predecessors. That kind of power should have the safeguards to ensure our democracy works properly. A positive side effect is that digital is seen as a serious and valuable media – worthy of these rules.

Albert Thompson, managing director of digital, Walton Isaacson, Los Angeles

The mere proposition of such a bill poses a rather interesting conundrum for the world of public affairs (specifically the subset of online politics). As a discipline, public affairs has always benefitted from the ability to shift and shape opinions (often unbeknownst to the reader). The through-the-line transparency sought by the Honest Ads Act means that those minds susceptible to positioning tactics, rhetoric, or outright exploitation won't be as easily moved once they understand the true origins and intent of the ads. The strategic advantage is lost to the purveyor who now must "spin" the story through honesty.

Brian McHale, CEO, Sunrise Advertising, Cincinnati

The bill asks social media platforms to catalog every political post or tweet that is generated. That will create an incredibly large list of content that will really be a burden for these social media platforms to compile/keep. Also, who is going to look through this list? I can’t imagine a typical citizen, after seeing a political post, looking through this database in order to learn who was behind the post. Not to mention then taking the time to decide whether they should believe it or not based on the list. That’s a lot of work for an often disinterested public.

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