A neat trick that makes political ads more effective (Reuters)

Meredith McGehee
Mar 21, 2016
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With the presidential primaries in full swing, outside groups regularly outspend candidates' national campaigns in advertising and advocacy. Super PACs and "dark money" groups are running ever-increasing numbers of television ads - without having to reveal to viewers the sources of their money.

Why do supporters go to the trouble of creating innocuous-sounding groups that fund all the ads? Because it works.

Viewers are more likely to be persuaded by political TV ads, several recent studies reveal, when the groups behind them are undisclosed. The studies help explain why ads by secret independent groups have become the vehicle of choice in the 2016 presidential election.

One 2015 study found "ads sponsored by unknown groups are more effective than candidate-sponsored ads." The analysis, conducted by the Wesleyan Media Project, found that disclosure of donors reduces an ad's influence by "leveling the playing field so that candidate- and group-sponsored attacks become equally effective."

This report echoes the findings of a 2013 study by two political science professors, Conor Dowling of the University of Mississippi and Amber Wichowsky of Marquette University. They found that "voters may discount a group-sponsored ad when they have more information about the financial interests behind the message." The study, as the authors noted, "has implications for how (the failed) congressional efforts to require greater disclosure of campaign finance donors may affect electoral politics."

Recognizing that it makes a big difference when a viewer or listener knows the actual sponsor behind an ad can help build a strong case for why the Federal Communications Commission needs to enforce on-air sponsorship requirements.

Even in the age of social media, television continues to stand out as "the most influential medium when it comes to voting behavior among all age groups and political affiliations," according to a new study. So U.S. voters need to know who is behind the political ads broadcast on television.

It is against the law not to identify the true sponsor. The Communications Act of 1934 says that any paid advertisement must announce who is paying for or furnishing the commercial. FCC regulations also state that on-air sponsorship information must "disclose the true identity" of the person or entity paying for the ad.

This standard was applied in 1996, when the FCC's Media Bureau unmasked the Fairness Matters for Oregonians Committee as a front. The group ran a series of TV ads against a state ballot proposition to increase taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. The money behind the ads, it was revealed, had come from the Tobacco Institute.

Since then, however, the Federal Communications Commission has essentially stopped enforcing the required on-air identification.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler recently failed to act on several sponsorship-identification complaints awaiting action before his panel. He has also refused to start updating regulations that could govern the explosion of television ads run by unknown outside groups in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision.

Yet, perhaps the strongest case for FCC action is the Citizens United ruling itself. The Supreme Court recognized that the messenger affects how viewers interpret the message. By an 8-to-1 vote, the justices upheld disclosure requirements. "The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority ruling. "This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages."

Current FCC regulations, however, fall far short of helping voters make informed decisions. Updating regulations to take account of ads run by Super PACs and dark-money groups should be a priority for Wheeler because the groups are already influencing the 2016 presidential election.

When American voters watch political ads on TV, they have the right to know who is behind them. As studies show, if voters had this knowledge, it could affect the outcome of the 2016 election.

Meredith McGehee is policy director of the Campaign Legal Center 

To read this op-ed at Reuters, click here

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