Because of a recent election complaint and ambiguity in Florida’s election laws, the ability for non-federal political campaigns to use Google and Facebook advertisements as a medium to communicate with voters is in serious jeopardy.
It all started a few weeks ago when a complaint was filed against the campaign of St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Scott Wagman for not including a political disclaimer in Google AdWords his campaign was running on opponent’s names – a technique that has grown in popularity after being extensively used in the 2008 presidential race.
The Wagman Campaign now has until August 10th to make a difficult decision: do they contest the complaint – potentially resulting in thousands of dollars of fines for each individual ad – or do they pay a small fine to stop the investigation, which could set a dangerous legal precedent on the issue. There is great concern among Florida political consultants that it could very soon be illegal for campaigns to ever use Google or Facebook text ads.
With over $20 million spent on online political advertising in 2008, Google, Facebook, and other advertising providers could stand to lose a big chunk of political business if this shakes out the wrong way. But even more importantly is that campaigns in Florida would lose an entire medium to communicate with voters. Indeed, many of Florida’s statewide candidates were running Google ads that have since been pulled, and the fear of an election law violation is starting to spread to down ballot races.
The arguments against needing a disclaimer on text ads of this nature are numerous. The most obvious is that Google text ads are limited to 68 characters when a typical political disclaimer would require 90-100 characters or more. Additionally, the ads are just links to a website with the full disclaimer and the campaign doesn’t have to pay for ads unless they’re actually clicked. There are also issues of free speech to be considered. Mike Zaneis of the Interactive Advertising Bureau summed it up best in the Wall Street Journal report:
“It becomes a de facto restriction on political speech on search engines and things like Twitter and Facebook. It really becomes a scary precedent.”
This debate will more than likely be decided by the Florida Election Commission, who meets next in November, but it could require a change in Florida’s election law statutes during the 2010 legislative session. At the end of the day, we should be encouraging the use of online advertising, not punishing campaigns for being effective and efficient in using it. This affects all campaigns in Florida, Republican or Democrat, so please help bring attention to this vitally important issue.