How Publishers Can Control Their Own Political Advertising Destiny

Messages can be a windfall rather than remnant afterthought

We really shouldn’t have to ask the National Security Administration to tell us who’s buying political advertising on the Internet.
Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Sources: Getty Images

Now more than ever is the time for local news publishers to come to the aid of their country.

It’s not the lack of disclosures or disclaimers that has enabled unscrupulous actors to run wild in our political system—it’s the free-wheeling approach to ad sales that’s wreaking havoc.

The market is run by faceless middlemen. It is not responsible to voters or publishers, and it certainly is not serving our public discourse. We like to talk about how online ad buying resembles Wall Street stock trading. There’s one big difference—Wall Street has rules.

On the heels of a contentious election season, Borrell Associates estimates political ad spend will hit a record high for 2018 midterm elections, showing a 73-percent higher investment over their 2017 estimated spend of $4.9 billion. The logistics to capture a portion of a projected $8.5 billion business next year aren’t that daunting.

It’s not the lack of disclosures or disclaimers that has enabled unscrupulous actors to run wild in our political system—it’s the free-wheeling approach to ad sales that’s wreaking havoc.

It’s why ridicule ensued when ads supporting a California ban on same-sex marriage ran on blogs and outlets based in San Francisco. And it’s why you’ve likely seen ads running well after election day, when the client’s fate was decided. Neither of these mistakes would occur in a traditional media setting where a live human was overseeing placement.

Congress can call for as much TV-market-like disclosure as it wants, but until there’s one point of sale for political ad placement in a market, it won’t matter. Ads trafficked by the major online ad exchanges don’t get the oversight that a local news outlet offers. They simply don’t have the time (or—let’s be honest—the inclination) to learn federal law, let alone each state’s regulations covering legislative, municipal and other local elections. Their machine learning, artificial intelligence and algorithms are set up to sell products, not adjust for changes in human behavior or a candidate’s errors in judgment.

Political campaigns need to get back to buying ads directly. The publishers that run those ads should be encouraged to link to sites that provide the same support for politicians’ claims so voters can review them.

A handful of salespeople trained in local and federal election law working at the national sales level will suffice for larger chains. Most outlets already charge a “political” rate, so increased costs are somewhat mitigated—especially once the hundreds of millions of political ad dollars flowing through unsupervised ad exchanges and networks are recaptured by publishers.

Photo: Ari Mintz

Reversing the programmatic trend allows buyers to better track ad performance and worry less about fraud by dealing directly with outlets as ads appear online. The price is higher—you’re agreeing to a political ad rate—but the investment pays off in the form of more security, as well as better placement and accountability for candidates, voters and publishers. News outlets usually have standards and practices in place, as well as First Amendment lawyers, because they believe legal reviews are good for business—and public discourse.

This is an accepted practice, and political campaigns especially understand it is part of their conversation with voters. Publishers know it, and if direct buying was the only way political ads were placed by all campaigns, well, we’d all know it, too.

We really shouldn’t have to ask the National Security Administration to tell us who’s buying political advertising on the Internet.

Chris Nolan is the founder of Spot-On, a San Francisco-based political ad consultancy and buying service.