Campaign finance bills target ads full of “truthiness” but short on truth

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

(photo credit: Michael Jones)

“I’m Hillary Clinton, and I approve this message.”

If pundits are correct about former Secretary of State Clinton eyeing the Oval Office, political ads ending in the legally required tagline will once again be hitting California airwaves. (Yes, political ads…I know you can’t wait). It could be worse. We could live in Iowa where the first caucus will be held in little more than two years, which means the ads will probably be starting tomorrow.

 But I digress.

The point is that while candidates vying for federal office must ‘stand by their ads,” state and local candidates in California don’t have to. Neither do corporations and unions, nor social welfare group donors. That may change. Two campaign finance bills making their way through the California Legislature would require greater disclosure in political advertising.

Ever wonder why it often seems campaign ads are full of “truthiness” but short on truth? Well, political ads are held to a different standard than commercial product ads because they are considered a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment. A set of laws enforced by the Federal Trade Commission protects consumers from false or deceptive advertising. Shouldn’t voters be protected from misleading advertising too?

While voters are generally skeptical of campaign ads, they often rely on them for information. Bombarded with conflicting ads sponsored by ambiguously-named groups, confused voters struggle to separate fact from fiction. To make informed decisions at the ballot box, Californians need to know who is spending millions to influence their vote.

“Voters deserve and need to know clearly who is behind political ads,” said Trent Lange President of the California Clean Money Campaign. “It’s always important information to take into account when trying to understand the validity of a message.”

In an effort to hold state and local candidates accountable to their political ads, SB 2 adapts the federal “stand-by-your-ad” provision to California. “It makes elections and campaigns fairer,” testified Senator Ted Lieu (D- Torrance), author of the bill, before the Assembly Elections and Redistricting Committee. “Because [a disclaimer is] used on presidential and congressional candidate commercials, it’s something that voters expect from all candidates now — for candidates to stand by their ad publicly,” added Phillip Ung of Common Cause, a sponsor of the bill.

But in the wake of Citizens United, an increasingly greater share of ads hitting the airwaves is financed by outside groups. Trying to hold super PACs, known here as independent expenditure committees, and “social welfare” organizations accountable is where things get complicated.

Transparency advocates argue an ad disclaimer including the name of a group, as is currently required, simply isn’t enough. 

For example, remember the infamous $11 million “dark money” funneled into California from an Arizona nonprofit? The individual donors behind the contribution to the Small Business Action Committee have yet to be unmasked.

California’s disclosure requirements for independent expenditure committees are among the strictest in the nation but several legal loopholes allow camera shy donors to hide by behind innocuously named groups. Super PACs are required to disclose their donors, but who has the time to play detective? And even if you attempt to follow the money trail, it’s not easy and no matter how deep you dig, you won’t ever uncover a social welfare group’s anonymous donors. 

SB 52, authored by Senators Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), aims to remedy this problem by requiring corporations, unions, and millionaires to take public responsibility for the campaign ads they finance. Under the bill sponsored by the CA Clean Money Campaign, political ads would be required to clearly identify their top three funders.

That’s right, the DISCLOSE Act, as it’s commonly known, “makes sure that the funders that are shown are the actual corporations, unions, or individuals that gave money and not just made up and misleading committee or nonprofit names,” said Lange. And no, the names can’t be buried in the fine print; they must be identified in readable white-on-black font at the beginning of an ad.

The fact is the messenger is equally as important as the message. If it were revealed that the NRA, a public supporter of Elmer Fudd’s campaign, was financing compelling negative ads attacking gubernatorial candidate Bugs Bunny for being a pesky wabbit, would it impact how you interpret the ad’s message? Probably. To certain extent, we judge all messages, and not just political ones, based on who’s speaking. It’s how we determine their credibility.

Currently voters are often left in the dark about who’s trying sway their vote. Voters need to know who is really paying for ad in order to understand what interests they represent and their political agenda.

Greater disclosure in political advertising is vital to the health of our democracy. It ensures our elections are transparent and accountable by combatting misinformation and voter distrust.  Even Justice Antonin Scalia agrees, writing in a concurring opinion in 2010, “requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.”

For this reason, our sister organization, the California Forward Action Fund, approves this message and endorses the DISCLOSE Act.


Alexandra Bjerg

All stories by: Alexandra Bjerg