Florida’s New Political Ad Law Could Drive Dollars from State Candidates Online

A recently-signed Florida law dealing with political ad disclosure could drive more online ad dollars from state and local candidates and other groups to Google, Facebook, and other Web ad sellers. While most states have yet to craft rules about disclosure of payment for search, display, or social network ads, Florida’s new rules allow political candidates to run all sorts of online ads without including a “paid for by” style disclaimer.

“Political advertisers on the state and local level have been paralyzed,” said Jordan Raynor, president of Direct Media Strategies, a firm that handles digital campaigns for Republican campaigns and corporate clients. “I’ve had [Florida political] clients begging to spend money on Google or Facebook ads who haven’t been able to” because they can’t fit the disclaimer in the ads, he continued.

The new rules – tacked on to a Florida House bill and signed into law by Governor Charlie Crist – allow candidates, their supporters, and political committees running digital ads or messages to disregard standard guidelines for including disclaimers about who paid for them. Though the law does not name specific ad networks or websites, it essentially covers Twitter posts, Google search ads, small display units such as those sold by Facebook, opt-in text messages, and opt-in apps. The rule would not affect Florida candidates for U.S. office, including Crist, who is running for Senate.

On Facebook ads or ads on other social media sites, for instance, a disclaimer is not necessary if the candidate or group paying for the ad is made obvious in the content of the ad. That could benefit Facebook advertisers like Rick Scott, a Republican candidate for Governor of Florida, whose current ads on the site include a near-illegible disclaimer.

Yet, although the Federal Election Commission has not specifically established guidelines for relatively new message formats like Twitter posts or small Facebook ads, the Florida law is more a response to a local lawsuit than a lack of federal law. Last August the state’s Election Commission asked St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Scott Wagman to remove his campaign’s ads on Facebook and Google because they allegedly violated a law requiring disclaimers in political ads. Wagman fought the complaint, but it had an almost immediate stifling effect on other state candidates, including state representative Christopher Mitchell whose campaign pulled its Google ads just days after launching them that month.

“This is really a local issue,” said Raynor, who consulted Florida legislators who helped craft the new law. Still, Florida has over 100 elections for state legislative office occurring this November, meaning online ad sellers like Google and Facebook have a stake in whether or not Florida candidates buy online ads. Indeed, John Burchett, Google’s public policy director of U.S. state and local, Latin America and Canada, praised the law on the company’s public policy blog yesterday.

“It’s a good common sense approach to lawmaking and puts Florida ahead of the pack when it comes to modernizing laws that were written when a tweet was just a sound a bird made,” wrote Burchett.

Raynor told ClickZ News he launched Google and Facebook ads on behalf of Florida State House candidate James Grant an hour after Crist signed the bill into law. “You’re going to see a flood of advertising in Florida” as a result of the law, he predicted.

Maryland also may establish rules for disclaimers on Twitter and Facebook. The state’s director of candidate and campaign finance told ClickZ News in May he plans to submit his proposal for new rules calling for Maryland candidates to include on their main Facebook profile pages standard language that denotes an association with their campaigns. His proposal – expected to be submitted at tonight’s Maryland election board meeting – also calls for the state to create a system to authenticate official Twitter campaign accounts, similar to Twitter’s own Verified Account feature.

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