Florida candidate for state representative Christopher Mitchell began running search ads on Google on Friday, but by Monday afternoon, he had pulled them down. The first-time candidate for Florida’s 47th district didn’t want to risk flouting the state’s election law.
Mitchell’s ad takedown may have been the first domino to fall after the Florida Election Commission asked St. Petersburg mayoral candidate Scott Wagman to remove his campaign’s text ads on Facebook and Google because they allegedly violated a law requiring disclaimers in political ads. That story was reported yesterday by the Wall Street Journal.
“Because of recent developments in the Scott Wagman campaign, we are going to look again at election law and until made clear…we’re going to discontinue our ads on Google,” Mitchell told ClickZ News this afternoon. “This is my first time running and I don’t want to be seen as someone who’s skirting the law…whether I agree with the rules or not.”
Mitchell, who has experience doing search engine optimization for consulting clients, aimed to drive traffic to his campaign site through the ads. “We’re looking at efficient ways to get our message out there,” he said, noting fewer people are donating to campaigns as a result of the economic recession. “Elect Christopher Mitchell…Common Sense Leadership,” read the ads, targeted to Tampa Bay and St. Petersburg.
The Wagman campaign has chosen to avoid language like that. The campaign decided to continue running ads targeted to St. Petersburg residents on Facebook, but now the ads make no mention of the candidate at all, and focus on crime and safety, an important issue in the local race. The campaign has until August 11 to decide whether it wants to comply with the state election commission’s ruling or fight it. Wagman’s team began running text ads on Google and Facebook and display ads in Google’s network in March; the display ads, which include a disclaimer, remain.
The Wagman camp decided on its own to remove the candidate’s name from the issues-based Facebook ads, which were targeted based on geography and demographic information. The campaign had different goals for its Google search campaign; it wanted to boost Wagman’s name recognition by targeting his ads to searches for his opponent’s names, so it chose to scrap Google text-based advertising all together. “If we’re not able to run them specifically for Scott [Wagman], they’re useless to us,” said Brian Bailey, president of Rearden Killion Communications, a consultant to the Wagman campaign.
The Federal Election Commission ruled in 2006 that individuals or groups must include a disclaimer on any paid Web ad that solicits contributions or expressly advocates the election or defeat of a clearly identified federal candidate. Political committees registered with the FEC must place disclaimers on any Web ads they pay for, no matter the ad content.
While political campaigns do include disclaimers about who paid for the ad in online display advertising, they haven’t historically done so in paid search ads. Neither Google nor Facebook require that political advertisers include information about who paid for text ads running on their sites or in the Google network.
“There isn’t enough space on the advertising to put a disclaimer in there,” said Mitchell of the Google sponsored links. Google would not comment for this story. Florida Elections Commission Executive Director Simone Marstiller said the commission is “not permitted to acknowledge complaints that are filed with us.”
Though it’s unclear how much of an impact Florida’s case against the Wagman campaign will have on other campaigns, the news had political search ad consultants buzzing.
Political search marketers suggested that Florida’s election law is murky when it comes to online search advertising. If the commission does rule specifically that search ads require disclaimers, Josh Koster, partner at digital consulting firm Chong + Koster, said, “It would show that Florida’s laws are completely out of touch.” Koster runs online ad campaigns for political candidates, including some in Florida. He and others including the Wagman campaign argue that cost-per-click ads on Google, Facebook, or elsewhere “are not paid unless they’re clicked,” so they wouldn’t require a “paid for by” disclaimer.
Others wondered if the Florida situation could affect search engine optimization, an important component of most search ad strategies. “For me the interesting thing will be to see if links qualify as ads,” said Mark Skidmore, director of advertising and promotion at Blue State Digital, and a key member of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign’s search ad team. “What if you hire a firm to do SEO? Do you then have to have a disclaimer in the meta-description tags from now on? If you’re paying for an SEO firm, it’s essentially the same thing as paying for clicks, right?”