Florida Politico to Fight Complaint on Use of Search Ads

A St. Petersburg, FL, mayoral candidate charged with violating state disclosure rules for political advertising has decided to fight the complaint before the Florida Election Commission.

The candidate, Scott Wagman, has announced he will not sign a consent form stemming from his campaign’s use of sponsored listings in search ads. By refusing to sign the order, which would have admitted his guilt, Wagman’s campaign will obtain a hearing with the Florida Election Commission, according to a staffer.

The staffer, Mitch Kates, said Wagman hopes such a hearing will establish a precedent either permitting or banning the use of paid search advertising without financial disclosures.

“As we all fear, this case could set a precedent regarding online communication,” Kates said in an e-mail. “Scott believes that his campaign has done nothing wrong and wants to be able to argue his case in front of the FEC board.”

Until now, marketers in the Sunshine State have routinely purchased ads from Google and other engines with the understanding that the sponsored blue links in the search engines’ right nav-bar are implicitly exempt from disclosures required on television, print, and other advertising. Explicitly, they’re not mentioned by the state’s election laws, which exempt only two forms of ads: wearable advertising and items costing less than $10, according to political operators and other media reports.

Some contend that requiring such disclosure would make search marketing infeasible for political candidates because the standard length of a disclosure statement can be longer than the maximum length of a search ad.

Until the matter is settled, Wagman’s campaign has suspended its search ads. It continues to run ads on Facebook, which was also mentioned in the complaint, but has modified its approach by removing mentions of the candidate from ad copy.

Regarding the campaign’s use of sponsored search listings, Wagman’s staff has argued the text links are not ads themselves, but rather simple links that point to ads (i.e. landing pages).

Kates said Wagman planned to contact the commission yesterday about the next step required to set up a hearing. He believes it’s very unlikely the hearing will take place this month.

“It might carry over until when the election is over. Some would say why bother?” he said. The answer: “Scott realizes that this is a First Amendment rights issue. It could greatly affect the whole medium [of online political advertising].”

Peter Schorsch, the political consultant who filed the complaint in July, is a former campaign manager to Wagman rival Jamie Bennett, but had a “falling out” with the candidate and no longer works for him. Schorsch has since expressed support for a third candidate, Bill Foster, but said he doesn’t work on the Foster campaign.

Schorsch told ClickZ yesterday he was disappointed the commission had compressed five complaints he filed into a single complaint that limited the consent order to $250. “It wasn’t the amount of the fine,” he said. “They viewed this as one offense, whereas right or wrong this was a series of offenses. It was as if someone had taken out four ads in the St. Petersberg Times…It would be grounds for four complaints.”

By the middle of last week, the consent order against Wagman had already begun to generate a ripple effect. As ClickZ reported, at least one other state candidate suspended his use of Google search ads after the Wagman charge.

“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 said.

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