By Luis Bravo
Luis Bravo is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying sociology.
In 2002, the Bipartisan Reform Act (BCRA) was passed to further standardize the usage of federal money in elections and curtail the influence of nonfederal money in election results . Of the provisions, the Electioneering Communications section laid out new regulations for political advertisements in an effort to increase clarity of messaging. Disclaimer notices, short messages clearly announcing the advertisement’s sponsors, became mandated on all campaign advertisements broadcasted over radio, print, or television . While these rules significantly increased transparency of political advertisements, they fall short of ensuring perfect clarity. Additional provisions are required to ensure Americans are clearly aware of advertisement’s purpose as well as the validity of the information presented. Such safeguards could prove to have an impact in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond.
Building upon previous statutes, the BCRA requires all advertisements authorized by candidates to clearly promote their likeness in addition to the disclaimer notice.  This is done so voters can quickly identify who the advertisement supports. The same provisions do not extend for advertisements not funded or authorized by the candidates directly, however. While these advertisements are still required to announce who is funding the ads, they are not responsible for prominently displaying what candidate they support. Instead, a message stating no candidate has endorsed the advertisement suffices. This presents two problems. Firstly, external advertisements not endorsed by candidates usually stem from organizations such as PACs and Super PACs with ambiguous names. “Committee for American Sovereignty, Our Principles, and Balance of Power,” are names of PAC’s in the 2016 Election . Common across these organizations is their seeming distancing from the candidates they support. This can produce a source of confusion as it can be difficult to discern which candidates are being supported with neutral funding source names. Secondly, when the support of candidates is clear, external advertisements can convolute intended campaign messages, confusing voters on what are official campaign platform points and unofficial messages. Though the authorization caption is intended to reduce this, with the sheer number of advertisements Americans are exposed to, it can be easy to overlook this especially when the likeness of candidates are incorporated in advertisements. To resolve both of these issues, non-campaign affiliated advertisers should be mandated to include two segments to the disclaimer notices. First, they should include the phrase “in support of,” and include the name of the candidate whom the advertisement is favoring. Secondly, the disclaimer notice should include a second sentence specifically for non-authorized messages that states the advertisement, “is not reflective of the of the views or perspectives of,” followed by the legal name of the candidate or campaign. It is important to note that based on the tone of the message and information presented, most Americans are able to quickly discern whom the advertisement favors. These measures are thus intended for the fraction of ambiguous, questionable advertisements.
But regulations of political advertisements should extend much past more comprehensive disclaimers. The manner in which advertisements are presented is equally as important as its contents. In a study conducted by the Education Resource Information Center, researchers found that when information in political advertisements is presented in a news like manner, people recall but erroneously attribute the information as originating from legitimate news establishments about 70% a week after original exposure . This is considerably troubling as information from political advertisements is underscored by a strong partisan bias. When this information is mistaken as fact originating from news sources, it could potentially influence the opinions of voters, especially in close and contentious elections. While it is important for campaign advertisements to be able to disseminate their messages, it is crucial viewers are able to easily distinguish what are neutral and biased sources. In response, the manner of presentation of information should be regulated to reduce misattribution of information. While this includes restricting political advertisements from presenting information in a news like manner, with additional research it could expand to include other presentation styles that might otherwise misguide viewers. Such actions could aid in rebuilding confidence of the reliability of news sources. Public confidence in the media has been steadily declining; by clearly outlining biased information, perhaps we can increase trust of media outlets.
But what impacts could these reforms have in future elections? While political advertisements are central in informing voters on candidate’s stances and their political history, it would be an overstatement to regard advertisements as uniquely central in shaping election outcomes . Instead, the impacts of such reforms would be subtler, while still important. Being more transparent in our presentation of political information would help create a better informed electorate. With the ability to better discern biased information from legitimate information, voters could make improved decisions as they would be able to decide what information to weigh and what information to disregard. More importantly however, more comprehensive disclaimer notices and a shift away from potentially confusing modes of presentation could aid in rebuilding public trust of media sources. The issues Americans are asked to grapple with are beyond the scope of what anyone envisioned decades back and are marked by an elevated complexity. The media plays a crucial role in informing voters and aid them in their voting decisions. In order for this to occur however, the public must be receptive and feel as if the media is being honest and forward. The 2016 election has highlighted sentiments of deep resentment and distrust in a significant portion of our country to our government, media, and other institutions. These changes, however minimal, are part of a series of measures to bridge the gap in public confidence and work in rebuilding trust in a fractured nation.
 Federal Election Commission, “Campaign Finance Law Quick Reference for Reporters.” http://www.fec.gov/press/bkgnd/bcra_overview.shtml#Electioneering%20Communications%20(Issue%20Ads)
 Federal Election Comission, “Special Notices on Political Ads and Solicitations.” http://www.fec.gov/pages/brochures/notices.shtml
 Cantor and Whitake, “Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002: Summary and Comparison with Previous Law.” http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/41338.pdf
 NW, Washington, and fax857-7809, “Summary Data for Hillary Clinton, 2016 Cycle.” https://www.opensecrets.org/pres16/candidate
 Yegiyan and Grabe, “An Experimental Investigation of Source Confusion in Televised Messages.” http://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ799751
 Wilson, American Government.
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.