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Issue Advertising

Issue ads are distinct from candidate ads in that they promote policy issues, opinions about public policy and seek to mobilize constituents, policy makers, or regulators in support of or in opposition to current or proposed public policies. Generally issue advertising is sponsored by individuals, corporations, unions or other organizations.

Over $404 million was spent on broadcast and print issue advocacy during the 108th Congress (2004-2005), with business interests outspending citizen-based advocacy groups by more than five to one, according to the article Legislative Issue Advertising in the 108th Congress Pluralism or Peril? Citizen/cause groups purchased $58.2 million in issue advertisements representing 14% of the total. There was vastly uneven advertising spending on important public policy issues. All told, 94% of the specific issues we examined were subject to unbalanced persuasive efforts. Of the 52 specific issues identified, half had all of the spending advocating a single side of the debate with zero spending on competing points of view. Only 26 issues (50%) faced any opposition spending whatsoever, and for the great majority of these the spending was vastly disparate; only three (6%) issues had competitive spending.

When advocates of issue advertising are asked why they choose to advertise they usually say: to encourage supporters, set agendas, define frames, keep organizations in mind, generate free media, and balance a biased press. They usually don’t mention persuading members on specific issues or passing specific pieces of legislation. At the top of the list of goals for many issue advertisers is setting an agenda and raising an issue. This is a critical component of the legislative process that has to happen before there is a bill to lobby for or against.

According to John Kane, senior vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, issue advertising is effective at raising issues in Congress. “If you think about the wide range of issues that Congress has to consider and the wide range of interest groups across the country . . . trying to get your issue up on the table and highlighted is a very important part of the whole fight . . . It’s really not an effort to change someone’s mind, it’s an effort to really spotlight the issue.” Media consultant Dan Weiss echoed this idea, “with all the issues that congresspeople, staff, and the media have to deal with, by running a clever or attractive ad, you can get people’s attention in a way that you might not be able to otherwise.” Along with raising issues, those advocating the importance of issue advertising in the political system tend to point to issue ads as playing an important role in framing problems, issues, and solutions.

Spending and Issue Outcomes

• 87% of the $39.9 million in total spending on the issue argued in favor of the deregulation of the local telephone market and the Federal Communication Commission crafted regulations to that end.

• 100% of the $96.0 million in total spending on the issue argued against greater oversight of government sponsored enterprises such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and the bill (HR 2575) died in committee.

• 99% of the $40.5 million in total spending on the issue argued in favor of the prescription drug benefit and the bill (PL 108-173) passed.

Legislative Issue Advertising in the 108th Congress Pluralism or Peril? also identified at least $18.5 million worth of issue ads sponsored by organizations with potentially misleading or ambiguous names. The largest spender among these organizations was Americans for Balanced Energy Choices with an estimated $9.1 million in spending, yet they opposed mandates on alternative fuels and fuel vehicles and according to the report the issue outcome was favorable to the side that spent the money on the issue advertising.

Past studies of issue advertising have identified the use of ambiguous or potentially misleading names as a concern. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Professor of Communication and the Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania has argued that the adoption of pseudonyms for advertising groups makes the ads problematic. “Because issue advocacy ads are not subject to disclosure requirements, the press and the public have no way of knowing who is funding the campaign or how much is being spent. At the same time, funders can camouflage their actual agenda behind an innocuous group label, making it difficult for the public to assess the group’s motives and credibility.” Knowing who is paying for an ad helps viewers determine whether the sponsor is a credible source; part of what makes this possible is knowing the self-interest of the sponsor. Audiences take the possible self-interest or bias into account in evaluating messages.”

The Legislative Issue Advertising in the 108th Congress Pluralism or Peril? found that major legislative debates that had significantly unbalanced issue ad spending were more often decided in favor of the side that spent more during the 108th Congress. Each of the top six issues in terms of spending had the balance of spending favoring the winning side of the issue.

Data presented in the article show that usually one side of important issues facing the nation outspends the competing sides and dominates the debate. Often large corporations outspend other factions and as a result may have greater influence over the political agenda, frames, and even opinions. In the absence of competing perspectives, legislators and regulators may be subject to incomplete or even false and misleading information. For more information go to the Annenberg Public Policy Center.