MUNDANE MYSTERIES: “I Approve This Message!”

With Election Day less than a week away, we’ve all heard & seen plenty of campaign ads on Radio & TV, which almost always end with a disclaimer that the politician being advocated has authorized the spot. Usually, the person says “I approve this message.” So, that’s obviously a requirement, right? But why?

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, passed in 2002, was intended to legitimize campaign contributions by forbidding large corporate donations. Part of the Act, called the Stand By Your Ad provision, mandates that anyone running for federal office has to personally “approve” the message as part of their campaign commercials. The goal was to curb the overt mudslinging of candidates relentlessly insulting & accusing each another. Lawmakers hoped political candidates would, therefore, be less likely to utilize dirty tactics & then attempt to deny involvement. Basically, it was self-imposed campaign shaming.

The Federal Election Commission is highly specific about how the disclaimer should appear: the written form has to come at the end of each ad, appear for at least 4 seconds, be readable against a contrasting background, and take up at least 4% of the vertical picture height. The candidate will usually then say their name & speak the message aloud. Messages not approved by a candidate typically name the entity responsible, whether a political committee, group, or person. There’s also usually language about who financed the commercial.

But, have things actually worked out how lawmakers intended? Well, research from the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley in 2018 shows…not so much.

In 2000, negative campaign ads made up 29% of all political persuasion spots. in 2012, that number rose to 64%. In the week before the 2016 presidential election, 92% of ads were negative. But, the appearance of federal regulation, even if there’s no actual regulatory approval over a statement, seems to give messages credibility. As long as a candidate “approves” a message, whether positive or negative, voters tend to be more likely to perceive their subjective statements as truth. Just like all I’ve just told you.

I’m Andy Webb, and I approve this message.

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via social media (@AndyWebbRadioVoice), or shoot me an email at [email protected].