I Approve This Message: Why Political Ads Now Come With Disclaimers

Federal Campaign Finance Laws Require Disclosures on Television and Radio

Barack Obama Campaign Ad
President Barack Obama speaks the line "I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message ..." in a campaign ad. YouTube

I approve this message: It's a phrase you've heard at least a million times from politicians appearing in television and radio ads. So why do candidates for Congress and president say those words, which mostly state the obvious?

Because they have to.

Federal campaign finance rules require political candidates and special-interest groups disclose who paid for the political advertisement. So when Barack Obama appeared in a campaign commercial during the 2012 presidential election, he was required to state: "I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message."

Law Requires Political Advertising Disclosures

The provision that requires candidates to state I approve this message is commonly referred to as "Stand By Your Ad." It is an important component of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, a sweeping statutory effort to regulate the financing of federal political campaigns.

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The first ads to contain the Stand By Your Ad disclaimers appears in the 2004 congressional and presidential elections. The phrase I approve this message has been in use ever since.

Purpose of the Disclosures

The Stand By Your Ad rule was designed to cut down on the number of negative and misleading advertisements by forcing political candidates to own up to the claims they make on television and radio.

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Lawmakers believed many political candidates would not want to be associated with mudslinging for fear of alienating voters.

How the Political Ad Disclaimers Work

The Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act requires political candidates to use the following statements to comply with the Stand By Your Ad provision:

"I am [Candidate Name], a candidate for [office sought], and I approved this advertisement."

Or: 

"My name is [Candidate Name]. I am running for [office sought], and I approved this message."

The Federal Election Commission also requires television ads to include "a view or image of the candidate and a written statement at the end of the communication."

Do the Disclaimers Work?

Political campaigns have gotten creative about circumvent the regulations. Some candidates now go well beyond the standard "I approve this message" disclaimer to attack their opponents.

For example, in the 2006 congressional race between Republican U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave and Democratic challenger Angie Paccione, Paccione used the required disclaimer to go negative on the incumbent:

"I'm Angie Paccione, and I approve this message because if Marilyn keeps lying about my record, I'll keep telling the truth about hers."

In a New Jersey Senate race that year, Republican Tom Kean inferred that his Republican opponent was corrupt by using this line to fulfill the disclosure requirement:

"I'm Tom Kean Jr. Together, we can break the back of corruption. That's why I approved this message."

In a 2005 study, the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress found that the Stand By Your Ad rule had "no effect on respondents' levels of trust in candidates or the ads themselves." 

Bradley A. Smith, a professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, and chairman of the Center for Competitive Politics, wrote this in National Affairs:

"The provision has failed miserably to curb negative campaigning. In 2008, for example, researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that more than 60% of Barack Obama's ads, and more than 70% of ads for John McCain — that great crusader for restoring integrity to our politics — were negative. Meanwhile, the required statement takes up almost 10% of every costly 30-second ad — reducing a candidate's ability to say anything of substance to voters."