With election season upon us again, I’ve had one question that has come up repeatedly in the last few weeks about local candidates – usually running for state or municipal offices – who appear in advertisements for local businesses that they own or manage. Often times, these individuals will routinely appear in a business’ ads outside of election season, and the candidate simply wants to continue to appear on their businesses’ ads during the election as well. We wrote about this question in an article published two years ago, and since the question has been coming up again, it is worth revisiting the subject. What is a station to do when a local advertiser decides to run for office?
While we have many times written about what happens when a broadcast station’s on-air employee runs for office (see, for instance, our articles here, here and here), we have addressed the question less often about the advertiser who is also a candidate. If a candidate’s recognizable voice or, for TV, image appears on a broadcast station in a way that is not negative (e.g. it is not in an ad attacking that candidate), outside of an exempt program (in other words, outside of a news or news interview program which, as we wrote here, is a very broad category of programming exempt from the equal time rules) that appearance is a “use” by the political candidate. “Uses” can arise well outside the political sphere, so Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were pulled from TV when he was running for office, as were any re-runs of The Apprentice and The Celebrity Apprentice featuring Donald Trump. An appearance by a candidate in a commercial for his or her local business is a “use” which needs to be included in a station’s political file (providing all the information about the sponsor, schedule and price of the ad that you would for any pure political buy). But that does not necessarily mean that a station needs to pull the ad from the air.
As a commercial for a business is usually a paid spot, where the station is receiving money to air the ad (and not an unpaid one like the appearance in an entertainment program where the station does not get paid to air its comedy program or movie in which a candidate appears), a “use” arising in a paid commercial gives rise to equal opportunities for other opposing candidates to buy time on the station. The station will not usually be required to provide free time to opposing candidates (but watch for candidate appearances in PSAs, as that might give rise to free time for opposing candidates). If the station has plenty of commercial inventory and does not mind selling spots to the opposing candidate for the lowest unit rates that apply during the political windows (45 days before a primary and 60 days before a general election) to spots purchased by a candidate’s authorized campaign committee (the opposing candidate gets lowest unit rate for a spot run in connection with his or her campaign, even if the commercial business bought the spot featuring their employee-candidate at regular commercial rates), a station may decide to continue to air the business spots with the candidate’s appearance. But if inventory is tight, or the station is not selling political ads to candidates in a particular state or local race, the station may want to tell the business that the candidate can’t appear in the business’ spots once the candidate becomes legally qualified, as the running of those spots with the candidates would require the station to provide equal time to the opposing candidates.
Note that the “no censorship” provision of the Communications Act and the lowest unit rate provisions likely do not apply to the business spots even though they contain the voice or image of a candidate. That is because these spots are not uses by the candidate or the candidate’s authorized campaign committee which are covered by the rules providing for lowest unit rates and the “no censorship” provisions of the law. As the commercial spots are not by the candidate or his or her political committee, but instead they are commercials by a business that happen to be “uses,” normal commercial rates can be applied.
Note, also, that business spots that advertise a business in which the candidate’s name appears, but where the candidate him or herself do not appear by voice or picture, do not trigger any equal opportunity issues. It is the recognizable voice or picture of the candidate that triggers the equal opportunity and public file issues. For those of us here in the DC area, we are accustomed to seeing ads for the local Volvo dealer even during election season, even though that dealership is named after a politician currently serving in Congress.
As in all areas of political broadcasting, any analysis of the implications of any on-air appearance of a candidate can be a very nuanced matter, and small changes in the facts can result in big changes in the legal conclusions that apply. So if these situations arise, consult with the station’s legal counsel before making any decision as to how to treat these kinds of ads. This article is just meant to note that there may be options for dealing with the candidate-advertiser if he or she wants to stay on their business’ spots during an election period, depending on the station’s circumstances. For more general information about the rules that apply to political broadcasting, see our Guide to Political Broadcasting, here.