In many states, we are in election season for local offices, which has resulted in a 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 appear in their business’ ads outside of election season, and don’t want to stop appearing in those ads during their bid for elective office. We wrote about this question in an article published two years ago and again a bit more than a year ago. But, as the question continues to come up, 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 any “positive” way, whether it is political in nature or not, it is considered a “use” by the political candidate. What is a “positive” use? Basically, it is any appearance that is not negative to the candidate (i.e., it is not in an ad attacking that candidate). To be a positive “use” by the advertising candidate, the appearance must also be 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).. “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 similarly a positive “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, as you would for any pure political buy). But that does not necessarily mean that a station needs to pull the ad from the air.
A commercial for a business is almost always 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 the comedy program or movie in which a candidate appears). Thus, a “use” arising in a paid commercial gives rise to equal opportunities for other opposing candidates to buy time on the station. The station usually will not be required to provide free time to opposing candidates (but watch for candidate appearances in PSAs, usually by incumbents, 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 wants to avoid having to sell political ads to candidates in a particular state or local race (as state and local candidates, unlike those running for federal office, have no right to access to buy spots), 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 featuring the voice or image of the candidate would require the station to provide equal time to the opposing candidates upon request.
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 rather than lowest unit rates (though the opposing candidates do get LUR for their equal time ads run during a political window).
Note, also, that business spots that advertise a business in which the candidate’s name appears, but where the actual candidate does not appear by voice or picture, probably 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 requirements. 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.