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What are the rules for political third-party ads?

Rep. Ben McAdams, and Republican challenger Burgess Owens both pictured in 2020 file photos. (Scott G Winterton and Steve Griffin, Deseret News)

If a person or a group — often called a political action committee (PAC) — wants to help elect or defeat a candidate in an election but isn’t affiliated with the candidate or his/her campaign, what are the rules they have to play by? Political ads have their own very specific guidelines as set out below. 

What is a PAC?

The FEC (Federal Election Commission) defines a PAC as a “popular term for a political committee that is neither a party committee nor an authorized committee of a candidate.”

“A political action committee (PAC) is a 527 organization (U.S. tax-exempt group) that pools campaign contributions from members and donates those funds to campaigns for or against candidates, ballot initiatives, or legislation,” according to Wikipedia.

Disclaimer is a must

According to the FEC, public communications (defined here) by a political committee that “do not expressly advocate the election or defeat of a clearly identified federal candidate or seek a contribution” must display a “clear and conspicuous” disclaimer on public internet websites and certain emails.

Who’s paying for it?

If a candidate or his or her campaign OKs a PAC to pay for an ad, the communication must state who paid for it and the state that it was authorized by the candidate or campaign.

Example: “Paid for by the XYZ Committee and authorized by the Sam Jones for Congress Committee.”

Communications not approved by a candidate or his or her campaign must contain a disclaimer saying who paid for it and whether if was authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. The disclaimer must state the full name of the individual, group, political committee, corporation or labor organization paying for the communication or ad.

Example: “Paid for by the Fishermen’s Union PAC (www.fishunion.org) and not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.”

Additional regulations apply to political print, television and radio ads, according to the FEC.

Rules for TV

Approved and unapproved TV ads must have a readable written statement at the end that appears for at least four seconds, displayed with a reasonable degree of color contrast between the background and the disclaimer text. The written statement must be at least equal to 4% of the vertical picture height.

Radio and TV ads authorized by or paid for by a campaign must include an audio statement from the candidate identifying himself/herself and approving the communication.

For example: “I am [candidate’s name], a candidate for [federal office], and I approved this advertisement.”

The TV ad must include:

  • A full-screen view of the candidate making the statement or
  • An image of the candidate occupying no less than 80% of the vertical picture height, with a voiceover by the candidate.

For radio or TV ads not authorized by a candidate of candidate’s committee, the person or group (political committee, corporation, labor organization) paying for the ad must make an audio statement, saying ““XXX is responsible for the content of this advertising.”  The ad or communication must also state that it is not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee.

Rules for printed material

For printed communications, the disclaimer must be in a printed box set apart from the contents of the communication. The disclaimer font (or type) size must be “clearly readable” and the print must have a reasonable degree of contrast between the background and the printed message. Black text in 12-point type on a white background satisfies this requirement for printed material measuring no more than 24 inches by 36 inches.

Rates for political ads

Rates charged by newspapers and magazines for campaign advertising must be comparable to those charged for non-campaign ads. Rates charged for radio and TV ads are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).