Digital Advertising Accountability Program

Political Advertising Transparency Project Blog


Issue ads versus express advocacy: know your compliance obligations

In today’s digital world, there are numerous ways that voters might encounter political content online. They might see their favorite candidate displayed in a banner on their favorite website. Alternatively, they may see their top social issue captured in a video message in their newsfeed. And of course, they might encounter organic political content shared by friends, family, and co-workers across their networks.

If you are developing a digital advertising strategy for a political campaign, no doubt you will do everything in your power to reach your relevant voters. However, be aware that you may have obligations under the Digital Advertising Alliance’s Political Advertising Principles. The Political Advertising Principles are industry best practices for digital advertising that contain express advocacy. If your ad campaign contains express advocacy, you must follow these rules.   

What is Express Advocacy?

Express advocacy is defined as “paid-for communications that unmistakably urge the election or defeat of one or more clearly identified candidate(s) for a federal or statewide election.” If an advertisement says something like “Vote for Smith” or “Re-elect Jones,” that’s express advocacy.

What is an issue ad?

Voters may also run into other kinds of political ads. For example, issue ads are a kind of political ad that focuses on broad political issues rather than specific candidates. An issue ad may contain a message advocating for a particular policy—energy conservation or tax cuts, for example—but not clearly reference any candidate running for office.

When considering your responsibilities under the DAA Principles, it’s important to distinguish between express advocacy and issue advertising. It’s easy enough to say “only express advocacy is covered,” but sometimes the lines can get a little blurry. Let’s look at some examples to illustrate the point.


Express Advocacy:

DAAP Political Adverising Large


Issue ad:

daap mountain


So far, so good. In the first ad, voters are called to support a specific, identified candidate for statewide office. This ad should contain enhanced notice and link viewers to a compliant notice (see the Digital Advertising Accountability Program’s other guidance blogs for details). And the second ad is clearly an issue-based advertisement. It talks about saving mountains and is paid for by a mountain protection political organization, but it does not mention any specific candidate—whether favorably or unfavorably.

Can an issue ad contain express advocacy?

In some cases, however, general issue ads can also contain express advocacy. The Political Advertising Principles indicate that a combination of words and phrases that urge action with respect to a candidate associated with an issue may serve as express advocacy. So, if your issue ad contains a message that supports or opposes a particular candidate, it may count as express advocacy under the Principles. For example:


daap mountain2


As you can see, this issue ad contains a message of express advocacy in support of the candidate George Smith. Because of this, it contains enhanced notice in the form of a Political Ads Icon AdChoices Political to meet the Principles’ requirements.

Any questions? Feel free to reach out!

If you have any questions about complying with the Political Advertising Principles or BBB National Programs, Inc.’s Digital Advertising Accountability Program, please reach out here